The most unusual thing about Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, the comedian and Daily Show alum’s new late-night show for HBO, is its startling focus on finding solutions to complex, scary, seemingly impossible problems.
This approach to late night, to comedy and to, well, life on earth is, frankly, surprising. After all, Cenac, 41, is a self-proclaimed nihilist. And his show, which premieres Friday night, joins a field of late-night comedy shows that, to one degree or another, are about all the ways our hair should be on fire because of nutjobs with too much power. They’re all influenced by the OG of this model, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which called out hypocrisy and incompetence. Now we have:
- Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: calls out corruption and incompetence
- Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: calls out sexism and incompetence
- The Rundown with Robin Thede: calls out racism and incompetence
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert: offers a nightly summation of all these things while making us laugh before we’re all vaporized in a nuclear Holocaust.
Perhaps sensing that there’s only so much ha-ha-hair-on-fire programming an audience can take, Cenac has steered Problem Areas in the other direction. While billionaires such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson may be looking for ways to bail on Earth, the vast majority of humans can’t afford to do that. The pragmatic approach, Cenac suggests, would be to make Earth work — you know, while it’s still here. This is particularly amusing given that Cenac’s last show, People of Earth, was a fictional comedy for TBS about a journalist investigating an alien invasion. Apparently the aliens aren’t going to save us.
And so, through 10 episodes, Cenac is taking a look at police violence and what can be done to curb it. His studio audience is composed not of other humans but of Siri and Alexa, and Cenac takes his television audience through his “problem areas” in the comfort of a ’70s news set appointed with lots of wood and earth tones. The show re-examines the death of Philando Castile with expert interviews, including of police officers.
The result is a show unlike anything else on late night, a mix of mirth, seriousness and palpable sensitivity. Problem Areas, whose executive producers include Oliver, Cenac and Oscar-winning documentary director Ezra Edelman, feels like a cross between 60 Minutes and Last Week Tonight, but hosted by a guy whose affect suggests he’s just taken couple of hits off a really good vape pen.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s interested in answering questions that too often are ignored. After showing a clip of the daughter of Castile’s girlfriend attempting to comfort her mother, Diamond Reynolds, while she’s handcuffed in the back of a police car, Cenac asks, “For the people of Philando Castile’s community around St. Paul, what needs to happen for them to feel safer? How do they get a different outcome?”
Can another late-night comedy news show change the world? Probably not. But maybe it can inspire us to think differently. And that’s a start.