“Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas” just wrapped its first season last Friday, and HBO has already renewed the late-night documentary series for a second season. The show debuted earlier this spring, with the eponymous former “Daily Show” corespondent and writer sitting in the host’s seat. Each week, the show seeks to address different problems and issues society faces that viewers may not be fully informed about, while providing possible solutions at the same time.
Cenac, the show’s host and creator, spoke with Variety about putting the show together, the stresses in formulating solutions, and helping the audience digest the complex problems facing the world today.
One of the things I noticed watching “Problem Areas” is that it sort of has a VICE feel to it. I know you worked as a corespondent on “The Daily Show,” but did you have any sort of journalism experience before starting “Problem Areas?”
I had no experience. When I was in college I walked by the journalism school every day on my way to my own classes, and that’s the closest I’ve come to having any sort of journalism background. I think what we did when we started building this show was we wanted to make sure we had people with journalism backgrounds to help us to make sure that, as we’re telling these stories, we’re telling them in the best way possible. Obviously having someone like Ezra Edelman as an executive producer and sounding board was mentally helpful and we’re grateful to him, just with his experience making documentaries and shows like “Real Sports” for HBO. While I don’t have a journalism degree, I tried through osmosis to kind of cobble together something that could maybe let me pass off as seeming like I knew what I was doing.
Well, you certainly seemed like a natural during your interviews.
Thank you, I really appreciate that. I think also part of working on a show like “The Daily Show,” so much of the job was either interviewing people or also consuming a lot of journalism. Whatever I did was done from learning by watching things on television and then obviously working with the staff we have here on the show.
Were you nervous or anxious when you went into your first interview?
I don’t know if nervous would describe it. There’s always a certain concern whenever you go and shoot a field piece; that maybe all the elements won’t come together, knowing that you have limited time to tell a story, hoping that you get all the elements you need, hoping the subjects are comfortable. There are so many other things that end up, at least for me, taking over as concerns. If I am nervous, I don’t know because I don’t have time to really engage with that feeling.
Something I noticed about “Problem Areas” that makes it different from other late-night show formats is that you don’t sit behind a desk and give a monologue-style lecture about each issue. Instead you go out and walk with your subjects and make them the focus of the segment, why did you choose this method for the show?
For me, in trying to talk about something like policing, it’s such a huge issue and it’s an issue that’s very local and very personalized to communities, to cities, to legislators, and so in that way, I think as we started looking into talking about policing, the thing that you realize is that you can’t paint everything with the same brush. The issues in a small town that they have with policing aren’t necessarily the issues that a big city has. With that in mind, it felt like it wouldn’t be one of those things where I could take in all the information and then say here’s the answer, it should be like this. It felt like, OK, the people who are front and center in these conversations seem like they need to be the ones telling this story and, in many ways, informing me.
Do you think there’s a benefit for the audience, too, in being able to hear these perspectives? The sort-of gag about the former Seattle police chief talking directly to the camera about decriminalizing all drugs comes to mind.
I don’t know, I think that’s the experiment of what we’re doing. If it does have an impact, that’s great. I don’t think that’s for us the focus we have with the show. I think that’s one of those things that’s too difficult to even track and put a finger on if an audience is getting those things and if they’re taking those things in and if they’re feeling things in those ways. That’s really difficult to try and quantify and figure out. I think, for us, it’s just making sure we’re making the best show that we can and putting these stories front and center in ways that I think are interesting and entertaining and informative.
What’s the challenge in presenting these stories? In presenting your subjects’ exact words, is there ever a worry that you aren’t presenting their points together correctly when you’re putting the show together?
I would imagine that’s always a challenge with everything that has its roots in documentary. And so, yeah, the challenge going in is making sure you are getting information from these subjects, that the information they’re getting is both true to them and also factually correct. In any of those situations, that’s something that you walk in feeling like you have to have, because you don’t want to put out fiction if what you’re trying to do is present truths.
So you go through addressing things like tech waste, automation, and private companies wanting to go into space. Was there any problem area for you that was difficult to either interview people about or try to wrap your head around?
They were all challenging. I think because we ultimately got on the other side of them, we accomplished what we set out to do with so many of the stories, whether it was a season-long arc or any of the top-of-show stories, whether that was looking at space exploration or UBI or banking deserts or sanctuary farms. They’re all fascinating and it feels like there’s even more we could dig in on any of those things, or even with the season-long subject. There’s a lot there, and if there was any challenge, it was telling these stories and distilling them into stories that were focused.
There’s a segment on your show called “A Modest Proposal,” where it’s your turn to provide answers to issues society faces. What are some of the thought processes behind these answers? Some of them are based on actual solutions, but for some stuff, like the housing on battleships, were those things you came up with on your own?
Those are kind of the weird conversations that are being had when we’re not focused on other aspects of the show, where we’re talking about our own frustrations and thinking, “oh, could this be a way to solve a problem?” The battleships one is something that I have thought about for a long time, just in thinking about housing for young people that could also double as maker studios. It’s something that’s been in my brain for a little while, and I am grateful that HBO gave me a show that could let me indulge in that weird thought that I’d had. That came out of that, but then with the other ideas, they were really born out of us talking and writers and the researchers talking and throwing around silly ideas of things we wish were different, things we thought could make the world a slightly easier or weirder place to live.
It sort of continues with the shade of optimism “Problem Areas” always seems to have. How difficult is it to keep that optimism up when you’re addressing things like policing for an entire season?
I don’t think anything worth doing has an easy solution. To some degree, if it comes off as optimism, that’s great. I think there’s a pragmatism to it that’s anything that’s big, anything that is institutional, anything that involves money and capitalism, anything that involves legislation and politics; changing it is never going to be easy. It’s never going to be, “OK we’re going to wake up tomorrow and everything will be fixed.” It’s always going to require effort and it’s probably going to require more effort than you even realized when you walked in the door. With that in mind, for me I think what when you accept that, you can move from that as your starting point and then your starting point is, “OK, I know this is going to take a lot of work so now let’s dig into what that work looks like.”
When you were formatting the episodes and figuring out what the show was going to look like, why did you decide to make policing a season-long arc rather than focusing an entire episode on it or just making it the sole problem area for the season?
When we were talking about the show and building it out, it felt like we want to make a topical show and there are smaller stories that it felt like are worth talking about that maybe aren’t getting the type of attention because of the 24-hour news cycle. There’s stories that are getting overlooked and so, in that way, we wanted to try and do something like that. It also felt like we wanted to do stories that often times get chewed up in the news cycle, and policing stories are definitely stories that get chewed up. And it feels like they’re stories that tend to be longer and tend to have more consequences and more realities than a couple days of coverage gives them. In that way, I think for us, it was about doing things that were a little bit outside the news cycle. They may fall in line with the news cycle at times, but it really was about trying to find those stories that were getting chewed up and not really digested.
How do you go about finding these smaller issues?
A lot of credit goes to the researchers and the writers and the producers. We really were fortunate to get an amazing group of folks for the research team; they have journalism backgrounds and they will dig up interesting stories for us. We have writers who are engaged that will present ideas and pitch things. We have producers who bring stories to the table as well for the field pieces. I think with all these topics, it really came out of people pitching and trying to create a collaborative work environment where everyone could throw out ideas and we could figure out which ideas felt right for the show and right for the season.
So “Problem Areas” has been renewed for another season. Are there any topics or ideas that you personally would like to look into?
I do, but my plan is to take a week, clear my head, catch up on some sleep, respond to a few emails. A little later in the summer, I’ll start thinking about what those things are that are sticking in my craw that I might want to talk about in Season 2.