How Wyatt Cenac Turns America’s Most Overlooked Social Issues into Good TV

The second season of his HBO show 'Wyatt Cenac's Problem Areas' is tackling America's education issues.

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Apr 2 2019, 10:03pm

Noam Galai / Getty Images

Instead of further crowding the late night field with takes on the day’s headlines, former Daily Show writer and correspondent Wyatt Cenac went in another direction for his HBO late night show Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas. The host focuses on the issues facing our country, then dives in, traveling across America to see it all for himself, and explain it in a digestible, entertaining way. This season, which premieres Friday, revolves around the country's scramble to reform our education system.

After going to 10 cities across the country, each episode addresses a new topic within education, like mental health, sex ed, or the school-to-prison pipeline. Cenac also highlights schools that have finessed the system, like a predominantly black school in Minneapolis that has lunches provided by local farms, and places where we can see how the teachers' strike and women’s rights movement intersect.

We caught up with Cenac to hear more about how he tackles these issues and for an update on what the hell is going on with education in America.


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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VICE: When you’re looking at an issue that’s as long-standing and complicated as our screwed up education system, how do you think about making it fresh and interesting again?

Wyatt Cenac: That’s a good question. I think for us with the show it’s trying to find stories that can both stand on their own and that feel part of this 10 episode journey that we’re on. That’s the interesting thing about getting to do a show like this. Because we have 10 episodes, we’re able to look at it in chapters. There are thousands of things you could talk about within education and they would all be worthy of their own documentaries, their own docuseries. But because we have 10 issues it puts us in a position of having to go through and look at what the best stories are we want to tell and can tell. While we’re not going to do the comprehensive look at education in America, hopefully these 10 stories can be 10 interesting stories that add to the conversation.

Do you want people to come away seeing a path forward or a solution from your episodes or is the goal different?
There’s something inherently interesting to me about a path forward, but ultimately I hope people are entertained by the show. I think on some level in looking at some of the things we looked at this season or even the first where our focus was on policing in America, the idea was to not end the season or an episode feeling like this conversation is intractable, that there isn’t movement there, and that there aren’t people doing things and working.

I think sometimes unfortunately as people get frustrated with things it feels as though there aren’t people working to try to change something, whether it’s something like policing or education. What then becomes frustrating for the people who are trying to do something is they feel like, ‘Wait a minute, we’ve been working. We’re trying to do something. If more people knew about what we were trying to do maybe we could get momentum for this idea or maybe that sparks another idea.’ To me that’s on some level been the approach and hope of the show, to put a spotlight on people, cities, and organizations who are trying to do that work so you look at it and it doesn’t seem as hopeless and unmoving as at times it can feel.

That’s interesting you mention hope because at times you mention we're in a dark place and you're also highlighting these uplifting examples of change. Did you come away from this season feeling largely pessimistic or optimistic?
I don’t know if I went in particularly pessimistic or optimistic, but at the end of the day it feels like there’s a lot of work to be done. What I always appreciate in doing these things is seeing people do work and asking whether the work they’re doing is replicable. Is there something going on in this city that could translate to another city or another state? If so, how does the momentum for something like that happen? How does the momentum for change pick up speed? To me that happens when you show people there’s something that exists and it seems to be successful. Success sometimes breeds imitation. In the most fantastical version of whatever this show is somebody sees it and says, ‘Oh yeah that’s a cool thing, why don’t we look into that?’

How do you think approaching these conversations about the education system from that on-the-ground perspective instead of following the headlines has changed the conversations you’re having?
I think anytime you go to a community the issues they’re dealing with are so specific to them. While there is some overlap to another city as far as needs, how those needs are met is different. So in that way once you go somewhere it presents a certain amount of empathy toward what that community needs and what they’re going through that oftentimes when we have national conversations around things those details get lost, and those people get lost. We just paint with a broad brush that these are the issues that exist nationwide so we need to have a nationwide fix for it. But it’s not a one size fits all thing and so for me, going to places it’s given me the opportunity to see just how unique the needs of each community are.

Were there places where there was a contentious back and forth going on in the community but once you talked through it with people found they weren’t in as much disagreement as they thought?
I think there’s always contentiousness that exists because we’re talking about policies that affect many different people’s children and policies that cost money, so there’s always that level of contention. But at the end of the day with something like education, so many people are thinking about how they get the best for their child. Where they’re all in agreement is they want what’s best for their individual child. The challenge is how do you get people to recognize that the needs of their child shouldn’t be seen as different or exceptional to the needs of another child or all the children in the city or a school district. So I think where there was agreement was each parent, PTA, district, school all saying, ‘We want what’s best for our children.’ And I think the challenge is: how do you get the best for all the children in the district? How do you get people to see that what benefits a child that’s not their own has a net benefit to that community, to that society. That’s the struggle it felt like a lot of people I sat down with in many cities were dealing with. How do you get someone to recognize the humanity and needs of others?

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