Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas offers up hope with a dose of humor: Q&A

photo: Ali Paige Goldstein/HBO. Acquired via HBO Media Relations.
photo: Ali Paige Goldstein/HBO. Acquired via HBO Media Relations. /

In Season 2 of Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, Cenac serves up a master class on how to have productive conversations, listen effectively, and elicit change.

Wyatt Cenac tells me he isn’t in the conversion business. I fully believe him, but his show will probably make you think differently about the world anyhow.

Two seasons in, and Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas has cemented a reputation as one of the most pragmatically hopeful series out there. In an increasingly crazy world where most systems seem broken and societal despair is at an all time high, Cenac utilizes his platform to educate viewers on a variety of issues from fast-food unions to mental health emergency response teams. The show entertains and informs in equal measure, featuring many news-related issues, but firmly focusing on a single topic as a through line for each ten-episode season.

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In Season 1, Problem Areas tackled the thorny subject matter of the criminal justice system. The series followed Cenac as he hit the streets to dig deep on his subject matter. He traveled all over the country on fact-finding missions, uncovering not only the roots of the problems, but also potential solutions to some of our country’s most pervasive issues surrounding incarceration, mental health, and addiction.

Next up is the educational system in the United States. For Season 2 of Problem Areas, Cenac traveled to ten different cities in America, chronicling a range of issues that impact access to learning.

Unlike his other late night infotainment counterparts, Cenac isn’t content to stay in one place. Mixing jovial, jokey monologue segments with direct reporting, comic asides, and exclusive interviews, the series itself is a goldmine of knowledge. It has a distinct feel of a Coursera course infused with useful bursts of levity and humor. Only instead of a monotone professor delivering the information, it’s Cenac.

In the lead up to Season 2 of Problem Areas, Cenac hosted a screening at Sojourner Truth School in Harlem, New York where I got an opportunity to chat with him. Curious about his approach to civil discourse in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems, I was eager to ask Cenac about the cultivation of his interview style and if he’d learned anything about how we can make a difference. He did not disappoint.

HR: In all of the interviews you do for Problem Areas, you’re always so present with the individuals you’re talking with. How do you approach these conversations?  

Wyatt Cenac: “I wish could say I have a trick or a secret or anything like that. When I started thinking about doing the show, I found myself thinking about who do I see as a person who is able to connect with people and do it in what seems like a short amount of time. And, to me, the person who came to mind was Ira Glass.

“I actually reached out to Ira and asked him if I could just get lunch with him. So we went to Russ and Daughters. There’s one that has a bar, and we went there and we had a meal and I talked to him and asked him, you know, what’s your secret? And the thing that he kind of talked about is that he kind of had to find it. But ultimately it’s about talking to people as people and not going in with sort of like, well, here are my 20 questions. I do have questions, and I work with the producer and researcher that works on each story, and like we will come up with a bunch of questions, but they’re often just a guidepost that I will sort of look at, and then I don’t carry them with me. It’s like, okay, I just want to talk to this person, and I’m open to this conversation going wherever it goes. I have the little guideposts in my head, knowing I want to talk about this and that. Thankfully, I have really great researchers and producers who, if there are follow up questions, they may chime in, but it’s really about trying to create a safe space for people to open up and talk.”

HR: As a therapist, I work with a lot of people who have experienced trauma, and I know that it’s hard for people to trust others with those sorts of stories right away. And you seem to be able to do that very well.

Wyatt Cenac
Natalia Ortiz, Wyatt Cenac.photo: Barry Wetcher/HBO. Acquired via HBO Media Relations. /

Wyatt Cenac: “I think anyone who’s willing to sit down and willing to share, that’s a gift that they are giving to me and the show, and I want to honor that in the best way that I can. On some level we try to be as respectful of that and of individuals in that way. I think the other thing that maybe I have is the benefit of ignorance. I’m not a journalist by trade. I didn’t go to journalism school. I don’t have that background. To me, I’m coming at it more from the place of, I’ve worked in late night, and I know how to do a late night interview. So on some level I know how to go about it in that way, similar to if I was talking to you about the new Avengers movie. Okay. Maybe I bring that to this conversation in a way that’s – we’re not talking about the Avengers – but we’re talking about something we’re both passionate about.”

HR: You certainly come off as being genuine as you cover often difficult subject matter. And I think that you also illustrate great listening skills, which are certainly needed in this political climate. It’s hard to listen to people on the other side of divisive issues sometimes, so how do you react when someone disagrees with you during an interview?

Wyatt Cenac: “I don’t think that I go into any conversation thinking that I need to win it. I think that oftentimes disagreements boil down to, ‘how do I win this?’ And, for me, I walked into Season 1 and to Season 2 with a curiosity. I don’t know enough about these topics, and I don’t know in this city the whole scope of what it is that makes this city tick. So I can’t come in with the arrogance of, ‘I know more than you’.

HR: That does often seem to be the case with arguments. People come in with a chip on their shoulder and enter into the conversation just wanting to validate what they already know. But you’re looking for actual information and answers. 

Wyatt Cenac: “Yeah. And even if I have something where this is what I think, I may try to explain what I think in the hopes that I can see if it makes sense to someone else. It’s not with the idea that I’m going to convert anybody. I learned a long time ago that I’m not in the conversion business, and I don’t think that discourse is ever healthy or productive if it’s about conversion. People come to their own things in their own time, myself included. If I can walk into something – even if I’m passionate or curious or believe in something – I can’t go into it thinking I’m going to convert somebody.”

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HR: Problem Areas is unique in that it doesn’t solely focus on bringing light to issues, but it also gives a spotlight to potential solutions to those problems. Throughout creating the last two seasons of the show, are you able to recommend any ways that people can take action and elicit change in their own ways?

Wyatt Cenac: “I think the biggest thing is just looking locally. I think so often it’s so easy to see that there’s a tragedy that happened a thousand miles away, and you have sympathy for those individuals, you want to do something, you donate. But sometimes it happens with a sort of lack of awareness that, chances are, whatever’s going on there is also happening in your own city, maybe not that far from you. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t help those individuals, but oh, say a hurricane knocks out power in this city thousands of miles away, and people need to go live in shelters, well, that problem exists in New York City, and it didn’t need a hurricane to happen. It just exists.

“So, are there things that you can do within your own community that strengthen your community, and then you can use that power to expand out? Yes. That, to me, feels like the biggest thing I’ve come away with.”

Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas Season 2 premieres Friday, April 5th at 11/10c.