When Wyatt Cenac left The Daily Show at the end of 2012, nothing seemed awry. Plenty of comic talents passed through the show for greener pastures, so it would take three years and a Marc Maron sit-down to bring out the truth: Cenac’s departure was more acrimonious than it seemed, a result of a heated racial exchange with his then-boss Jon Stewart. In the intervening years, Cenac returned to stand-up with his acclaimed Night Train show in Brooklyn; he acted in intriguing, shoestring-budget indies; and he even created a webseries about his superhero alter ego. He did a lot, and beneath the surface of each project, it seemed Cenac had more to offer. An astute comic potential waiting to be tapped.
Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, which premiered last Friday on HBO, is that endeavor. It’s a late-night program dissimilar to anything else on television: For ten episodes, Cenac and his vocationally eclectic team (including filmmaker Ezra Edelman, comedian Hallie Haglund, and journalist Emma Carmichael) hope to create a dialogue about policing in America. Much of the language on this polarizing subject is about the desire to communicate with people who think differently. If the pilot is any indicator, Problem Areas — with its snappy graphics, low-fi hip-hop instrumentals, and punchy one-liners — is that conversation.
When I spoke with Cenac by phone, he was trapped in his office after several rounds of press. He spoke candidly on the mission statement of his new show, his wild idea for future presidential debates, and what — if any — responsibility he has with this new platform on HBO.
In thinking about your body of work, I was surprised by the premiere of Problem Areas. It came across as vaguely earnest.
The thought with entering the late-night space was, “If I’m going to be in this space, what is it that personally I want to do?” I felt like I’d spent five years railing against 24-hour news networks and Fox News and hypocritical politicians. It can become very exhausting, because a year in, two years in, three years in, you feel like you’re yelling at the same people, and in many cases you are yelling at and about the same people. There’s a certain level of hopelessness that you feel, so in approaching this show I thought, “Is there something I would want to talk about topically, but from an approach that doesn’t give me that same feeling of burnout and exhaustion and futility? What if you focus on actually trying to do shit? And what does that look like?”
If it came off as earnest, I’m sorry, and I mean that earnestly. [Laughs.]
You don’t have to apologize. By “earnest,” perhaps I meant “not entirely doom and gloom.” This whole season is about policing in America. Do you think people in 2018 are willing to have an honest conversation about this subject?
When you get it out of the polarized place that it’s in, I think so. And to me, what’s been interesting about going to all the cities that we travel to is that you see there’s more common ground than the national conversation will present. When you get people in those situations where you’re just talking and it’s personalized and not sensationalized, I’ve been surprised by how much common ground there is. And not in a way that’s like, everybody is going to hold hands and automatically get along. It’s amazing to talk with police officers where they recognize broken-windows-style policing isn’t something that they want to engage in. They’ll talk about why it makes their job harder and it doesn’t actually benefit them or the society that they’ve been entrusted to protect. I think you have to get into the nuance of it to even begin to have any real conversation about it.
The nuance is the detailed work, though, and it reminds of this bit you had about Derek Jeter. He received 1 million votes to play in the MLB All-Star Game, while Michael Bloomberg, running for mayor, only received half-a-million votes. Then you say, “New York City has 8 million people and most just forgot to vote.” This could describe our last presidential election. Do you think the biggest hurdle for us is laziness, ignorance, or just forgetfulness?
I don’t think it’s laziness or forgetfulness. I think the reality is that the system constructed is frustrating to people. That joke was talking about how we vote in November, and how it’s an antiquated thing that we did for farmers who aren’t even alive anymore. And you know, we vote on a Tuesday. Voting could be a week-long thing. We could stretch the voting process out from Sunday to Sunday at a time that’s more reasonable for people. There’s so much that we can do with technology, but we still go back to the same antiquated ways to vote. It’s depressing when it’s easier to vote for the All-Star Game because you can do it on your phone. That’s why so many people can vote for American Idol or reality-television stars. What’s sad is that we can have a reality-television performer for president, without incorporating the other aspects of reality television — like voting and voter engagement.
We should just adopt it all.
Maybe! It’d be a different turnout if all the candidates for president — instead of having a debate where they just regurgitate talking points — they just had to eat a six-foot-long piece of sushi, where every foot had a wasabi chunk. I mean, people would definitely watch that debate.
Imagine the ratings.
The sad reality is that we have focused more on ratings than we have on voter engagement and public engagement. Imagine if we took the same market research that we put into making the best ad for a candidate, [but put it] into actually engaging with the public. Engaging with the public also means being responsive to the public. If you have a car, you tune it up, you replace the parts. You try to keep it in good shape. This country has tires that are shot, a bunch of engine problems, and rather than saying, “Okay, let’s maybe put some new parts in here,” we just keep putting gas in and driving forward.
It feels more like we’re driving in place. To make any progress, do you think you’ll have to engage those who politically disagree with you? Namely, the Republican base.
Look, America is an apartment where we have millions of roommates. The chore wheel comes up and we all got to figure out how to do those chores. There’s no moving to Canada, there’s no waiting for people to die, there’s none of that shit. I think that engagement is local engagement. And while we do have millions and millions of people in this country, it’s not on any one person to change anyone’s mind or to try to get people to be more empathetic. It’s everyone sharing the load, and I think that’s always the way it’s been. If you go into the conversation with respect, it doesn’t have to be a shouting match. It doesn’t have to be a pissing contest. It can just be a couple of people hopefully being curious and learning a little more about a perspective they maybe hadn’t fully considered.
Jon Stewart was often asked, “What is your responsibility to the public? Are you a comedian or a journalist?” Aside from just that, what was your headspace going into this show? Do you feel responsibility here?
