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Wyatt Cenac dishes on ‘Yellowbellies,’ puppets, and chasing a 17-year dream

Via Artist
 

For the better part of the last two decades, Wyatt Cenac has been on quite the creative journey to bring his puppet-led brainchild Yellowbellies to the screen. After 17 years of obstacles including budgetary restraints and intellectual property issues, other projects like The Daily Show and HBO’s Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, and creative obstacles like script-rewrites and shifting from live-action to puppetry, Cenac’s Star Trek-inspired labor of love is finally here in the flesh — err, in the felt — after the New York native dropped a proof of concept on YouTube last month.

We recently caught up with Cenac to talk about the project and how he’s feeling about finally seeing it out in the world, the evolution it’s undergone over the years, and what he hopes to accomplish with the concept in the future.

Jason Greenough: Jumping in to why we’re here, you had Yellowbellies drop recently. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but how has the reaction been so far from everyone else?

 
 

Wyatt Cenac: The reception has been good. I feel like most of the people who have seen it, whether they’ve left comments that are positive, or just people I know who have heard me talk about it forever, everyone seems to have enjoyed it so far. I’m sure there’s someone who is ripping it to shreds, but I haven’t spoken to that person yet.

I read the explanation you included with the video on YouTube, where you mentioned coming up with the idea after watching an episode of Star Trek. Now, in addition to that, where did the idea come from in terms of it being more than just a thought of it being a good idea, and actually turning that inspiration into something?

I think it had always been something where I felt it could make sense as a series. For me, the obstacles were trying to figure out how to do that from a budgetary standpoint, as well as an intellectual property standpoint. Initially, when I first started thinking about this as a show, it was at a time where I was watching these old episodes of Star Trek, and I can’t remember if it was G4 or another one of those networks that’s no longer around, but they were airing old episodes of Star Trek with running commentary alongside them. It almost looked like the equivalent of putting Star Trek into a Twitch stream, and that was interesting to me, because it seemed like Star Trek was willing to kind of play around with their property in some way. So, from there I initially thought it would be cool to do a Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead-type of thing where I would take actually Star Trek episodes, and cut to the crew members who are walking like “what the fuck is happening?”

 
 

The challenge of that was that I needed Star Trek’s permission, so there was a lot of me yelling at my agents to get me a meeting, and I think at one point, through my friend John Hodgman, had been put in touch with Damon Lindelof to see if I could reach the CBS people, because at the time, he was working on the movies. But the movies and the TV show are two separate things. There was always this idea that I could do it if I had the resources and the access, but I never had that, so when I didn’t have that, it shifted into something that I could try to build that wasn’t in the Star Trek world, but Star Trek-like. At the time, I was calling it Redshirts, so I figured I would change the uniform, and they became “yellow bellies,” and once it kind of shifted to that, I thought it might be more fun to do it with puppets. Some of that was because I had been watching people try to navigate the Star Trek-like space with live action, and it always felt like people had tried this so much over the years, and they hadn’t gone forward because it looked so much like Star Trek, so why not just go watch Star Trek?

I mean, they could go watch Star Trek, but at the same time, that isn’t this.

Making the characters into puppets was sort of like leaning into the ridiculousness of it, so that, for me, then became the idea of taking it so far into a ridiculous place as opposed to still trying to balance some level of humanity. When you watch those old episodes of Star Trek, it’s a very strange thing, where they try to give these characters humanity, but they’re so ridiculous and the idea of the future is such a ridiculous one where you do still have a race-based casting system when it comes to humans, but we’re focusing on the equality of aliens when Uhura is basically just the phone operator on the ship, and Sulu is just the chauffeur.

Was that part of the thought going into it, given your background in meshing comedy and social activism? Was part of the approach to Yellowbellies to put a focus on those casting issues in a different way?

