In Conversation: Wyatt Cenac Has Some Problems to Discuss
The Problem Areas creator navigates diversity in the writers’ room, gentrification, and the surreality of modern America.
The former correspondents of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show are inescapable when it comes to podcasts and late night television. What’s equally as impressive as their ubiquity is the breadth of their perspectives. There’s the cartoonish political satire of Stephen Colbert on The Late Show, John Oliver’s unending British aghastness on Last Week Tonight, and Jessica Williams’s sisterly wit on 2 Dope Queens. The next Daily Show alum up is Wyatt Cenac, whose docuseries/talk show hybrid Problem Areas has joined Oliver and Williams in the HBO family.
After first crossing paths with Colbert as a Saturday Night Live intern who got caught in a shoving match with Norm Macdonald during a pickup soccer game, Cenac eventually had viewers latching onto him and his lackadaisical voice during his Daily Show tenure from 2008 to 2012. He arrived with an everyman persona whose surreal tinges always felt like a reaction to nutty realities; his first Daily Show segment was about how the lack of polar bears made the primaries much less interesting than Lost. Cenac personalized that sensibility in his standups: 2014’s Brooklyn found him weirded out and cackling at white people suddenly appearing in Fort Greene (“Even the white people must think, ‘Shit, this is a lot of fucking white people’”).
Overall, Cenac—who’s also made appearances on BoJack Horseman and Bob’s Burgers, in addition to starring in TBS’s sci-fi comedy People of Earth—has a sleepy tone that doesn’t quite register as a slacker’s, but more so as a middle-aged man who’d love to dream big if he could just get over his malaise. That perspective fits well with Problem Areas’ premise, which takes a pragmatic approach to how we can solve some of the country’s biggest issues. Cenac spoke with us about the goals of his new series, the ever-changing borough of Brooklyn, and whether America is just too weird now.
What would you say is the overall ethos of Problem Areas?
I think the idea with the show was to look at some of the other issues that exist in the country that aren’t just those things that are outside of our control, or that we have to wait until midterms or the 2020 election to deal with. Are there things that are going on in our present that we could actually spend some time on and attack?
What’s your biggest personal problem area?
I have a ton. Living in New York, the subway—which is the start and the end of my day—is a problem that I deal with. But beyond that, there are things that you can look at like gun control or imbalanced power dynamics in society. But if I’m gonna go with the first thing, which is probably the most trite, I’ll go subway.
You’ve spent a lot of time in Crown Heights. Eastern Parkway has sort of become the new gentrification line, with a Golden Krust on one side and a Starbucks on the other. How’s it been for you experiencing that in real time?
Since I’ve been back in New York, the neighborhood I live in [Fort Greene] has seen so much change. It was already a gentrified neighborhood, so it’s weird to see the gentrification hit a point where you have gentrification gentrifying gentrification. On top of that, when you see places like Crown Heights that seem to have resisted gentrification for so long, there are still changeovers happening. With all that stuff, there’s always going to be change—and nothing is permanent in this world. You just hope that when that change happens, it’s inclusive and not pushing people out.
Still, seeing a mainstay like Kings Plaza [a Brooklyn mall that’s been open since 1970] change so much is pretty jarring.
Everything that you see, you think about it and see it from the perspective of, “This exists as a part of my story and as a part of my connection to this place.” When it goes away, you can’t help but take it a little personally, and it feels like, “If that doesn’t matter, do I matter? If I were to disappear from this city tomorrow, would anybody notice?” I think losing some of those markers speaks to that. It’s funny when you think about New York and so many of the street names are named after Dutch settlers… There’s nothing Dutch about Brooklyn anymore.
You have a pretty diverse writing staff for Problem Areas. One of The Daily Show’s issues was not having that sort of diversity in the writers’ room. Did you feel that difference?
It’s good to have a lot of different voices and I’m really grateful that when we put together a staff, we tried to put a sense of importance on making sure we had a diverse array of voices in the room and in the building. It’s very easy to find yourself in an echo chamber. I don’t think you ever want a workplace where people aren’t learning or growing or challenging themselves and one another. I think when a workplace gets too homogeneous, a complacency sets in.
Is there a pressure to be like, “Hey, here’s what a diverse staff can do?”
“As crazy as it is right now to have a reality TV show actor as president of the United States, I would imagine that if you went back to the ’80s, they would be like, ‘It’s weird that the president of the United States is a guy who acted in movies with a monkey.’”
I don’t think there’s a pressure that we’re putting on the staff. [Laughs.] I don’t think nobody here is saying, “Alright. We’re diverse. We gotta be fucking good.” We hired people that are passionate about trying to make a good show. For me and my head writer, Hallie [Haglund], we see the passion that people have and the work that they put in. I think it’s more of that pressure. I feel like if everything is successful, then that’s when we get to take the victory lap. That’s when you can say, “This all happened thanks to diversity.”
What’s the biggest lesson you took from [executive producer] John Oliver as you made Problem Areas?
The biggest lesson from John, I think, was just making sure to do the show that feels truest to me and my voice, and not feeling a rush to force something out the door. Once the train starts rolling, it’s really easy to just become a passenger—it just starts moving without you. That’s the challenge, because ultimately—win, lose, or draw—you want to make something that feels like, “OK, I made my best version of that show. I made the show I wanted to make.” You don’t want to find yourself in a place where you’re like, “Right, but this isn’t what I wanted to do.” You’ll be left with nothing but regret in that situation.
Your comedy has a lot of surreal elements to it, but reality has been bending toward surreality with the Trump administration. Do you find yourself having to adjust your approach these days?
Not really. Things have definitely gotten a lot more bizarre, but I think that’s always been the case. As crazy as it is right now to have a reality TV show actor as president of the United States, I would imagine that if you went back to the ’80s, they would be like, “It’s weird that the president of the United States is a guy who acted in movies with a monkey.” There was so much stuff that Reagan did that I think you’ll find a lot of people of that time who’ll be like, “Oh no, it felt really surreal back then.”
Reagan was wylin’.
Yeah, so that doesn’t bother me as much. What I think about is, how do we move forward from that? The world is always going to be surreal. It’s always going to be weird and we can get caught up in talking about just how weird it is. But at some point, it’s about, how do we move past that and make sure the weirdness doesn’t overtake what we want the reality to be? FL