What does it mean to have a bullhorn in 2018 when nothing lasts long enough for reflection and everyone is shouting their opinion into the void? Are you just trying to be heard, are you trying to change minds, or are you just trying to get people talking and thinking?
With Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas (premiering on HBO tonight, Friday April 13 at 11:30 pm), the comic is the latest to venture into a new kind of late night war where hosts are fighting to find their footing in a heated national conversation while also (and sometimes secondarily) seeking laughs. It’s a hell of a challenge, but one that Cenac seems uniquely prepared to face thanks to the show’s approach.
We sat down with Cenac to discuss that approach, how his experience on The Daily Show helped to prepare him for this moment, whether he thinks he can convince the unconvinceable (and if he wants to try), and why bottom-up problem-solving (and learning from how others cope with the world’s biggest problems) is more important and more powerful than Donald Trump’s words.
The tagline for this show is “questionable solutions to unquestionable problems” but there are people in this world who don’t necessarily see a problem where most people see a problem. Such as police brutality. You see some polls where, inexplicably, a lot of people don’t think it’s a problem. Are you trying to reach those people? How do you deal with that challenge?
I think I am interested in just kind of having a conversation about this because I also think it’s… Am I trying to convince somebody that police brutality is a problem? I’m never gonna convince that person. [Laughs.] And that’s not, I don’t think, for me, the focus. I think the focus for me is getting into the nuance of the conversation that, when we talk about police brutality, there are so many aspects to it and it’s frustrating and it’s one of those things that feels impossible to overcome. And it’s just like “Okay, well we’ve just gotta deal with this.”
What was interesting to me was trying to go to different places to see: How do people find answers to things, [like] if there were a rash of police shootings in your city? How do you, as community members, as city leaders, as law enforcement… How do you come together? Because I think what we see, at least in the national conversation, is we see a police shooting happen, a black person gets killed by police in X city, everyone’s upset. And then another headline kind of draws our attention away and we go off to that other headline. The people in X city, they have to reckon with this, they have to figure it out. They’ve gotta do whatever they gotta do to make this work.
What if you looked at those stories and looked at those stories in a way that… is what’s happening here something that could be replicated somewhere else? Is what is going on here something that has value and benefit someplace else? And so it’s not really about changing anyone’s mind as much as it is showing people that something is possible.
If you watch a cooking show or a home improvement show, you watch one of those things and it’s like “Oh, I just learned how to make a dining table.” Maybe I’ll make a dining table… or not. But I saw, like, “Oh, it’s actually easier than I thought.” I think there are some people in the world who would then say, “Okay, I’m gonna go out and I’m gonna buy some tools and I’m gonna make a dining room table.” What’s interesting about doing something like this, is that I’m not trying to tell people to go make dining rooms tables. But if you show people the possibilities of something…
Doing this and going through this process, it was like, “Oh wow, that’s a really interesting thing that that city does. Why couldn’t that happen here in New York? Why couldn’t we do that?” And I think it’s that curiosity that drove both in the inception of this and then in the development and ultimately, hopefully, in the finished product that people see when they watch.