With his new HBO series Problem Areas, comedian Wyatt Cenac becomes the latest in a succession of Daily Show alumni to topline a late-night series of their own. Stephen Colbert has The Late Show, John Oliver—a Problem Areas executive producer—has Last Week Tonight, Samantha Bee has Full Frontal, and soon, Michelle Wolf and Hasan Minhaj will debut projects on Netflix. Cenac’s public relationship with The Daily Show has been more fraught than some of his former colleagues’, but Problem Areas fits well within a tradition that’s since disseminated throughout popular culture, applying satire and sarcasm to serious topics while still communicating their gravity.
A template as rigid as late night makes even minor changes stand out, but Cenac’s ambitions make for a particularly stark contrast with other shows’ multi-tasking, variety-show approach. Every field segment from each of Problem Area’s ten first-season episodes will focus on a single subject: policing in America. Cenac himself travels from St. Paul to Skid Row to report on various facets of one very large problem, starting with initiatives to reform departments’ hiring practices. The result is in the spirit of both Oliver’s wonkiness and fellow EP Ezra Edelman’s long-form documentary experience, with a laconic delivery that’s all Cenac, who also serves as the resident straight man on TBS’s alien sitcom People of Earth.
Problem Areas fleshes out its reporting with input from a diverse roster of talking heads, including politicians, activists, and even the occasional law enforcement officer. Unlike The Daily Show, however, Problem Areas doesn’t use its interviews to mock the subject (though Cenac occasionally provides snarky in-studio commentary). Instead, the show strives for that rarest of occurrences in a medium that’s long on polemic and short on nuance: a genuine conversation. Earlier this week, Cenac spoke with The Ringer about putting his own stamp on late night, keeping his ego in check, and getting his inspiration from Serial.
There are a lot of late-night shows, especially topical late-night shows, on TV right now. Is that something you think about when you’re planning your own entry into the late night landscape?
To a certain degree, but it also is one of those things where the landscape of television is bigger. I think as television has evolved, it seems like the appetite for late-night television has evolved and has changed from what it was when it was only, you know, Johnny Carson and Leno and Letterman. There was a time when there wasn’t room for a lot of people, and now it feels like we live in a world where there can be room for a lot of people, in the same way there wasn’t room for more than three networks, and now we have so many television networks and so many television shows. It feels like this evolution is just keeping in line with what is trending in television and entertainment on the whole.
John Oliver and Ezra Edelman are both executive producers. Could you talk about their involvement in the show?
They both served as really great sounding boards for me and for Hallie starting out. John and his head writer, Tim Carvell, they have the experience of having built a show before. So for us, to be able to ask them questions and be able to see from them and hear from them as far as what pitfalls they avoided, or even stumbled into, and want to share with us to avoid. They were great for that. John especially—we do the show in Brooklyn and he’s in the city, so there wasn’t a day-to-day connection that we had. Which is nice, because as we got to certain stages and were talking about things, here’s a person who I know and I respect, and is an incredibly funny and smart and talented individual who I can have conversations with, and can have come by the office if there’s stages where it’s like, “I’m curious, let’s talk you through something and see if it tracks, because we’ve been living with it for the last month and we think it makes sense, but we just want an outside eye who doesn’t have the same level of connection to it.”
With Ezra, the field aspect of this show—it’s different than how making a field piece on The Daily Show was for me. Having someone like Ezra, who has documentary experience and an amazing resumé, whether it was working on Real Sports to making a documentary Magic & Bird where he goes to Flatbush or OJ, he is well-versed in that world. What it felt like we were making was something between a field piece and a 200-minute documentary. Being able to, again, have another person who has built things and built documentaries, it was another good voice that I could turn to and say, “What are the traps that you avoided? Stylistically, we’re thinking about this. Are there things we’re not thinking about that we need to consider?” They both were really amazing sounding boards.
I read that all 10 of this season’s field segments will focus on some aspect of policing. Was that planned in advance?
Yes. That was something in the approach that was big for me. Part of that came from seeing an appetite for that in other things. A show that I looked at as a little bit of inspiration was actually a podcast. It was Serial. Watching—not watching, but listening to that, and hearing that podcast not only as a listener, but also seeing how engaged people got with trying to uncover Adnan’s case. You had stories of people going out to the forest and doing stuff, and you saw it again with S-Town. It kind of let me believe that there is an audience for something that is, while it’s a different thing—it’s not like a serialized TV show, it’s not like Scandal or anything like that—it’s a real story with real-life implications, and people seemed invested in and connected to it. So I found myself asking the question, Well, if they’re invested and connected in that way, could you make a show that wanted a similar investment in storytelling around real social issues and topics that we discuss that the news cycle tends to chew up and regurgitate really quickly?
