NEW YORK - Wyatt Cenac, the latest entrant in late-night television comedy with a series that debuts Friday on HBO, took inspiration from John Oliver in his desire to inform along with being entertaining.
Cenac's "Problem Areas" is described as a comedy "docu-series," and resembles Oliver's "Last Week Tonight" in how each episode has a central story approached with journalistic rigour, and quicker comedic bits. Oliver is an executive producer and the show's backstage is populated with people who worked with him and also at their shared alma mater, "The Daily Show."
That's where the similarities end. Cenac's more laid-back style replaces Oliver's hyperactivity. "Problem Areas" has no studio audience, and in each episode, Cenac travels somewhere different in the country to explore aspects of the main story. His entire 10-episode season concentrates on different facets of one story, in this case policing and how it affects different communities.
The show will air Fridays at 11:30 p.m. Eastern and Pacific times.
Oliver's success "definitely gave me a lot of confidence that there could be an appetite for a show like mine," Cenac said. "I looked at his show for inspiration in that way."
Podcasts like "Serial" also convinced Cenac that some people are interested in stories told in depth, spread over several episodes.
With its creative graphics and a cool vibe, "Problem Areas" establishes right away that viewers have landed in a different spot than other late-night comedy shows.
Cenac also makes that clear. He looks into the camera early in the opening episode and says that it's probably the point at which he's supposed to talk about Donald Trump and all the trouble everyone's in. "But you already knew that," he says.
"It was less about thinking about making something original and more about thinking about building something for my skill set, and what I feel my strengths as a performer and storyteller are," he said.
Like many black men and women, Cenac has his own uncomfortable experiences being pulled over by the police. Besides looking into some well-known cases where police actions were questioned, the show also looks into how police officers are trained and interact with certain communities.
"I come in with the curiosity of a concerned citizen," Cenac said. "I live in this country, too. It's not enough for me to simply demand better on social media, or go to a march when there's a march and have a sign," he said. "The one thing that I have, that I've been given, is a platform. And if I can use that platform to ask the questions that I'm generally asking in life, and I can find a way to do it that's entertaining, I feel like it's a win-win."
Cenac felt more comfortable doing away with a studio audience, figuring its central value to a show is telling a television audience when to laugh.
"If I take that out of the equation, I can take the story directly to the viewer, and the audience can decide how to feel," he said.
In working hard to complete the episodes for his first season, Cenac said he hasn't thought about how "Problem Areas" would continue in future seasons, whether it would again concentrate on one main story.
He conceded he hadn't looked carefully enough in his contract for what it says about continuing past one season — perhaps falling prey to a pitfall that has afflicted performers for ages.
"That's certainly something about the business," he said. "You're hungry enough and you say, sure, and the next thing you know, you're starring in 'Beverly Hills Cop 17.'"