Wyatt Cenac Is Making Comedy a Public Service
By Eleanor Laurence
The comedian is using his platform to explore America’s issues and, potentially, propose some solutions — be it urban housing for millennials or an in-depth inquiry into policing.
HBO: On the Problem Areas Facebook, a fan described the show as “a millennial, stoner-version of Mister Rogers.” Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
Wyatt Cenac: I’ll take it as a compliment. If that’s how someone perceives the show, that’s incredibly flattering. Our goal is to enter the late-night space in a way that feels interesting and engages the audience to make them look at what they’re doing.
No pressure, but it’s not simply waiting until the next election. If you don’t like the way things look, you have as much of a stake in changing it as a politician. So, for me, and for the other producers and writers creating the show, it really is trying to engage the audience in a way that hopefully makes them as curious as we are.
HBO: You spent Season 1 delving into the state of policing in America. Looking back on all the information and perspectives you encountered, what are your thoughts on where things stand?
Wyatt Cenac: A young man [Antwon Rose II] was just shot and killed by police very recently in Pennsylvania. These things continue to happen. People continue to demand change.
It seems like where change exists, it starts with a willingness for all parties to come to the table and talk. In doing all of these episodes, the police departments and the officers who recognize their role is to serve the public — as opposed to working to corral or control the public — leave room for dialogue. When there are city officials who are willing to give equal respect to the needs of communities and the needs of law enforcement, you’re going to have room for change.
“If you don’t like the way things look, you have as much of a stake in changing it as a politician.”
HBO: Did you find it challenging to spark a nuanced conversation about an issue as polarizing as America’s policing system?
Wyatt Cenac: Once you look at it from a city-to-city perspective, it takes some of the polarization out of it. It becomes more tangible because you can see all the parties that have a stake in the conversation and the work they’re doing. When you view the issues from a 30,000-foot distance, it’s easy to miss the work being done locally and the conversations being had between all the stakeholders.
HBO: How would you define your interviewing philosophy?
Wyatt Cenac: Mainly, don’t f**k it up.
HBO: You were a writer and correspondent for The Daily Show, which often treats its subject as the punchline. How do you see Problem Areas diverging from this model?
Wyatt Cenac: For us, because we were talking about city-specific issues and topics that I didn’t know the ins and outs of, the approach was to go in and be curious. We tried to find subjects that wanted to have conversations and engage. It wasn’t set up to mock or make the subject the “butt” of the joke. That’s not to say we couldn’t find humor there, we just found it in different ways.
HBO: Outside of your inquiry into policing, Problem Areas is also a show offering “practical solutions for everyday problems.” Do you feel there’s a segment that best achieved this mission in Season 1?
Wyatt Cenac: It’s like asking me which child is my favorite. The “Battleship” segment [for millennial housing] was one I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about. Could you turn a whole ship into some sort of apartment housing? If you were sitting next to me at a bar at the right hour, I would ramble incessantly about that.
HBO: I’m picturing you huddled over a Pinterest board for battleship decor.
Wyatt Cenac: If I could ever figure out Pinterest, I’m sure I’d have set it up by now.
HBO: There are great punchlines, but a lot of the comedy in Problem Areas comes from audio and visuals added after filming. As a performer, what was it like playing off these invisible elements?
Wyatt Cenac: It’s a lot of fun. You’re standing in front of a camera, but a lot of the performance is like doing a stand-up set. You just don’t get the immediate response from an audience to know your joke landed. For me, that all became a fun part of the challenge. You don’t necessarily know how things are going to play out.
HBO: Is it hard not getting the immediate gratification of a live audience?
Wyatt Cenac: Years ago, I did improv in Los Angeles. I remember the comedian Bob Dassie was one of the most comfortable performers I ever saw on stage. It didn’t send him into a panic to have moments of silence. He was comfortable with both silence and laughs. That always stayed with me.
HBO: So without a studio audience, who are you hoping to reach with this show and how do you get through to them?
Wyatt Cenac: This may sound self-centered, but my thought is trying to make myself laugh. So the audience that I’m thinking about is me.
How do I reach me? I don’t know. I’ve been trying for 42 years.
HBO: What are some of the problems and solutions that never made it out of the writers‘ room?
Wyatt Cenac: There was one in the writers‘ room, and that was creating a new professional sport that was focused on using trash as “the ball,” and various parts of the field. There was some version of, “Could we create a new professional sport that would somehow reuse the trash we have?” It would be something for any kid who wants to play, and they wouldn’t need to buy the equipment.
HBO: In between seasons, what problem is on your mind?
Wyatt Cenac: Right now, the biggest problem is how I’m going to spend my summer, and figuring that out.
Traveling to different parts of the country, Wyatt brings unique perspectives to systemic issues, while tackling more benign everyday inconveniences with comedic solutions.