The People In Your Neighborhood: Wyatt Cenac


You may know Wyatt Cenac from his four year-stint on The Daily Show, or you may know him from his role in the indie gem Medicine for Melancholy, or you may know him from his weekly comedy show at Littlefield, “Night Train”. Or, maybe, if you’re from Crown Heights, you know Cenac from the summers he spent here visiting his grandmother in her apartment on President Street, a home he also lived in as a 19-year-old intern at Saturday Night Live. Cenac—whose new comedy album and accompanying Netflix special, appropriately called Brooklyn, come out in October—met us out front of his late grandmother’s building to talk about his comedy album, where to find the best roti in the neighborhood, and his thoughts on artisanal mayonnaise.

So your grandmother passed away over a decade ago, but her name is still next to the buzzer on the building, and people here still remember her. That speaks a lot to the kind of neighborhood Crown Heights still is. What do you remember most about coming here as a child?
I was born here in New York, but my mother, stepfather, and I all moved to Texas in ’81, when I was about five. So I would come back in the summers because my father was still here, and I would visit him and stay with my grandmother.

It was always really fun. We’d go to Coney Island or the park, and she was a fun lady. And it was a small apartment, but that was ok. The kitchen was painted yellow and there were all these colors everywhere. And she had all these things I didn’t see because all the furniture under plastic. And it was so different from Texas, so I had these two very different experiences as a kid. As a kid, I always wanted to grow up and move back to New York, so the fact that I’m here now is nice.

So we don’t need to worry about losing you to LA?
I lived there for awhile. I never really wanted to move to LA in the first place. I always thought it was a transitional thing you did before moving to New York. Like, “Oh, LA. I’ll just go there for a year or two.” I always wanted to come here to live. And now I have no real plan to go back, but at some point it becomes a question of economics, if you can afford to even stay here.

Right. That’s really a problem that everyone except the elite few are facing. You live in Fort Greene now, though, right? How is that?
I like it. It’s the first time I’ve lived in a brownstone. My landladies are really nice, and have sort of adopted me into their family. They’ll invite me over and we’ll drink and play Bananagrams. But it’s right in the heart of a lot of development right now. I have a morning alarm clock of hammering right outside my building  and so that’s a little weird. I think what I first found interesting and attractive about the neighborhood when I moved in, that still exists, but it’s also slowly—or not slowly, kind of quickly,—being terraformed into something else. So, I’d like to stay in Fort Greene but I might get priced out and terraformed out.

Would you ever move to Crown Heights?
There are times I’ve thought, oh, yeah, that’d be cool… although maybe not my grandmother’s building. But the difficulty of any of it is that it’s such a public transportation-dependent city, and it’s much easier to get around where I am now.

You’ve been living off and on in Brooklyn for decades now, and seen it change in countless ways. So there’s maybe no better person than you to tackle the whole idea of “Brooklyn,” which you did on this comedy album and special. What was it like making this project into a reality?
I recorded an album and we also shot footage of it for Netflix, and it’s been a very interesting experience because this one started out just as an idea and I didn’t have a network attached. So it was just out of my own pocket, putting this together. and because of that, being on all ends of it, I had no real idea when I started doing it what was going to happen with it. And so to build something and have it turn into this, it’s definitely been a cool kind of experience.

Have you ever been into the mayonnaise store which you so ruthlessly (and deservedly) mock in the special?
Yeah, twice. I went in with John Hodgman once because he had some custom mayonnaise made for a project he was doing. And then once, my friend and I had gone to get lunch in the area, and she was curious so we went. But I’ve never been a mayonnaise person. So I think it’s also just lost on me. I like mustard. But ketchup, mayonnaise, relish… those are all things I never got behind.

What kind of food do you get behind?
I’ve been going to this place Emily, in Clinton Hill, a lot lately… to the point where I feel a little embarrassed. To their credit, the owners are super nice, and have been really nice to me and maybe that’s the good thing about going somewhere two or three times in a week. And then whenever I want a steak, there’s Rye in Williamsburg. And just down Nostrand, there’s a West Indian spot, Gloria’s, for rotis. When I was a kid, my grandmother would fly to Texas with roti skins for my stepfather, who’s Trinidadian.

No vegetables though, right? Farm-to-table minus the farm?
Chuko is actually the first place I had Brussels sprouts. They’re very good, very salty and vinegary. I’m slowly getting my vegetables, slowly getting the proper intake of vegetables as an adult. Even if, yeah, at this point it’s kind of too late.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

Photos by Christina von Messling

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