A Parallel Argument on Race and Disability: How Wyatt Cenac Got it Right and Wrong

Since this post was published I spoke with Wyatt Cenac and in my estimation this issue is resolved. For more on that please read: Wyatt Cenac Offers a Positive Conversation and Delivers.

On the July 23rd podcast of Marc Maron’s WTF, Wyatt Cenac, formerly of The Daily Show, related a heated argument he had in 2011 with Jon Stewart. Cenac had objected to Stewart’s televised impersonation of then Presidential candidate Herman Cain that he found to be racially insensitive. 

Wyatt Cenac

Wyatt Cenac

In listening to his interview with Maron I was struck by a couple things: first, Cenac made a convincing argument that Stewart was being racially insensitive and second, his argument opposed how he addressed a similar failing on his part just last year.

In 2014, Cenac appeared on This American Life. He described the effects he incurred after eating a pot brownie. He said he became so high and incapacitated he thought he had given himself Down syndrome. The marker for Cenac that he had Down syndrome was his voice was now thick-tongued and slow.  

He was taken to task for his insensitivity, most notably by David Perry, a journalist and parent of a child with Down syndrome, who had posted a CNN opinion piece, on August 7th, 2014, regarding the episode. Perry objected to Cenac’s painful mockery of the speech patterns of some people with Down syndrome including his own child’s.

On October 20, 2014, Cenac offered a explanation to Alyona Minkovski on Huffington Post Live (HuffPost Live). In re-listening to that interview a few days ago following his recent interview with Maron I discovered Cenac both understands and can identify insensitivity in comedy when it relates directly to him and cannot when it relates to others:

Cenac on WTF: “The way [Stewart] did the impression–it was a little weird, it reminded me of a Kingfish kind of thing” referring to the racially stereotyped character from The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show. Later, “[W]hen I heard it, it bothered me.”

Cenac on HuffPost Live: “I was careful to not try to seem as though I was mocking Down syndrome. Later, “[T]here are certain things that are always going to offend somebody…whether you’re talking about Down syndrome or race…[it’s] the nature of things.”

Cenac on WTF: Cenac shared his view of Stewart: “I don’t think this [came] from a malicious place but I think [it was] from a sort of naïve…ignorant place.” Later,  “You just did this… you weren’t thinking about it…it was just a voice that came into your head.”

Mr. Cenac on HuffPost Live: “[The pot brownie] had this very weird effect on me and I started talking in this funny voice and for whatever reason my brain went to, oh, you just gave yourself Down syndrome.”  Later, “[It was] not coming from a malicious place it was just what popped into my head.”

On WTF: Cenac shared an interaction with Robin Williams from several years earlier: Williams was doing a “Black voice”. Cenac told him: “I know you think you’re being funny…but  you reduce us to all we can be is …jive motherf_ _ kers.”

On HuffPost Live: Cenac omits the set-up to his joke on This American Life: “I…had no job…[I]was living off my credit cards…[I]was five months behind on my car note…[and] really didn’t have anything to live for.” His reasoning is: why not eat a pot brownie.

It is interesting to note Cenac has never addressed that his story is predicated on his self-described loser status resulting in him feeling he “didn’t have anything to live for”. To acknowledge that context he may betray his own reductive thoughts about individuals who have Down syndrome.

Is it really a leap to consider Cenac might believe that people with Down syndrome are losers who also may not have anything to live for? Otherwise why in his altered state is he suddenly talking in a “funny voice” and believing he just developed Down syndrome? Something informed that hallucination. Those thoughts did not randomly collide, they came from somewhere in Cenac. In other words did a pot brownie free his mind?

It also squares with what most people think of individuals with Down syndrome. It is such a compelling belief that there are existential consequences reflected in the fact most fetuses detected with Down syndrome result in abortion.

Cenac is rightfully concerned over Stewart’s denial of responsibility concerning his impression of Herman Cain which reflects the ugliness of racist thought concerning African-Americans. As he himself explained: “I was the one Black writer there…when you’re the one…you end up speaking for everyone…for all the Black people…all the minorities…because there’s no one speaking for them…if something seems questionable (WTF podcast).”

I have similar concerns for my eight year-old son who has Down syndrome. The audience of This American Life entertained by Cenac’s “humorous” antidote is comprised of business owners, co-workers, educators, heath professionals, neighbors and family members who may have been assured that the person they know with Down syndrome is just as diminished as Cenac believed himself to be when he thought he had given himself Down syndrome.

On Maron’s WTF it is clear Cenac is still haunted by his encounter with Stewart from four years ago and that he does not have the closure he needs about something that deeply offended him. As a parent of child who has Down syndrome I, too, one year later feel the same about Wyatt Cenac’s choice to tell a story that would have been better left unspoken.