Move over, John Oliver — another “Daily Show” alum is coming to HBO with a late-night show fusing comedy with commentary.
“Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas,” helmed by the ex-“Daily Show With Jon Stewart” correspondent, premieres Friday at 11:30 pm. Ten half-hour episodes will mix commentary on current events with longer field pieces. Oliver, who hosts HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” is among its executive producers.
“He and I have stayed in touch throughout the years, and when I was thinking of doing a show like this, he was somebody that I spoke to both as a friend and a sounding board,” says Cenac, 41. “Once I felt like I knew what this idea is, [Oliver] was like, ‘HBO has been a great home for me, you should talk to them.’ ”
Each episode of “Problem Areas” begins with a taped segment offering Cenac’s take on a topical issue, such as Elon Musk’s space exploration. The show then segues into a deeper exploration of a topic — but that’s where similarities to “Last Week Tonight” end. While Oliver’s show is in a studio and covers a different topic each week, “Problem Areas” consists of field pieces all dealing with variations of the same issue: police reform.
“We could talk about Trump, but a lot of people do that,” says Cenac. “We use policing as a filter to talk about other stories. The problems of New York aren’t necessarily the problems of Ferguson or Miami.”
‘We use policing as a filter to talk about other stories. The problems of New York aren’t necessarily the problems of Ferguson or Miami.’
Cenac, born in New York and raised in Texas, has had personal experiences with the justice system — his father was a New York cab driver murdered on the job (by a passenger), and Cenac was arrested at age 19 for inciting a riot (“for telling a mall cop to f–k off,” he says). “Every time I see a story [involving an incident with the police], it creates a touchstone to some aspect of my life.”
One of the biggest challenges of making the show was the time crunch. Each episode’s field segment covers a different city, and with the exception of LA, where he spent nearly a week, Cenac had two days per city.
“We were really scrambling a lot,” he says. “The hope, should we be fortunate enough to be able to continue this, is we’ll be able to spend more time in some cities.”
Another challenge was his worry about being police being “skittish,” Cenac says. “You want to do a show about policing, and police departments don’t want to talk to you,” he says. “With all these stories it isn’t just ‘Let’s go on a ride along with the police,’ it’s ‘Let’s talk to people who have maybe been the victims of some kind of police misconduct. Let’s talk to legislators who are perhaps trying to write laws.’”
Ultimately, he says he goes into the field pieces with an open mind.
“I’m not going in to try to be right,” he says. “I’m going in with a curiosity rather than a formed opinion or declaration.
“What we’ve hopefully made is something a person can digest how they want to digest it and not forcing them to digest it like, ‘You have to laugh here, you have to feel this emotion right here.’ ”