I’ve never been to journalism school. I walked past it a bunch when I was in college. That said, I have journalists who work on the show, and they work very hard to make sure that the stories we’re telling are accurate and well-researched and in-depth and compelling. It would be unfair to them for me to say that there isn’t a level of journalism that we incorporate in making a show like this. That said, it’s also a TV show, and it is entertainment. I’m a comedian, so I need to try to make stuff funny. The idea of a television show is to get people to continue to watch. I need to think about the business side of things and I need to think about the fact that I’m on HBO, which is a network that sets a high bar for the type of programming that they put out.
But when it gets to whatever responsibility I feel that I have, I was talking to somebody last week because there was a police shooting in Crown Heights. A man was holding up a metal pipe that officers mistook for a gun and killed him. In the past when there have been police shootings — when I didn’t have a show and I felt frustrated and I felt angry — I wanted to talk about this. Whatever gift I have, it appears to be the gift to say something ironic and maybe funny and pointed in a way that’s different than somebody else. Eventually I turned to Twitter, which is a thing that I never really engaged with, and I found myself thinking about, “In the aftermath of this tragedy, what can I tweet that I can say that’s going to be something of import?” And there was never anything. There’s nothing I could tweet. There’s this Erykah Badu song, “Twinkle,” and at the very end of it, she has an actor reread Howard Beale’s speech from Network, which is an amazing speech. That was the best I could do.
Now I have a television show, and if there’s a responsibility, it’s that the me of a few years ago — the me that angrily sat there, not knowing what to say after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s deaths — I have a platform that guy didn’t have. And so maybe I can use the platform to have conversations about things that did infuriate me or did frustrate me or that I did have questions about. It would be easy to make The Apprentice. That’s an easy show to make, but what am I saying with that? If I’m going to put all this time and energy into making a thing, if I’m going to ask all this time and energy of the people who have chosen to work in this building with me on this, then maybe I have a responsibility to do something more than The Apprentice.
That’s a pretty low bar.
It’s a low bar.
You know, it seems like you’re a little skeptical of my intentions.
[Laughs.] I spent almost five years interviewing people for a TV show. Sometimes they thought they were in on the joke, and then we’d go and we’d cut it up and didn’t realize what we were doing. I think on some level …
There’s a chance I’m making fun of you?
I don’t know about that, but the minute I agree to do press, I recognize that I open myself up for it to be interpreted and incorporated into a narrative that you have control over. I accept that. Although that’s not to say that I don’t go in with some level of skepticism. Whether that’s a press interview, a job interview, or meeting a waiter, I think there’s always a level of skepticism. If you go to a restaurant and you ask the waiter, “What do you think is good?” and they’re like, “Oh, you know, I think the beef stroganoff is great,” there’s a part of you that’s putting trust in this person’s hands. You don’t know if the waiter is just telling you that because they got a bunch of beef stroganoff they’ve got to move or if the waiter really believes that. The thing that anyone hopes for is that if they’re misunderstood, they get a second opportunity to try to be understood, and that people will want to fuck with them and engage with them in a way that allows them to be understood.
It’s just funny because with Problem Areas, you’re the waiter giving the recommendation.
But am I giving a recommendation, or am I just showing you the menu?
You’re doing some kind of presentation, so people do have to trust you.
Yeah, I’ll give you that, but it’s also TV. I’m not trying to walk away from responsibility or anything like that, but I think there’s a bunch of people on TV who get trust simply for being on TV.
This may be too sincere of a question, so if it is, you can just tell me to shut up.
I’ll just hang up the phone. If it’s too sincere, I’ll hang up the phone.
Earlier, when were talking about the shooting of Alton Sterling, you said that perhaps speaking pointedly and ironically is a “gift” you possess. Do you think the show you’re doing now, six years removed from The Daily Show, is what you’re meant to do?
Here’s what I will say. For me, this show feels like a culmination of a lot of things that I have done throughout my career that I’m getting to put in one place. I have worked in animation on King of the Hill, I’ve worked in late night with The Daily Show, I’ve worked on single-camera stuff whether it was a movie or television, I have performed onstage. In putting this show together, I can’t say whether it’s the thing I was meant to do. What I can say is it feels like a collage of all of the things that I’ve done to this point in my career. It’s those things coming together in a way that I hope resonates with audiences, and that is interesting to people, and provides me the opportunity to keep doing it for as long as myself and the people in this building want to continue to do it.
Are you happy?
In general? In life? With my hair-care products?
That’s for you to say.
I mean, I’ll answer your question with a question: What is happiness? I feel like this is the part where the interview is like, “And then the two of them got really stoned and passed out on the beach. They were in different cities, so it was different beaches, but they were connected through Jung’s collective unconscious.”
The people reading this probably don’t care about my happiness, but I’m doing fine these days.
You don’t know, man. You don’t know. They might. I think when the seven people who write in the comments of this article, obviously three of them will be about “How I made $100 in a week and you can too through some online internet scam.” Three of them will be that. And then at least one of those four will be someone saying, “You know what, I care if Sam’s happy.” But the other three will be like, “I don’t give a shit about that dude’s feelings.”
I should have followed all that up with, “Did you understand?” Just one more callback to the understand joke. And I didn’t.
How much self-doubt is in each answer you’re giving?
I don’t know if its self-doubt. I know that I meander, so sometimes I find myself making sure that I get back on the track, but then I’m always looking to see if there’s a joke. I’m stuck in an office all day. I don’t get to get in front of people and tell jokes as much, and the people in the building are sick of my jokes. You’ve got to get the laugh where you can. They don’t like Uncle WyWy’s goofy pranks.
You made me laugh at least seven times, so that’s something.
There are comments on some of my stand-up specials that are that exact same review. “Hour-long special, it made me laugh seven times.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.