Daily Show alum Wyatt Cenac is turning the camera on police brutality

By
Photography Eric Liebowitz

Published April 13, 2018

COURTESY OF HBO.

These days, it’s damn near impossible to escape the media frenzy of Congressional hearings, Hollywood exposés, and almost daily tragedy in America. And while we can all accept that our country has major issues, you’d be hard-pressed to find two people across America who agree on what those issues are and how we would even begin to fix what’s broken.

Luckily, Wyatt Cenac, ex-field reporter for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Grammy Award nominee, and all-around funny guy, wants to try his hand at finding a solution. His new show, Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, dives into what the hell is wrong with America. Each episode spends a few minutes on topical and more mundane or odd problems, like the over-abundance of cow poop, before leading into the meat of the overall series—police reform. “We thought, ‘Let’s do something easy,'” he jokes, when asked about this focus, but behind his nonchalance is a measured intelligence. The comedian gives nothing away—his face stays steady, save a smirk or two, as jokes about whittling away the show’s sizable HBO budget in order to travel dissolve perfectly into commentary on the challenges of national police reform. It’s a quick one-two-punch, Cenac’s brand of sharp, incisive comedy.

“The thing that I’m known for, at least depending on what Subreddit you go to, is being a comedian,” he says of his approach. “And so, even when talking about heavy things, I still want to try to use humor to walk us in the door.”

Cenac’s connection to the problem of bad policing is personal, and he casually rattles off stories of charged encounters with law enforcement. At 19, he was slapped in cuffs and arrested under the charge of “inciting a riot,” all for “telling a mall cop to fuck off.” In 1999, after first moving to L.A., he and his friend were pulled over for no reason—and it wouldn’t be the last time. When discussing these incidents, Cenac also makes sure to name victims of police brutality who didn’t survive, including Stephon Clark in Sacramento and Saheed Vassell in Crown Heights.

WYATT CENAC IN CINCINNATI, OHIO. COURTESY OF HBO.

Problem Areas is Cenac’s attempt at bringing the discussion to a wider audience and demonstrating that police brutality is something we should all be concerned about. Its foundation is accessibility and inclusivity, illustrating an intersectional kaleidoscope of oppressive patterns in policing. Cenac spotlights different places and communities each week; from Birmingham and Oklahoma to New York and downtown L.A., he hones in on issues specific to women, the working class, the homeless, and the trans community. Each location and each group add another layer to the conversation on policing, and with it, showcases local efforts in the fight for justice.

“There’s more that we can do, as a community, to try to change what policing looks like in our cities,” Cenac explains. “That’s not to say we shouldn’t continue to complain about what happens in our federal government, but looking at these stories and going to these places, you see horrible stories of policing, and then you also see community members and city councils and law officers all working together to try to fix shit.”

This local element is what sets Problem Areas apart from its late-night predecessors, which are typically more concerned with national conversations and politics, aka the president. Trump is old hat for Cenac: “Unless you have some damning video of that guy beating the shit out of a baby seal while screaming [the N-word] over and over again, even then, I don’t think [he’d face consequences.]” But the fallout from bad policing is everywhere, and, on the local level, people are out there trying to find solutions. Cenac wants to learn from their experiences. He makes no assumptions on how much he knows, staying silent for parts of the show in order to lift the voices of community activists, experts, law enforcement, and neighborhood residents who are putting in the work.

To me, that’s always what’s interesting,” Cenac notes, “when you show somebody something’s possible…. Are there blueprints for change? What do those blueprints look like? Are they replicable?” He relates the potential of local problem solving to old woodworking shows and Bob Ross: “Once you see somebody build a staircase, you’re like, ‘Oh, shit. I can build a staircase! That’s all the work you need? I can paint clouds!'”

There isn’t a catch-all panacea for America’s problem areas, but Cenac thinks “justice for conversation and dialogue” can be a start. He spends time riffing and reporting, but wants to make sure he’s listening more than anything: “[People on seemingly opposite sides of the debate] are both talking to me and they actually have common ground that they want to find.” He hopes to help take the issue of policing out of “the 24-hour news network of this person’s shouting and this person’s shouting,” and remind viewers that they have “a greater chance of making something happen next door than [they] do 4000 miles away.” In that way, Problem Areas is as much about community-building as it is about conversation. Once the yelling stops, we can get to work building that staircase.

WYATT CENAC’S PROBLEM AREAS PREMIERES TODAY, APRIL 13. IT AIRS FRIDAYS AT 11:30PM ET/PT ON HBO.