HBO has given us some of our favorite programs; from cult favorite, The Wire, to the Kerry Washington-led Anita Hill biopic, Confirmation, and current fan favorite, Insecure. The popular broadcasting channel is continuing to roll out amazing original content with its recent late-night hit, Problem Areas, executive-produced and hosted by former The Daily Show with Jon Stewart writer and correspondent, Wyatt Cenac.
Cenac adopts a fresh approach to the late-night-comedy news structure; instead of offering the normal laughter-with-a-side-of-news format, he’s found the perfect balance of serious news investigation and comic relief. We had the pleasure of talking with Cenac about his coverage of hard-hitting topics like police-brutality, how he handles critics, and what we can expect from season two.
I checked out some of the episodes; I love the direction you’re going in. Could you tell us a little more? What’s the premise of Problem Areas?
The premise of the show, it’s a topical show, but rather than, kind of, focus on the topical breaking news stories in the day, we felt like it would be interesting for us to look at issues that are more social issues than political ones…take them, and try to look at them over the season. So in season one, our focus was to look at policing in America and by spending the whole season, the idea was to go around to different cities throughout the country and look at—how, you know, that divide that exists between community and law enforcement—how does change come about, and what does change look like. And how can change be created between communities and law enforcement that provide communities a voice because communities are ultimately the ones that are paying for that law enforcement.
But, how do you find the “funny” in those serious topics?
That is definitely the challenge but, you know, I think with any story, whether it’s a policing story, or whether it’s looking at things that are going on in this administration, there’s an inherent amount of frustration and tension that fills up the balloon—and so, using humor to try to deflate that a little bit—it’s always possible. I think the goal, at least for us—you wanna find humor that doesn’t come at the expense of the people being victimized. You never wanna find yourself in the position where you’re punching down…The Daily Show, my time there, the mentality, and the DNA was trying to “punch up.” And so if you’re talking about, even looking at stories like policing in this country, it’s still an institutionalized thing that is built on a power imbalance—and so you can look at that and it’s definitely a lot of humor in how that power imbalance can sometimes be incredibly obtuse, and not thinking about the people it was created to protect. Whether it was looking at, you know, the seemingly insane amounts of training that officers go through, and kind of, what that training looks like—there’s a lot of humor in looking at that. And then, actually getting to go out into the world and talk to cops and like, “Do you really need to train like a soldier to protect a community?” “Do you really need a video game that shows you how to tase people, to protect a community?” “So, these are the videos people are watching, that seems ridiculous to me on the outside, to you, as a person who lives in this community, what do you think about it?”
You kind of take a seemingly objective approach, to your comedy. Have you received criticism on the first season?
There were definitely critics. Any time, especially with the first season, you’re talking about things like policing, capitalism—there are definitely those people that are in those tribes that will automatically put their blinders up and sort of, blindly cape for their—there are always gonna be those critics. I think that’s not a thing that you can really get so focused on.
I think—you know, at least anybody who comes up to me on the street, I feel like—they’re usually like, “Oh, I appreciate your show”. I think that’s sort of the difference between social media and real life. I mean, social media, it’s like, anyone that’s got issues with the show, they’re maybe gonna come at you on social media…at the end of the day, I feel like you’re never gonna get anything 100% right and I’m not in this to be 100% right. My hope is that, if I get something wrong, it’s presented to me with the respect and the dignity to try to get it right down the line—so I think my approach to the show is similar—I’m not going out there saying like, “I have the answer. I’m a genius”. I’m tryna learn. And hopefully, the people watching wanna learn too. And we can all learn together.
So what can we expect for the second season? What are you focusing on?
We’re still kinda keeping that under wraps at the moment, as we are—we just kind of started back up after the summer off. So we’re still kind of like, tryna figure out the stories, and break things…
Coming out of being a writer, are you cool with leading your team and all the responsibilities that come with it?
I’m enjoying it. It’s definitely challenging, and it’s a different hat to wear. But I’m enjoying the challenge…and it’s just cool to get to make something that’s been in my brain for a while…It would be one thing to be in a position where it’s like “Alright! I’m the boss and I’m gonna make this”…but nobody wants to make it. And I feel very fortunate that there are people who are into working on the show and being a part of what we’re trying to do.
Check out an episode of Problem Areas below, and look out for Season 2 premiering Spring 2019.
All Images: Matt Bookhout