It’s been a tough time for black comedians on TV: Saturday Night Live is only now in talks to add a second regular black cast member, and at the Emmys last week, there were no African-Americans nominated for comic acting. But the winner of the best variety series award, The Daily Show, isn’t going with the trend: writer-performer Wyatt Cenac has become one of the show’s new stars. Cenac, a stand-up comedian and former writer for King of the Hill, joined Jon Stewart’s show in 2008 after an impersonation of Barack Obama got him noticed by the producers. He’s been more fully involved than the “senior black correspondent” Larry Wilmore, who occasionally appears to parody news shows’ obsession with race. As Cenac told Giant magazine, “A lot of shows would say, ‘Let’s just keep you on black issues.’ But here I deal with everything and anything. I think that’s what diversity is about or something.”
As Cenac himself has joked, his hiring had a hint of tokenism: he joined after Wilmore (creator of The Bernie Mac Show) started appearing less often. But though Cenac was brought on to talk about things like Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s n-word rant, he also does bits where he parodies the general stupidity of journalists of any colour. He recently teamed up with token British guy John Oliver to do an instantly famous routine about a Saudi prince who is a shareholder in Fox News. Cenac argued that Fox was “evil” for insinuating that its part-owner has terror ties; Oliver argued for “stupid.” He’s also done weird, dry humour, including an attempt to mediate a debate between people in a Florida senior citizens’ home, and a trip to Sweden to try to prove it was a socialist hellhole.
It may be part of a new Daily Show tendency: less solemn, more absurd. Though the show still gets attention for serious satire, it’s forged a new identity in the Obama era by doing surreal humour. And much of the surreal stuff happens in Cenac’s segments, like a two-part sketch where he helped rapper Slim Thug deal with the recession. Political material sometimes gets transformed into sheer goofiness: after an observation that Republican party chairman Michael Steele looked like a specific Muppet from Sesame Street, Cenac brought on the actual puppet and pretended it was Steele. He sometimes seems less interested in politics and racial issues than in what King of the Hill executive producer John Altschuler recalls as a fondness for ideas “that were based on real-life experience but were still twisted.” His first Daily Show speech was about how he found politics less interesting than the TV show Lost, which he said came from “a real place of frustration” with the boredom of election season.
While it’s not yet normal for shows to allow black performers to do this kind of silly, non-racial humour, there are a few new shows that do something similar to what Cenac does on The Daily Show. On Community, the only NBC comedy with more than one African-American character, Donald Glover and Yvette Nicole Brown get to do a lot of colour-neutral humour, with one of them even getting to say that he’s “not an ambassador” for his race. And Undercovers, the new action-comedy from J.J. Abrams (Lost), stars a black couple (Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) whose race is secondary to light spy stories. Taken together, these shows can feel like an alternative to older shows like 30 Rock, where Tracy Morgan does stories about black people and how white people perceive them.
That’s why Cenac’s Daily Show work could be a sign of things to come in TV. He and Glover (whose fans are campaigning to make him the new Spider-Man) and Jay Pharoah (the 22-year-old who is reportedly in talks to join Saturday Night Live) might become stars who, as Cenac put it in an interview with the Minnesota Daily, “let the audience appreciate them as funny people” rather than getting pigeonholed. Altschuler compares Cenac to the “dry and deadpan” comedian Pat Paulsen, who ran a fake presidential campaign in the ’60s: “Maybe Wyatt should run for president the way Pat Paulsen did.” Being the new Pat Paulsen may not be the best job, but it’s better than being senior black correspondent.