 
 

In some respects, yeah. I’ve watched a lot of science fiction, I’m a fan of Star Trek, but also a fan of other things whether it’s Star Wars or books and movies. In watching a lot of science fiction, the thing that always gets presented of the idyllic future is one that is often a very white-washed version of the future, and a kind of future, as a person of color, you watch these things and can’t help but think about how whether the future in these shows is dystopian or idyllic, one constant is that I’m not in it. What’s fascinating to me in looking at something like Star Trek is that they say they’ve solved famine, but yet, there’s still this very clear cast system that exists, racially. And some of it is because of the time they’re making that show in, where you had the network basically say that they wouldn’t allow Nichelle Nichols to be a series regular on the show, and it was a network decision, but then the show is trying to present this utopian view of the future where racism doesn’t exist, but the network was basically saying “but it still exists now,” and I think, for me, I can’t help but see those things.

When you watch any kind of escapist fantasy, part of it is hoping you can watch yourself in it, and if you’re watching Star Wars and the only black person you see is Lando, the future doesn’t seem good for us.

You also mentioned that you had been working on this for almost two decades. What year did this start for you?

I was still living in LA at the time, and I want to say it had to have been around maybe 2003 or 2004. I was talking to people about it in LA, and trying to figure out how to make it happen, and by the time I had gotten back to New York, it was still in my brain. I would do things and have other jobs, but on the back burner, I was always trying to figure out how I could make this thing work. When I was at The Daily Show, I would talk to friends there about it, and one of the field producers, Brennan Shroff who was a big Star Trek fan, he and I would talk a lot about it and how we could try to do the version that we could theoretically film. I think we had talked about having Jason Jones do one of the characters, and maybe even Sam[antha Bee], but at one point while I was still there, Brennan and I had discovered that Rod Roddenberry, [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry’s son, had produced some fan-made Star Trek thing where they had a replica [U.S.S.] Enterprise. At that time, when I was still at The Daily Show, Brennan and I were trying to figure out how to Rod to see if he might rent us that set, and we wanted to get all the correspondents for the show, and on a hiatus week, we were thinking we could go out and shoot it. As it so happened, I think the spouse of one of the producers on The Daily Show grew up with Rod, but she tried to reach out on our behalf, and we just never heard back.

 
 

It was one of those things where you cast out a line and hear nothing back, and over the next year, the idea would evolve. By the time I moved the idea of the show into the world of puppets, I had already left The Daily Show, and I started talking to the folks at Floyd County [Productions], and they actually produced a little bit of artwork for me to go pitch the show with, and I actually flew down to Atlanta after I had sold the pitch to BBC America, and had dinner with the artists, Matt Thompson and Adam Reed, and then I hung out with Lucky Yates, who knows a lot about puppets, he studied puppetry, and is a puppeteer. He took me to the puppet museum in Atlanta, and we talked puppet stuff, and I think it’s one of those things where a lot of people have me fuckin’ yammer on about this thing, but in the process, I was spending a shit ton of time really trying to figure out how to make this thing go.

Well, the show has certainly been through one hell of a journey! Seeing how it has evolved from a live action show to a puppet show, and how there were people who you thought were going to be a part of it and weren’t, and all the moving pieces that shifted in and out over time, how does it feel in an overall sense, to see this finally out there in the world?

I think it’s bittersweet. Knowing the journey I went on with it, as I started thinking about trying to make it a puppet show, I went and sat down with Brian Henson, who I had never met before. I was able to trick him into sitting down with me and talking to me about puppets for a while. Early on, I had been thinking about wanting to do it with marionettes, kind of like Thunderbirds, so I sat down with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and talked to them about their experience with making Team America. So there is this aspect where I look at it, and I see the journey it’s been on and I’m grateful for that journey.

Where I think it’s bittersweet is that it’s really nice to see this thing out there after this whole journey it’s been on, but it’s also one of those things where it’s not on a network or anything like that where someone has said “we want to make a hundred of these”. There’s an element of it that is really nice to have it out there, but there’s also that part of it that has me feeling like this may be me just putting it to bed now. This may be the whole journey. This may be it’s sort of birth and death for a viewing public. I put my own money into this to make it, and my management helped out with some costs too, but it’s not something I can keep producing out of my own pocket. I was able to get a lot of favors from the cast that did it, but this may sort of be the grand opening and the grand closing. That’s what is so bittersweet about it. It’s that feeling of “alright, it’s out there, but you have to stop talking about it now and find something else to obsess about for the next twenty years.”