There are obviously many reasons to be interested in policing right now, but what drew you to that particular topic?
When we first started talking about the show and topics, Hallie Haglund, who’s the head writer and executive producer of the show, she and I were initially batting around a few different ideas of things that we wanted to talk about, that we thought, “Is this something we can talk about over the course of a season?” Policing was one, and there was some initial, “I’m not sure if we can do this because this feels like a lot, and there’s obviously a lot of different people who have talked about it. How do we approach it?” I give a lot of credit to HBO and to Nina Rosenstein that they were really supportive and felt like, “Oh, that would be an interesting and exciting topic for you all to do with the show.” And the challenges of it, not see them as challenges that frustrate, but to see them as challenges that could be exciting, and have different conversations about the approach, the topics within policing that we look to cover.
It’s very early on, but do you have any concept of what other topics you’d like to cover?
We’ve honestly just said, “Let’s just get through the first season.” [Laughs.] Because I think to some degree, the viewers will help dictate that. We’ve talked about, as we’ve rolled the show out, wanting to have some kind of connection online with viewers, some sort of engagement. I think there will be that space. With 10 episodes, we’re not gonna tell every story of policing there is. And we may come out of that saying, “Why don’t we tell another 10?” Or we may say, “Let’s talk about something else.” On some level, I think viewer engagement will help to nudge that conversation in some ways. For me, I’m more curious and looking forward to, once the show is out there, let’s see what that feels like. Then once we get a sense of that, we can start having a conversation about what we want to tackle with a Season 2.
How do you go about choosing your talking heads? Some of the subjects, like Bill de Blasio, are more typical suspects for a liberal-leaning HBO show, but you also talk to a white guy who teaches criminal justice.
We definitely wanted to put some real consideration into who we spoke to. I have to give a lot of credit to the researchers who work on the show, and the writers as well, for bringing forward people, whether it was in the early stages as we were just talking about things and presenting ideas to a room of people. Then once we decided to sit down and interview people, or even just bring people in who could talk to us a little bit more about the subject, the researchers really did an amazing job. I think I would be remiss if I didn’t just name check them personally: Justin Ellis, Alissa Wickham, Matt Williams, and Tammy Kim. The work that they did in presenting the voices that they brought, there was a lot of thoughtfulness that went into that process.
It is my face that is on the bus ads, but I think what the show has become, in its evolution from our first days in the office to what actually gets put on air, those voices of those people—the writers, the researchers, the producers—they really are a part of that evolution. It was not me sitting on high shouting out demands. Not to say that I didn’t do that from time to time, because when you get the opportunity to sit on high, you gotta take it. But their voices and their input were crucial to doing this in a way that I could feel proud of, and that hopefully they feel proud of.
In the test show sent out to critics, you bring up “clapter” while explaining why there’s no studio audience. Was avoiding that a motivation for not having one?
It was part of it. I definitely thought that making a television show, and making a show for people to watch on television, when you have a studio audience, you kind of want to present a couple options. They either serve as a cue for people to know, “OK, this is funny,” or “This is sad,” or “This is infuriating.” They provide that audio cue. Or they’re there to show that they were witnesses to something magical, and you as the person watching it at home are seeing something you didn’t get to be a part of, and you want to then be a part of that. That, for me, was my creative thought with an audience.
With this, because of the nature of the subject matter, I felt like I don’t necessarily want people to have audio cues. I want to let people feel what they feel. It’s some sensitive stuff, so let them make the decision on how they want to engage with it—if they want to laugh or be sad or be frustrated, let them make that decision, and let them have that as their own thing. That definitely played a role. For me, too, having made two seasons of a stand-up show on Seeso, I think some of that came out of that experience, how I chose to film the audience for those shows. It felt like, when we shot those, we had cameras on the audience because the audience, whether you show them or not, they are characters in the show. This felt like, “Maybe I don’t need those characters.”
Is it weird to do a monologue to a relatively empty studio?
It’s always weird to stare down the barrel of a camera. That doesn’t get any less weird, whether there are people in the room laughing or not. What’s strange is to do it and then it just goes out into the world. For me, I’ve written many jokes that I have rehearsed over and over again in the silence of my living room, trying to get the timing right, trying to get the cadence right. So on some level, there’s a little bit of that—it doesn’t feel that different than doing something in my living room. And maybe it’s better for my ego that I don’t get the immediate response of people laughing and clapping. Maybe, in some ways, not getting that doesn’t overinflate what may already be an inflated ego.