‘Night Train with Wyatt Cenac’ Invites Viewers Into the NYC Comedy Clubhouse

"There are no open mics at Madison Square Garden."

As the credits roll on Wyatt Cenac’s 2014 comedy special Brooklyn — the album version was nominated for a 2015 Grammy for Best Comedy Album — the Daily Show alum jokes that he doesn’t know why he brought so many cameras to film the show. “We don’t actually know why we’re shooting it, we’re just shooting it,” he drawls. “Cause that’s what you do in Brooklyn. You shoot, and then we’ll turn it into a web series or something.”

The audience laughs, but it turns out that was less a joke than a prophecy. On Thursday, all six episodes of the web series Night Train with Wyatt Cenac land on NBC’s new subscription-based comedy service Seeso. With a spiffy animated opening sequence, excellent production quality, and a stellar lineup of comics — including Aparna Nancherla, H. Jon Benjamin, Joyelle Johnson, Eugene Mirman, Larry Murphy, Jen Kirkman, Damien Lemon, Sasheer Zamata, and many more — Night Train is what Cenac describes as a “heightened version” of the stand-up showcase he hosts every Monday night at Brooklyn’s Littlefield.

We spoke to Cenac about the web series, producing comedy in L.A. vs. NYC, and the joys of a small venue.

I was really impressed with the look of the series — the lighting, the way you use split screens to show the performer and audience reaction at the same time. It really captures the feeling of being at a live show.

That was definitely the challenge in doing something like this — to try to do it in a way that’s visually appealing and interesting to the audience and also treating it in the most artful way that we can. A lot of times when you see a stand-up special on television it’s in a big concert hall that fills like, 500-plus people and you have these huge, expansive shots and you see the enormity of the place. I feel like that is stand-up trying to move towards what television often is, which is event programming.

There are a lot of stand-up [comics] that perform in concert halls and arenas but most of the work of doing stand-up happens in much smaller venues. There are no open mics at Madison Square Garden. The day-to-day grind of being a performer is doing smaller shows, whether it’s at a comedy club or a venue like Littlefield where we do Night Train. I wanted to try to find a way to capture what is interesting and great about those rooms.

How did you decide which shows to film? 

We had to change things a little bit, because initially the hope was maybe we could shoot six weeks of shows. But the way the timing worked out, all we needed to do was shoot six shows in three nights.

So was that two shows a night?

We did two a night, we did an eight o’clock and a ten o’clock.

Because I noticed in the first episode, Michelle Wolf makes a joke about two audience members wearing the same shirt. Then in the second episode, they’re both still in the audience but sitting in different seats.

Yeah, that was a very odd thing. A lot of times when you do a stand-up special, there are services you can use to get an audience and that was an option for us, but instead we decided we wanted to open it up to the audience that normally comes to this show. We treated it like a real show — people who are fans of the show and have been coming to the show for a while were part of what made up the audience. We’d limited people to two shows, and I didn’t realize how many people would take us up on that. And that they’d be wearing shirts that were noticeable.

Was there any concern from either you or Seeso that it would be too New York insider-y? Or was that sort of the point?

I think to a certain degree that was the point. That was definitely my thought process going in, because at the end of the day, these six episodes are capturing a particular moment in time. Ten years from now as we are past the Trump presidency or whatever, we may see the world differently. Hopefully ten years from now, if someone did watch it, they’d say, “Oh, that gives me a nice little window into what doing comedy was like at Night Train in Brooklyn in 2015-2016.”

When I listen to old comedy records or watch old comedy specials, part of what’s interesting about them is seeing what the world was like in that time. If you’re watching a Richard Pryor special, seeing him show up to the venue in a limousine and walking through the back and seeing a guy come up to take a photo with a camera — from today’s standpoint, no one would run up with a camera. They all have phones. Here’s a person who came to a comedy show but also brought a camera. I think there’s something that’s kind of nice about that.

I also love how you included shots of Marianne Ways, the show’s producer, in the series — that’s the kind of person audiences don’t normally see. How involved was she in developing the show?

She was very involved. With the day-to-day of the live show, she books all the comedians and curates the lineups. When we put the series together, highlighting her was always a big part of that for me. This show doesn’t happen without her. If I was left to book the comedians, I would probably not be doing the show this long. I would have given up after week three.

I came up in a time and a place — Los Angeles — where if you wanted to have a stand-up show, you as the comedian were the producer. You had to book comedians, you had to go and get the show listed. I never wanted to do that. When I moved to New York and came across a world of people who produced comedy shows, it was such a relief, and the shows were so much better than anything I could have done. We’re doing a show for comedy fans, and showing them all the work that goes into this and all the other people that make this happen — that seemed important.

How can viewers watch the show? Do you need to subscribe to Seeso?

It’s a subscription based service and I think you can sign up for a free month. So to anybody who’s reading this: Sign up June 29th, and then you can watch Night Train.

Will they all be released at once?

They are, they’re all gonna come out on the 30th. People will subscribe to watching new episodes of Game of Thrones week after week and will set their DVR for that. We’re not Game of Thrones and that’s maybe not water we should be swimming in. If our rabid fan base is just one that’s gonna consume comedy before they go to sleep or whenever they want to watch it, I’m happy with that.

Night Train with Wyatt Cenac premieres Thursday, June 30 on Seeso, available on Xbox, Roku, or Amazon for $3.99 a month.