‘Let’s Keep This a Casual Enough Conversation That We Can Find the Humor in Things’

Wyatt Cenac talks about making a comedy show with a conscience, and why “cancel culture” doesn’t work anymore.

“If we were on a network that had commercial breaks, it might be more challenging to do something like this. Especially if we ran on a network that didn’t let me curse.” (Dia Dipasupil / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic)

Wyatt Cenac’s HBO show, Problem Areas, is funny—but it doesn’t do traditional comedy. Yes, it has an opening monologue with jokes. Yes, it has Cenac’s stand-up-esque, laid-back vibe. But, in many ways, Cenac veers closer to doing the news than in the parodies he did as a Daily Show correspondent.

Where Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and decades of anchors on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update have used newsy formats primarily as a means for delivering jokes, Cenac uses jokes as a way to attract audiences to journalism, in the vein of John Oliver and Samantha Bee. The bulk of his show is spent on deeply reported episodes that examine thorny issues in American society: Season 1 focused on policing; Season 2, which is out now, looks at education.

I spoke with Cenac about the show, the #MeToo movement, and “cancel culture.” Our conversation is lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Lizzie O’Leary: I want to start with this description that GQ had about the show. They describe it as a “grown-up, slightly stoned Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood.” How does that land with you?

Wyatt Cenac: I got no problem with that. That seems like good company to be in. And as long as I’m not the one who has to actually provide the weed, then yeah, it seems like great company to be in.

O’Leary: It strikes me that you somehow figured out how to get HBO to actually pay for the kind of policy journalism that isn’t getting paid for in newsrooms. How did you pull that off?

Cenac: I wish I knew. I think a lot of credit has to go to the executives at HBO for getting behind this idea and really championing [it]. When I brought it to them, I think it was something that, as an idea to me, felt interesting—to try to think about the local aspects of the national conversations we have, whether that’s something like policing or like education.

If we were on a network that had commercial breaks, it might be more challenging to do something like this. Especially if we ran on a network that didn’t let me curse.

O’Leary: The flip side of that is that you are looking at things not as a journalist, but as a comedian. In the second episode of this season, you devote a lot of time to the physical feel—the [bodily] experience—of going to school in a policed environment. And that is something that maybe someone who had spent 10 years covering education would zip past, because they are used to it. Why did you focus on that very physical experience of, This is what going to school and going through a metal detector feels like?

Cenac: A lot of that came from this idea of school safety and just hearing people talk about, “Well, we should arm teachers, and we should put more cops in schools, and we should do this.” And learning that the business of school safety is, I believe, a $3 billion business.

There are expos that happen every year … [Vox] went to one of those expos, and they had photographs from it. It’s a little alarming to see a hotel ballroom converted into a place where they’re offering up the latest in technology to basically put down a kid—a kid who is coming in with a weapon, but still a kid.

And so I think [we’re] seeing all that, but also thinking, Okay, but these things already exist in some schools, they exist in certain neighborhoods, and hearing people talk about the fact that [they] go to school and have to wait an hour on a cold day to go through a metal detector. Because I haven’t spent 10 years covering it, when I’m talking to people, I’m trying to learn as much as I can. If I’m hearing something, or the people who work on the show are hearing things, we’re kind of zeroing in on [them] like, As a person who is not familiar with this world, that feels weird to me, and I’m curious to know more about it.

O’Leary: You lost your dad when you were pretty young, and you’ve talked about it in your stand-up. You are clearly talking to kids in a bunch of these episodes who have been through trauma. A lot of comedians redirect trauma for laughs. It felt to me like, at least in these episodes, you were maybe being a little more open about that with them. Do you think your personal experiences have allowed you to talk to teenagers who’ve had crappy experiences in a way that someone like me wouldn’t?

Cenac: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I guess having lost a parent at a young age, I also know that that didn’t destroy me in a way that I couldn’t laugh, and I couldn’t find the humor in things. And so, in talking to anyone that I’ve gotten to talk to over the course of both these seasons, there are people who are dealing with real pain and real trauma, but they also have to live their lives every day. They also have to laugh and love and do all of those things. I try to tap into those places with them, as well as talking about the serious things. It feels like, Let’s keep this a casual-enough conversation that we can find the humor in things.

O’Leary: You have talked about your experience being uncomfortable on The Daily Show; Jon Stewart telling you to fuck off. Now that you’re the dude with all the power, has your thinking changed?

