Wyatt Cenac Color 3 - Robyn Von Swank

In Food Republic’s new column, Bang Bang Talky Talk, we take a cue from comedian Louis C.K. and bring interesting people to dinner twice, in rapid succession (bang bang!) in the hopes of coming back with a doubly good interview. Next up: actor and comedian Wyatt Cenac, whose new digital series, Night Train With Wyatt Cenac, premieres on NBC Universal’s online comedy service, Seeso, on Thursday, June 30.

“Come on, rib guy!” says Wyatt Cenac, desperately scanning the crowd for one elusive meat-slinging vagabond. We’re hanging out at Pig Beach, a boozy barbecue spot with rows of picnic tables and big, bright white umbrellas, located along the grimy banks of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal.

For a restaurant that is practically on top of a Superfund site, the food is remarkably good. We’ve just enjoyed some saucy pork shoulder, beef tri-tip and perhaps the most succulent smoked turkey in all of New York City.

But the ribs, well, we didn’t order those. Then the pitmaster stopped by with a tray full of the tender, tangy things for us to try. Now Cenac is pining for more. “I think I saw him coming around with more ribs, but he gave ’em to those assholes, those undeserving shits,” says Cenac, gesturing toward a group of guys near the bar. Soon, he spies another table getting a visit from the wandering rib guy, much to his own chagrin. “Do not snake those ribs, lady,” he says. “Aw, Ribbie!”

It’s a stunning reversal in appetite for a guy who, only an hour or so earlier, was genuinely skittish about partaking in more than a few oysters and a dandelion salad.

♦♦♦

“The idea of eating two meals back to back, it just feels…bad,” says Cenac, as we sit down to our first meal of the night at Freek’s Mill, a buzzy new bistro, also in the Gowanus neighborhood. The restaurant recently earned a favorable two-star review from The New York Times. The menu includes many tantalizing things, including wood-roasted oysters, barbecued kohlrabi and dry-aged duck, but it’s the dishes to come later that are clearly on Cenac’s mind.

“I’ve seen the Louie episode,” says Cenac. “Just as an episode, it gave me agita.”

When the waitress arrives to take our order, the comic dryly explains the ambitious two-meal agenda. “So I’m not trying to go too crazy,” he says, “because for some horrible gastrointestinal reason, I have to go have a second meal.”

The amused server responds: “Oh, my God, I wonder what that would be like.”

Says Cenac, “I can tell you  it’s going to end at the toilet.”

♦♦♦

You probably recognize Cenac from his days as a writer and on-air correspondent for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show (check him out in the hilarious segment “SeaWorld of Pain“), or his Grammy-nominated 2015 comedy album, Brooklyn. For the past four years, the 40-year-old comic has hosted a weekly standup show at Littlefield, a former warehouse turned performance space located just a short walk from Freek’s Mill and Pig Beach. Now that show is getting a national audience. Night Train With Wyatt Cenac premieres tonight on NBC Universal’s subscription-based online comedy channel, Seeso.

Here’s the trailer:

It’s a series that aims to spotlight a diverse mix of comics, which, according to Cenac, runs contrary to the usual parameters of the standup circuit. “When I started doing standup, a lot of shows wound up being broken down over these themes,” he explains. “There would be the all-black show, or ‘Refried Fridays’ was the Latino show, or ‘Chopstick Comedy’ was the Asian show…. After a while of doing those shows, the voices all started to blend together.” With Night Train, he says, you won’t be seeing too many of the same type of comedians doing the same shtick on the same show. And with a Brooklyn-based comic in charge, you’re bound to hear some commentary on the quirks of urban food culture. “I’ve definitely made jokes about the fact that there’s a mayonnaise shop in Brooklyn,” he admits.

In July, Cenac also begins filming a new TBS sitcom called People of Earth, which deals with the subject of alien abduction. In his own life, Cenac is no “ancient astronaut theorist” or believer in little green men bent on world domination, but he does have some interesting thoughts about America’s long-standing tradition of visitors-from-outer-space folklore. This is, after all, a nation founded by interlopers. In that light, alien-invasion movies like Independence Day serve up a certain irony, he says: “These people who are guilty of gentrifying a place are now like, ‘Oh, shit! These aliens are trying to gentrify Earth. We’ve got to destroy ’em!’ It’s a weird thing. It’s like, ‘Hold on a second, now do you understand why that guy who got kicked out of his brownstone after 30 years is mad? You’re the alien. You thought you were Will Smith or Jeff Goldblum in this movie. No, you’re the cockroach-looking thing.'”


“Call me conservative, but I’m a one-meal, one-restaurant kind of guy,” says Cenac, who colorfully recasts this debauched form of double dining as “food swinging.”


That Cenac would bring up the issue of gentrification when talking about his new sitcom is no coincidence. Turns out, he’s facing an uncertain housing future himself. The apartment building where he lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, is presently up for sale and is expected to be converted into luxury condos. The transaction could very likely take place during the three months that he’s away filming People of Earth in Toronto.

Gentrification doesn’t generally make for the best dinner conversation, though it feels oddly right at home here in post-industrial Gowanus, one of the most rapidly developing parts of the city, with all sorts of fancy new restaurants serving as neon-lit beacons of that very change. That’s probably one reason why Cenac, who is easily one of the most cerebral comics you’ll ever meet, seems a little uneasy about stuffing his face twice in one night at these places, even if the food is excellent.

♦♦♦

“Call me conservative, but I’m a one-meal, one-restaurant kind of guy,” says Cenac, who colorfully recasts this debauched form of double dining as “food swinging.”

From the outset, the comic faithfully commits to the bit. At one point during our first meal, at Freek’s Mill, Cenac offers up a half-eaten plate of some deliciously minty, stracciatella-smothered green beans to the gawking couple at an adjacent table. “I feel nothing but guilt, because I know I’m not going to eat any more of this,” he says. “If you would like to try it, if you would like to pregame and test whether you would like the stracciatella, you are welcome to.” Later, he jokingly offers the same couple some additional samples of the future meal: “If you are still here, I might swing by and bring you a doggie bag.”

When the server returns to clear our plates, including some lingering scraps of the restaurant’s superb pappardelle pasta with rabbit ragu, Cenac is unrelentingly apologetic: “Please thank the kitchen, tell them I’m sorry I didn’t eat more of it, explain to them this weird Sisyphean curse that I’ve been stuck with, pushing a boulder uphill.”

A boulder of pappardelle, it would seem — which, to this writer, actually sounds pretty good. Not to Cenac, though. “It sounds like too much pappardelle,” he insists.

“If we were only eating at one restaurant, I would have ordered that as an entrée,” says Cenac. “But the fact is, we are doing a Herculean task that even Hercules would say, ‘Eh, you know what? I’m good.'”

By the end of the night, though, after some indulging in a serious second-course of barbecue, the comic starts to sound like a true marathon-meal veteran. “You start the early rounds light,” says Cenac. “It’s like boxing — you don’t come out trying to get a knockout in the first round.”

Freek’s Mill285 Nevins St., Brooklyn, NY 11217; 718-852-3000; freeksmill.com

Pig Beach, 480 Union St., Brooklyn, NY 11231; 718-737-7181; pigbeachnyc.com