As Jon Stewart preps for his last show Aug. 6, many fans will remember the host as one who never bit his tongue and pushed the envelope when it came to successfully mixing politics and comedy. But one person who worked as a writer on Stewart’s show remembers an incident that involved anger, humiliation and some racism.
Comedian Wyatt Cenac was a writer on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart for over four years and during that time was the only black writer on the show. During a recent appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Cenac recalled an incident that puts Stewart in a different light.
“And you got along with Jon?” Maron asked, referring to Cenac’s relationship with Stewart.
“Naw,” Cenac replied.
Cenac recounted a 2011 incident when Stewart was gearing up for the 2012 presidential election. Stewart at the time decided that he would take a jab at candidate Herman Cain’s voice and imitated the politician.
After commenting during a speech that bills had become too long and convoluted for the American people to understand, Cain had joked that if he were elected president, no legislation would be longer than three pages. During an episode of the late-night talk show, Stewart imitated the way Cain spoke, throwing in his version of a “soul brotha” voice.
Cenac said he only found out about the segment while he was watching the episode elsewhere, but he felt that joking about the way a black man spoke wasn’t the right thing to do, and he brought that to Stewart’s attention.
“‘I don’t think this is from a malicious place, but I think this is from a naive, ignorant place,’” Cenac said he remembered thinking at the time. “‘Oh, no, you just did this and you didn’t think about it. It was just the voice that came into your head.’ And so it bugged me.”
During a meeting, Cenac said he brought up his issues about the “voice” Stewart used and told him it reminded him of Kingfish from Amos & Andy.
“I’ve got to be honest, and I just spoke from my place,” said Cenac. “I wasn’t here when it all happened. I was in a hotel. And I cringed a little bit. It bothered me.”
Needless to say, Stewart didn’t find the criticism welcoming, Cenac said.
“‘What are you trying to say? There’s a tone in your voice,’” Cenac recalled Stewart asking.
“‘There’s no tone. It bothered me. It sounded like Kingfish,’” Cenac said he replied.
And it was then that Stewart went ballistic. According to Cenac, Stewart told him to f—k off and started screaming. And it didn’t end there. The fight continued in another office.
Cenac remembered leaving the studio and heading to a nearby baseball field where he sat and cried.
It was probably at that moment that Cenac had an epiphany and realized a few things about the person he thought would end up being a father figure. Cenac realized he now had to “represent” the community he’s from, even if it meant taking up for Herman Cain.
“I gotta be honest if something seems questionable, because if not, then I don’t want to be in a position where I am being untrue not just to myself but to my culture, because that’s exploitative. I’m just allowing something to continue if I’m just going to go along with it. And sadly, I think that’s the burden a lot of people have to have when you are ‘the one.’ You represent something bigger than yourself, whether you want to or not,” Cenac said during the podcast.
As Stewart takes his last bow, one has to wonder if he realized what Cenac was attempting to do years ago. Stewart prides himself on being an ally, but when he needed to be an ally the most, to his only black writer, he seems to have failed miserably.