 
 

But maybe you don’t have to stop talking about it, because that’s what ensures it’s death. Maybe someone will read this and realize that it was something they should’ve picked up on a long time ago. That’s not to say I think I have that kind of pull here, but —

No no, you’re saying you do. This is all on you, and I’m holding you to it. [Laughs]

Now, I don’t mean this in a rude or condescending way, but what do you feel was the driving force in this taking as long as it did to be made?

I think it was a mix of a lot of things. At various points, I had tried to look into self-financing, and at one point sat down with a production company, and they put together a budget, and we talked to some puppet builders who put together a budget with that production company, and I just couldn’t afford it. That was probably five or six years ago, and so I think a big part of the self-producing route was just having the resources. With any television idea, you hope you can go in and pitch it, and a network will say they like the idea and want to develop it further, and they give you some money for a pilot or a series, and i think that was, in some ways, a big obstacle, because I was trying to get networks to see it, like BBC America. They saw it and were into it, but right after they bought it, the exec who brought in left BBC for another company, and usually when you lose your development exec, it’s harder to get something across the finish line. There was stuff like that, and then I kept pitching it around to execs, who are these gatekeepers to the money that can bring something to life. 

 
 

I think the misconception about television, sometimes, is that you get paid really well. I mean, you get a nice salary, but it’s not a salary that allows you to self-produce ideas a proof of concept [Laughs], with the hope of putting all of your eggs into this basket in the hope that somebody sees it, and wants to give you a truckload of money to actually make it and replenish your savings.

Shifting toward the cast, you had mentioned that you had asked favors of some people, and had people like Jason Jones and Samantha Bee in mind before, but how did the cast come together in its final form?

Well, it evolved over time, so when Brennan and I were trying to shoot something on a replica Enterprise set, it was something where we thought it would be fun to have the correspondents like Jason and Sam, and [John Oliver] and Asaff [Mandvi], and I think [Rob] Riggle was still at the show at the time, as well, and it just felt like we could do something like that where it was a bit more loose and improvised. We felt it would be a fun way to have all the Daily Show folks play around together, because we never did that. It was just one of the weird legacies of the show, where you look at SNL, and there’s a lot of cast members showing up in things with other SNL people. There isn’t much of that with us, and we just don’t have the same amount of opportunities where we get to do that, so the characters were probably going to be whatever we all came up with, if we had gotten access to that set. When it became Yellowbellies, and turned into me initially writing characters, I had three different scripts that I had written before the proof of concept, and in doing that, I had come up with a couple of different characters, like Wynn-Nyugen, who I thought would be a fun character to have, and I had sort of built the character before thought of reaching out to Ronny [Chieng] and Roy [Wood Jr.].

So then I went through the three episodes of scripts that I had written, and tried to find which characters would make the most sense in this proof of concept, so then I wrote the concept with those characters, and then started thinking about who I could reach out to who might be up for doing this. We’re all friends. Sasheer [Zamata] and I would perform a lot together when she was still in New York, Ilana [Glazer] and I know each other well, and [John] Hodgman has probably heard me rail on about this idea more than anyone else. I also wanted someone who had a really authoritative voice as the captain, and Dan [Soder] just has such a great voice, and I feel like he should be doing way more voiceover work than he has to this point. 

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to record everyone at the same time, though. In my mind, what I wanted was to have a group recording so that they could play off each other and improvise a little bit, but when you’re doing everything on favors, you have to do things when it’s convenient for them. Over the course of a few months, I was able to record everyone. With Roy and Ronny, I think I recorded about six months apart, and I recorded Ronny first, without having Roy to play off of. I still knew I was going to get Roy to do it, but Ronny, as a performer, had to make choices where he had to think about how Roy was going to play off of it, but when it came time to cut the audio, it was all about trying to find the takes that make the most sense together. That was my DJ friend Don Will who helped me build the audio track, before we then shot everything. 

