Wyatt Cenac On School Funding... And Thor : Planet Money The comedian and former Daily Show correspondent takes on complex social issues in his HBO show, Problem Areas. He discusses his approach to melding comedy with social commentary.
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Wyatt Cenac On School Funding... And Thor

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Wyatt Cenac On School Funding... And Thor

Wyatt Cenac On School Funding... And Thor

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CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

Hey, everyone. It's Cardiff. Today on THE INDICATOR, something a little different. We've got the comedian Wyatt Cenac on the show. He visited our studios because he's now promoting season two of his TV show called "Problem Areas," which is on HBO and which looks at social issues in the U.S.

Now, on the show, Wyatt spends a lot of time interviewing people. But in his monologues, he also drops a fair amount of economic data points and other ideas from the social sciences. But of course, Wyatt is also a comedian, so his monologues are a mix of social commentary and jokes, delivered in his own wry, cultivated style.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PROBLEM AREAS")

WYATT CENAC: The truth is that teachers' salaries have been stagnant for decades. The average teacher's savings is just three confiscated Game Boys and a packet of stickers someone left behind over summer break.

GARCIA: So on THE INDICATOR today, Wyatt Cenac tells us what he's learned about the economy since he started hosting "Problem Areas," his approach to hosting the show and he shares his best interviewing tip.

Let me start with this. You've done a few episodes that look at economics and the economy. You bring in a lot of economic data. I guess my first question is, is there something about how the economy works that has surprised you that you've learned in the process of making "Problem Areas"?

CENAC: I guess if there's anything that's surprising, it's both an overreliance and an under-reliance on economic models to look at whether we should fund certain policies or do certain things when you look at, sometimes, the way that money gets spent. I think there's some moments where you could say, OK, well, historically, if we put money into schools and into something like education, we see net benefits as far as crime reduction or job growth - things like that where it's like, OK, it seems pretty clear that these numbers play out, time and time again, but we'll ignore those numbers. And so there's an under-reliance in that way.

But then it feels like there are these overreliances on economics, as far as - where there's capitalist society - that our focus is on profit, profit, profit, profit at all costs. And we use those cold numbers to kind of take a humanity out of things. And so I think if anything surprises me, it's just how kind of fast and loose we play with our allegiance to these numbers sometimes.

GARCIA: Do you see that as one of the goals of your show - to marry those two things - that you've got these numbers. You're not afraid to use numbers in your show, especially at the top of the show - and then the more human side, which is when you sort of get out into the field yourself with your team, and you interview people.

CENAC: You know, so often, the national conversation around an issue is one that gets distilled into these talking points. And when you actually go to a city and you see the human cost of it all, it changes it, at least to me, because it's very easy to say, well, OK, you know, New York City spends X amount of dollars per student. Why is Stuyvesant High School - why are their students all doing well academically, and this school in the Bronx - their students are struggling? Aren't we spending the same amount of money per student?

And once you dig into the weeds, it's like, well, no. This - it's actually different. You know, at this school in a lower-income neighborhood, we may be spending more money on school safety agents than on actual, like, STEM training and things like that. And so what is that doing for that education when money is going to that, but you don't have, then, the resources to sort of fill out the library or do any of those other things as a place like Stuyvesant...

GARCIA: Which you should know - for our listeners - is also a public school...

CENAC: Yes...

GARCIA: ...Which is why the kind of inequality between public schools here is kind of - I mean, we're not talking about, like, well, one is just all, like, you know - it's a private school, so you would expect all the rich parents to spend their money on it. It might be a better school. We're talking about two public schools...

CENAC: Yes.

GARCIA: ...With dramatically different outcomes for their students.

CENAC: Right. And when you start getting into a definition of what is adequate, if these two things are in the same public school system, what, then, becomes adequate when you can have an elite high school exist and you can have one that has a crumbling infrastructure, a high turnover of teachers, most of the students on free and reduced lunch, lack of STEM training and other resources? How are those two things falling under the definition of adequate? It's hard to have those conversations and to see those things when you're just sort of outside, looking from that 30,000-foot view that I get by being part of the national conversation.

GARCIA: Can I ask you a question about how you approach the craft of putting the show together?

CENAC: Weed.

GARCIA: As we've just discussed - what's - (laughter) that's a lot of weed.

CENAC: (Laughter).

GARCIA: As we've just discussed, there's a lot of very heavy topics that you cover - season one, policing; season two, education - so a lot of, like, struggle and sadness in some of the episodes. But you obviously come from a background in comedy, and I'm wondering how you strike the balance between those two things - between the fact that you're covering these sort of heavy social issues, but you also have a responsibility to make it comedic, to make it funny, to be entertaining.

CENAC: I mean, I think in a sort of core of my understanding of comedy, that's always been the sort of delicate dance that happens. I think whether you're looking at what a show like mine is doing or even looking at "The Daily Show" or "Last Week Tonight" or "Patriot Act" - Jordan Klepper's got a show. Kamau Bell has a show. Samantha Bee has "Full Frontal." I don't know that what we're doing is that new. I think if you go back and you look at political cartoons of newspapers from the 1800s, there was taking comedy and using it as a way to get people to engage in big political conversations, oftentimes about some of the same things that we're talking about now. I think you look at that.

I think you look at stand-up comedians, whether it's Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor or Dick Gregory or Joan Rivers - there's always an element of it that is taking something that we're talking about - whether it's women's issues, whether it's race, whether it's politics - and you're bringing those to a stage, trying to wrap them in humor, but at the same time, trying to get people to engage with them. And so that's always that balance that I think has been there in comedy.

GARCIA: Yeah. I got to say, though, the style of your show seems a little different from some of the shows you just mentioned and even from some of the - from the style of some of those earlier comedians - less acerbic - and in particular, in your interview style. I guess it's because you're interviewing, like, normal people rather than somebody who would be the natural, like, target of a joke. Your jokes tend to be either self-deprecating or not about the person, certainly, that you're interviewing.

And there is even - especially in the teachers' episode - there was even a kind of element of sweetness to it, right? There was a lot of listening. And I'm wondering if that was a conscious decision on your part, in terms of the style of the show, to make it a little bit different from some of those other ones.

CENAC: In my mind, I feel like I'm making a late-night show. I've just chosen a different way to do it. I honestly think about it a little bit like "Conan." When I got to go on "Conan," I think one of the things I appreciated most was Conan is such a great interviewer. I think there was something in his approach, as well as Ira Glass's approach, that I was kind of like, oh, they treat their guests as people who are someone that they're proud to talk to and someone that they're excited to talk to.

And so, to me, it was like, OK, I'm not talking to someone who's promoting an "Avengers" movie, but I am talking to someone who is proud of the work they're doing. And - OK, yeah, this isn't - I'm not talking to Thor, but could I talk to this person with the same kind of, like, approach that I would if I was talking to Thor?

GARCIA: Treat everybody like Thor seems like a pretty good approach to interviewing.

CENAC: Yeah. And so that's the way I've gone in. Treat everybody like Thor. And - yeah, give me - sell me your "Avengers: Endgame" of, you know...

GARCIA: School reform.

CENAC: Yeah.

GARCIA: Wyatt Cenac, thanks so much for being on THE INDICATOR, man.

CENAC: No, thanks for having me.

GARCIA: They can tell you we were super proud to have you on THE INDICATORS. And like, Chris Hemsworth, Thor, buddy, come on.

CENAC: Yeah. Thor, longtime listener - be a first-time tweeter.

GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darius Rafieyan and edited by Paddy Hirsch. Our intern is Willa Rubin, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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