HBO’s new show Problem Areas, hosted by former Daily Show correspondent Wyatt Cenac, joins the late night arena as a comedic docuseries created to confront and provide solutions for current cultural and political issues.
Cenac dedicates the last 15-minute segment of each episode to corral Blue Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter by covering aspects of policing in America.
“It’s a comedy show. I don’t think we made it thinking we’re going to change the world,” said Brooklyn comic Kerry Coddett, who has joined the Problem Areas team as a staff writer. “We made it thinking that there’s a lot of hurt and anger and there’s just not a lot of listening and conversation happening.”
Coddett, who also appeared as a frequent guest panelist on Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, said she hopes Problem Areas can make viewers laugh while educating them, and facilitate dialogue on aspects of policing that can lead to brutality.
“Whenever there’s a police killing, people don’t hear both sides of their story. They’re either Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter,” she said. “We’re so polarized politically. Everyone’s in their corners.”
Coddett said that nobody is having a conversation about why these things are happening. Police brutality is so pervasive and complicated that it’s hard to figure out even where to begin to fix it, she said.
“We’re careful to approach police brutality from a curious perspective,” Coddett said. “The show tries to be as neutral as possible because that’s what’s missing from the space.”
Laughing at uncomfortable topics that are inherently serious in nature makes it more palatable for prompting discussion, she said.
“I don’t believe that there’s anything you cannot make fun of or find a joke to make fun of,” Coddett said. “If it’s true, you’re poking fun at reality.”
Each segment focuses on a different facet of policing, like officer training standards, accountability measures or handling 9-1-1 calls involving mentally ill people.
“It seems less daunting to break it up into different aspects because it’s so overwhelming trying to figure out how to bring about change and figure out how it’s happening the way that it is,” she said. “Breaking it up makes it more manageable to deal with as a topic.”
After police-involved shootings, people call for more training. So the show’s writers tackled officer training in Problem Areas’ first episode.
“Nobody knows what ‘more training’ means. There’s no national standard,” she said. “It unpacks why even when officers are trained they still break the law.”
In 2017, of the 155 writers employed in late-night programming, only eight were women of color, according to an article in Complex.
“It’s telling that that’s still a thing, that in 2018 that a black women could be the first among a group of anything, that’s just absurd,” Coddett said. “That just shows how little representation we’ve had. I’m excited about this new wave of black creators both behind the camera and in front of it.”
Problem Areas adds to HBOs current late-night repertoire, which includes Real Time with Bill Maher, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, Vice News Tonight and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver – who serves as an executive producer for the new show.
“Working for HBO has been awesome. It’s dope, they’ve got a lot of resources,” Coddett said. “They give us a lot of freedom for what we can do with the show. We’ve gotten nothing but supportive feedback from them.”
Coddett is known in Brooklyn for her work organizing Kwanzaa Crawl, an event which gathered more than 2,800 people across more than 25 black-owned bars in Brooklyn and Harlem during the holiday season.
“Kwanzaa Crawl for Brooklyn was what the Black Panther movie was for everyone else, in terms of household significance,” she said. “The camaraderie with other black people you didn’t know felt like love. We were there to appreciate each other and reinforce that we are beautiful despite the things you see on the news.”
Organizing the pub crawl was important to Coddett, she said, because America has lost a significant number of black owned businesses over the last few years.
“Black-owned businesses hire black people in the community,” she said. “To be economically empowered, we need to support businesses that need it the most. Economic empowerment among black people leads to political power.”
Coddett said that, when planning Kwanzaa Crawl, organizers chose to notify and work with the New York Police Department to keep the event safe and proactively prevent any subsequent problems with police.
“You cannot surprise the community with 3,000 black people singing in the street,” she said. “When you have more than five black people together in the community, it’s a gang. Even though everyone hates SantaCon, it’s just not perceived the same way.”
NYPD showed up and posted officers in front of all of the bars, she said. Organizers and attendees didn’t feel like police were there in a threatening way because they were asked them to be there.
“That way other cops driving by would know we were good and wouldn’t give us problems,” she said. “We don’t want any problems. We let the community board know and the local precincts know. They were cool and we were cool, and that was what was so nice about it.”
But working with police for Kwanzaa Crawl and writing about policing for Problem Areas has not changed her perspective on police institutions, she said.
“Individual police officers vary just like people do. The institution of policing is fucked up. The system is inherently flawed,” Coddett said. “There are inherent biases with policing that disproportionately affect black and brown people.”
Problem Areas airs at 11:30 p.m. on Fridays on HBO. More than 300,000 people watched its Friday the 13th premiere, according to ShowBuzz Daily. The show is set to air 10 episodes this season.