“It felt like we could talk about Trump and the presidency, but a lot of people do that,” Cenac says about his new series, Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas. “Unless you have some damning video of that guy beating a baby seal while screaming the word n---er over and over again… even then I don’t think he’d get impeached.”
Problem Areas, produced by John Oliver and premiering Friday night, finds Cenac traveling the country over the course of 10 episodes to explore different topics having to do with the effects of police on society, ranging from how officers are hired and trained to how they interact with the homeless and the transgender population.
Each episode culminates in a field segment, but begins with Cenac addressing the camera in his own casual style from a studio reminiscent of a ’70s public-access series, riffing on something topical tied to the week’s news.
“I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to talk about Donald Trump and how we’re all fucked, but you all already know that,” he says in the premiere. In a test episode shown to journalists, he instead rails about the implications of Elon Musk’s rich-man pursuit of launching a Tesla into space.
“There are so many other institutional, structural issues that one, are worth talking about that actually Trump doesn’t have any hand on and oversight of,” Cenac tells The Daily Beast.
Take policing, for example.
“Like, he didn’t fuck up Ferguson, he says. “He maybe said awful shit about it. But it’s like what fucked-up policing in this city or that city and how does it get fixed? He’s got nothing to do with that. I’m more interested in talking about that, because at some point he becomes this weird straw man for all the problems in this country. In a weird way it gives all the real perpetrators of these problems cover.”
In the HBO offices the week before his show premieres, Cenac is wearing a handmade cardigan with the face of Malcolm X on the back—he’s also got one featuring Obama—and speaking in his signature style, which is to say long-winded, but deliberate. He has a way of answering questions that ambles and meanders to the extent that you can’t remember if it’s you or he who lost the point, but he reliably brings the monologue back home with striking emotional resonance.
You go back through the transcript of a seven-minute answer to a question, which travels through everything from his father’s murder to his high school track career to police reform, and you’re struck by how much he reveals about himself and the astuteness of his observations about the state of the country.
Friday night’s Problem Areas premiere focuses on the fallacy that the spate of police shootings, largely of unarmed black men, is owed to a lack of police training or negligence in hiring practices.
The headline about a police officer killing an unarmed black man “has lived longer than the unarmed black man on it,” Cenac says in the series. He talks to experts about how, because the country’s police forces are so highly decentralized—there are more than 17,000 precincts—it is impossible to institute standards, of training or otherwise. The training that does happen promotes “warrior mindsets” that, the segment alleges, scares cops into, well, being scared of the citizens they are policing.
Much of Cenac’s reporting in the segment takes place in St. Paul, Minnesota, near where Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer during an ordinary traffic stop.
Just mentioning the Castile shooting to Cenac surfaces an entire biography of alternately painful and frightening personal memories about his and his family’s connection to policing and gun violence.
When he was 19, he was arrested for inciting a riot. “You’ll ask what entails inciting a riot,” he says. “It was telling a mall cop to fuck off.” Every time he sees a story about police-related deaths, “it creates a touchstone to an aspect of my life,” he says.
Just recently he and a friend named Derek were driving through Culver City in Los Angeles in a white pickup truck with tinted windows when they got pulled over. Cenac could see the cop trembling, he says, as he asked for the car’s license and registration. They had to “do the thing of the big slow gesture,” he says, reaching for the glove compartment while slowly narrating their every move to the skittish officer—all for no reason other than driving through Culver City at 10 p.m.
Cenac and Derek moved to Los Angeles together in 1999. It was déjà vu.
“It’s the weird, look at us now 20 years later,” he says. “He’s got a daughter in college. He’s doing well for himself. I’m staying off the pipe.” (That’s a joke.) “But it was this very weird thing of like 20 years later, regardless of what we had accomplished in our lives—not even in an arrogant way. I’ve won trophies for things. I can get seated at a restaurant slightly faster than most people. And to be kind of like kicked back to this, oh no, this is just like 20 years ago, being 21 years old being pulled over for the same fucking bullshit. We’ve aged. We’ve matured. The system has not matured with us.”
But it’s not just his own experiences. He remembers a panic when his brother’s then-fiancée called to say that he had been arrested over outstanding traffic tickets during a traffic stop. When Cenac was 5 years old, his father, who was a New York City cab driver, was shot and killed by a teenage passenger in Harlem. Those personal stories inherently inform his segments on Problem Areas.
“We talk about even the criminal justice system and what that looks like for both wanting justice from law enforcement in situations like that, but also recognizing that the justice system doesn’t necessarily work for the people who are arrested or the people who have crimes committed against them,” he says.
And while Problem Areas will tackle myriad issues, he is aware, too, that because he’s a black man talking about policing, some viewers might expect a single-minded perspective from which he comes to the conversations.
“I can think back to my time on The Daily Show,” he says. (Cenac was a correspondent on the series from 2008-2012, notoriously leaving after a heated argument he had with Jon Stewart.)
“I would get stopped by people on the street and they would be like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re the Senior Black Correspondent!’” he continues. “That was never my title on the show. I was a correspondent. Larry Wilmore had a bit that he did as the Senior Black Correspondent, and that was his thing. But me, even if I was telling a story about what was going on in the Middle East, through people’s eyes they saw it as ‘Oh, it’s the Senior Black Correspondent talking about Middle East Policy.’ So there’s always going to be that expectation and that thing I can’t control.”
In telling the stories examined in Problem Areas, he says he made a conscious effort to not adopt that mindset himself, “to not solely personalize the conversation around policing as just a black man’s perspective on policing.”
“Women deal with real issues with policing that don’t really get talked about,” he says. “Sexual misconduct and assault by police officers is a real thing that happens much more than people want to talk about or give credit to. Policing of the disabled and how many deaf people get shot by cops is sort of insane. And it’s not talked about.”
He concludes with what’s become the Problem Areas mission statement: “I think it creates this thing of like, oh, right, we all have a stake in this.”
When an HBO publicist pokes her head into the room to warn me that our time is nearly up, we remark on how, for all the ground we covered and topics we discussed, how few questions I had actually asked. “I tend to run on…” he apologizes, laughing.
But that’s the unique thing about this show. Late-night hosts tend to have a manic energy. They’re fast-talking people, joking through a dizzying array of topics in a short amount of time. Suffice it to say, that’s not Cenac’s approach to the genre—“I can’t be manic without it feeling false to me”—and it’s that distinct speed that might actually get audiences to process these topics in different ways.
“Some of that was trying to do something that maybe didn’t create the expectation that, ‘OK, yeah, he’s in a suit, he’s at a Lucite desk, I’m expecting this to be that manic thing,’” he says. “Hopefully by changing that approach, that will draw people in. They’ll be open to seeing how I do things in my way.”
He starts chuckling to himself: “Also the fact that we’re on Friday at 11:30, I think by that point people are probably stoned. High Maintenance is what we’re succeeding in that time slot. People might have the expectation that they can get stoned.”