I’m giving you a long answer to an easy question, but it was very interesting in how it all came together. When I think about how everyone’s performances came together in line with one another, it really is a testament to each of them as performers that they were able to give enough options with what little time we had to record. Like, you have great playback between Dan and Hodgman, even though they weren’t in the same room together to respond to each other. Sasheer and Ilana were the only ones, I think, that got to play off of me and my dialogue, so there was that aspect where we got to play around a little bit, but for everyone else, it was really all about them as performers, and I think they all did amazing jobs to do this in a way where we didn’t have the trappings of a fancy animated Fox series. We had one recording, and it really is just a testament to everyone stepping up and helping me out with something.

 
 

Right on. Again, it came out really well, especially given those circumstances.

Thank you! I have to give credit to my friend, Donwill. He’s a musician and when I used to host a stand-up show in New York called Nighttrain, he DJ’d the show, and he and I do a live show together called Shouting at The Screen. He stepped in and was excited to take a stab at cutting the audio track together so we could have a playback track that the puppeteers were able to use.

Going back to that question of how it feels to have this out there, I think what I’m so appreciative of and grateful for is the way different way people stepped to help me bring this thing to life, and if this is all that it ever is as an eight-minute video on YouTube and my instagram, that’s a shame on one hand, but it’s also just a wonderful and touching testament to the friendships I have with these people. Whether it be Maggie [Ruder, set designer] or Don, or James Wojtal who built all the puppets, or Amina Sutton and Kathy Welch who helped produce it. It’s really just a testament to that goodwill that all of these people helped out.

Going forward with this project after Problem Areas got canceled, was it difficult to shift gears and your creative energy into this, especially given the way that show ended?

Yes and no. The way Problem Areas went down, it definitely hurt. I wasn’t expecting it. But then there was also a part of it where networks can just go “alright, it’s canceled,” without putting into account how everyone who worked on a show now has to go find new jobs, myself included. So, for me, it was like “I better hurry up and create something new so I can continue to pay my bills.” So, while there was a part of me that was like “this sucks and fuck HBO for doing this,” there’s also a part of it that was like “Fuck, I better get busy.”

With this show not getting picked up by a network — yet — and not being beholden to network standards, is the creative freedom you have with it a plus? Or would you rather this be on a network?

 
 

Well, you want the budget, so there’s that. If there was a way to finance and have it where I could finance it myself and pay everyone a good wage to work on it, and then post it to YouTube, that would be great, because there is that freedom there. What was nice about the proof of concept is that you’re just showing people what you want to do. Executives kind of have to take it as is, or they just pass on it, because you’ve already made the thing.

You think about a show like High Maintenance, and I think where HBO was very smart when they decided to make it was that they didn’t try to change it from what it was. If someone were to take Yellowbellies, but then noodle with it and make it live action, and it failed, that happened because they tweaked with it too much. That’s the nice thing about having a proof of concept, and having something you get to do on your own. If it’s sinks or swims, it sank or swam because of the choices I made.

Sometimes, when a network gets involved, there are choices that they make, or there are concessions that you have to make in order to get it on the air that maybe you wouldn’t have to make it if you were to do it yourself. With that said, at the end of the day, if a network supports your show, they have way more reach than I do. That’s the big difference. If I were person who had twenty million twitter and Instagram followers, it might be an easier thing to self-finance and self-produce something because I am my own network. LeBron James is his own network on social media. He doesn’t need to talk to ESPN. Beyoncé is her own network. She’s doing Disney a favor by making Black is King. That’s a leverage they have, but if you’re someone like me, you hope that a network that you’re working with will amplify your voice and get it in front of more eyeballs, and get more people to engage with it.

With everything that went into creating this over the years, what are you hoping people take away from this show?

I hope people enjoy it. I hope they think it’s fun and silly, and I think with anything that you do, there’s the old saying that you leave them wanting more. I think with this, that by the time the credits, people are left wanting more.