If the Viceroy, the laconic, low-budget superhero invented by Wyatt Cenac, had some equivalent of a bat signal, it would definitely not be a winged rodent. More likely, it would be a bodega cat wearing a sweater from Etsy, or some other arbiter of rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn.
Cenac’s creation is a different kind of (non-)caped crusader. The lead character in the comedian’s new six-part web series, aka Wyatt Cenac, which premiered on First Look Media’s storytelling platform Topic.com earlier this week, has a bent for unsung do-goodery, like busting up a baby stroller chop shop. Why does he bother? Because, as his sidekick points out about this particular felony, “it may not be the crime Brooklyn needs, but it’s the crime it deserves.” In putting his own spin on a tired genre, Cenac may be giving superhero-jaded viewers the web series they deserve.
The veteran standup, who currently stars in TBS’s alien comedy People of Earth, had long been kicking around ideas on how to portray his material in a narrative format. The problem was, other standups had already flooded the market with everything from Seinfeld to Louie: shows where a comedian plays a version of himself and his day-to-day adventures are interspersed with scenes of the comic on stage, joking about similar subject matter. The world did not need another series about a funnyman’s skewed take on modern life.
“I just thought, if I’m gonna do something like this, I don’t wanna follow the same pattern,” Cenac says. “I was trying to think of other jobs that were similar to comedian, and crime-fighting vigilante is what I came up with.”
Anyone familiar with Cenac’s standup may have heard his insights on hipster dads and artisanal mayonnaise stores before, but never like this. Aka Wyatt Cenac consists of vignettes where the comedian and his friends dissect the details of his beloved Brooklyn, mixed in with scenes of him as the sweatsuit-clad Viceroy fighting some unusual crimes. Although Cenac eschews an origin story, he makes it clear that his character is not the first Viceroy, but rather the latest to inherit the title, like the Dread Pirate Roberts of Park Slope.
Of course, the superhero format is more than just a storytelling device here. It’s also an opportunity for Cenac to dip his toe into a genre he feels barred from infiltrating. As his character on the show notes, “We live in a world where we can have a black president, why can’t we have a black vigilante?”
The answer he offers (out of character) has to do both with economics and a fear of fanboys who tend to get as angry as torch-bearing members of the so called “alt right.”
“The majority of the DC and Marvel comic lines are white male characters, and the minute you make Thor a woman or Captain America a black guy, the internet is filled with hateful comments and people saying, ‘That’s not what Captain America is supposed to look like,'” Cenac says. “I can’t help thinking that, you know, this is all imaginary stuff, and why are people so upset about it?”
We’ve somehow gone from the ’60s-era Batman, where Adam West’s Dark Knight fought a black Catwoman played by Eartha Kitt and a Latino Joker personified by Cesar Romero, to a time when such progressive casting would likely incite boycotts. (Cenac slipped a nod to the old-school Batman show into an episode of aka.) Next year’s heavily hyped Black Panther movie aside, casting in the superhero genre appears to be moving in the wrong direction.
“This series was a chance to kind of talk about race and superheroes,” he says. “And at the same time say, ‘Fuck it. I’ll create my own character.'”
As the Viceroy, Cenac deals with gentrification-related crimes, but he doesn’t let himself off the hook either. In between mocking parents for dressing their babies in shirts that bear Biggie lyrics about getting high, the comic acknowledges his own hypocrisy. For instance, Cenac is against one woman bringing her bougie mustard store to his neighborhood, but he’s not above wanting to hit on her. It’s the kind of detail he felt was missing from the gentrification conversation.
“We all live with contradictions,” Cenac says. “There are things that are only palatable until they become uncomfortable for us, so it’s very easy to complain about some problem the minute it becomes a problem for you. But you’re okay with certain aspects of gentrification if they’re the aspects you like.”
It’s these kinds of complicated truths that make aka Wyatt Cenac a nuanced comedic spin on the superhero genre. And since our hero is unlikely to run out of food truck jokes anytime soon, the saga just may continue someday.
Watch all six episodes now on Topic.com.