Cenac: Yeah. In the first season, I found myself definitely feeling the stress of being the one in charge and having to make decisions that felt stressful and uncomfortable. Having to let people go and hire people, to be aware of everyone’s feelings. Towards the end of [Problem Areas’ first] season, I actually emailed Jon, and we had an exchange about just being in charge. I wrote to him like, “I guess it’s a weird thing being on this side of it; I see your world a little more now.”

We had a lovely lunch in the city and hung out for a little bit. But it was an interesting thing, because to make those tough decisions—yes, I’m the one who’s in charge, but I am asking all of them to have faith in me and follow me down a path that they may not always agree with and understand. I’m asking a lot of them. I can’t do any of it without all of these people.

“We have these conversations around this idea of ‘cancel culture.’ But we don’t really talk about, like, ‘How do people make those things right?’” (HBO)

O’Leary: In Season 1, you spent some time with women who had been sexually assaulted or sexually harassed by cops. Obviously a lot of this has gone on in entertainment. Louis C.K. is out there trying to do sets right now. Should he get to do that?

Cenac: I feel like that’s one of those strange things where I don’t know the answer. I really don’t. I think there is opinion, and then there is the answer. There’s a part of this that feels like [it’s] the question to be asked [of] the owners of clubs that book him, and [of] the audiences that want to see him. Before Bill Cosby went to jail, he was still performing and doing shows. There’s an aspect of it that feels like in this very capitalist society that we live in, there are clearly people who want to pay to see Louis, or want to pay to see Bill Cosby, or want to pay to see a Kevin Spacey movie.

O’Leary: Well, there are people who will pay to see all sorts of things.

Cenac: Yes. And that’s where I say I don’t know. I feel like the question isn’t just, “Should this person get to write jokes and then go walk on a stage?” It’s also like, “What is the larger thing here?” Because the club puts him onstage, it feels like they’re complicit in perpetuating something. The audience that goes to see it, it feels like they are complicit in something. What is that sort of larger cultural conversation that we’re not having around that?

And then the other part of it that I’m confused by is just the society that we live in. In Season 1, we did an episode about restorative justice. There’s a part of me that wonders, Is there some sort of restorative justice model for someone like that?

The coverage is so focused on what he is doing next. Many of the women who were violated, they are comedians. They are writers. They are people with careers of their own. And I feel like we don’t direct the same attention to them. Like, when is Rebecca Corry onstage doing a stand-up special?

We’re still making it his story, and I’d be curious: How is someone like Rebecca—how does she process that onstage, and what joke is she telling? Is there a value to covering her and seeing, How does she take the stage again after all of this?

We have these conversations around this idea of “cancel culture.” But we don’t really talk about, like, “How do people make those things right?” How do they atone for those things? Instead what you see is: They disappear for a little, then they return. There’s maybe some outrage, but if they stick around long enough, the outrage subsides, and you just get used to them being there again.

I think we see it with a president who can say and do things that are completely offensive. People get outraged, and he then just pushes forward and doesn’t really face repercussions. He says something else terrible, pushes through, and it’s kind of like, “I’m not going to apologize.” What you’ve seen as the sort of rebuke to this idea of “cancel culture” is this idea of people saying, “I’m done apologizing, and I’m not going to apologize anymore.” And that just feels like, Okay, these two things are at loggerheads.

O’Leary: You were just on a show that I have a big crush on, Birds of North America.

Cenac: Oh, yes. It’s a great show.

O’Leary: What else do you watch?

Cenac: I haven’t had as much time to watch things this season. When we’re in season, my schedule becomes a little hectic. What do I watch? I’ve not watched Game of Thrones, which is obviously on the same network, I should get on that. But I never did.

O’Leary: I didn’t watch Game of Thrones. I was a late adopter, but then I committed.

Cenac: That’s the one weird moment of fame that I’ve had. I got to go to the Emmys. I went to the Emmys with The Daily Show. This must have been my second year at the show.

And so I wound up sitting at the award ceremony next to George R. R. Martin. And everyone else on the staff was a big Game of Thrones fan. Everyone was jealous, and I had nothing to talk to him about as it related to Game of Thrones. There were other people who saw this as a wasted opportunity. It was just like, “I know who you are, and I know that everyone who I work with is incredibly jealous right now that I’m just talking to you about what it’s like to live in New Jersey.”