Comedian, writer, actress and activist Kerry Coddett (HBO, Comedy Central, MTV) is a staff writer for Wyatt Cenac’s PROBLEM AREAS which debuted Friday, April 13th @ 11:30 PM ET on HBO, making her one of the few black, female comedians to make it into the writers room of a late-night comedy series. In 2017, of the 155 writers employed in late-night programming, only eight were women of color. PROBLEM AREAS takes a satirical look at hot-button social and cultural issues and it will have a dedicated segment in each episode to explore police brutality, leaving Donald Trump and national politics to other late-night shows. The writing position is aligned with Kerry Coddett’s previous activist work, which uses her comedic platform and gift for community organization to tackle social issues.
Say what you will about vision boarding as a practice: Kerry Coddett is convinced that this visualization exercise landed her her best job to date.
“I couldn’t ask to be part, for my first writing job, I couldn’t ask to be part of a better show, with a better group of people, or a better boss. I don’t know how this happened. It was on my vision board though, so I feel like that’s what happened?”
The role in question is as a staff writer for Wyatt Cenac’s highly anticipated late night news series, Problem Areas with Wyatt Cenac. Debuting on HBO last week, the show seeks to examine elements of everyday life that have emerged as problems, and start presenting possible solutions. In a market full of late night shows that have something to say about our current moment, it’s that second piece that Coddett believes sets the show apart from its contemporaries. “Wyatt approaches these stories with a curiosity that I don’t think you see. We’re so polarized now, where everyone’s on the extreme left or on the extreme right, and no one’s really listening to each other. What I think is cool is that he goes out there and he actually tries to let the community speak and let the police officers speak and allow those dialogues to take place.”
Coddett mentions police as part of a second unique element to the show: an extended look over the course of the season at one big issue. This season, the issue at hand is policing and its impact on America. Each field piece in the ten episode season will address one element of the problem, hopefully creating a multifaceted view of the problem by season’s end. When asked about her excitement about the show, Coddett mentioned the stretching room that an extended piece like this allows to explore a highly complex issue. “[T]his issue of policing upsets so many people. It disproportionately affects black and brown people, and in the spirit of intersectionality, Wyatt also wanted to talk about how it affects the trans community, particularly trans women of color, the people who suffer from mental illness, homeless people, deaf people, people with disabilities…there’s so many different groups being affected by police violence and our show aims to tell those different stories and perspectives through the lens of policing.”
For Coddett’s part, she repeatedly calls this her perfect job. It wasn’t until I asked how she and the show “match” that she was able to articulate why the show was so perfect for her: she had already been speaking out passionately about the issue of policing. Coddett gathered fellow comedian and artist friends several years ago to engage in dialogue with police and lawyers about the issue of policing in America, posing the question “What can we do, regular people? What can we do to change police brutality and the things that are happening in this country?”
This next part she still shares with a bit of surprise in her voice: “[w]hen I got an opportunity to write for this job, they told us that we would be dedicating one part of the show to one big topic – whether it’s homelessness or gun control, or police brutality – but they didn’t actually say what we would be covering. As part of the writing packet, they told us to write our own story about a problem that we wanted to solve.
I was like, ‘I really want to do it on police brutality,’ and then I was like ‘No, you really shouldn’t. This is supposed to be a comedy show, nobody’s gonna choose you.’ And I had so much anxiety. But [in the end I said], ‘You need to speak about what’s on your heart, you need to write to what you know.’ So at the last minute, I decided to change my whole packet and write a story about police brutality and how to solve it. I incorporated a lot of stuff that I learned prior to, and to find out when I got the job that we would actually be looking at policing in America? I was like ‘Holy shit!’ It was absolutely perfect. “
Given how serious the show’s dedicated issue is this season – future seasons will look at different issues with similar depth – I wondered how the room of writers dedicated to producing this program are able to find laughs. Where is the humor in an issue so grave? But Coddett can’t speak highly enough of the writers room who carries this task. Led by Cenac and fellow The Daily Show alum Hallie [Haglund], the room is nontraditional in a number of ways. Problem Areas has matched Coddett with sketch comics, standup comedians, online content producers, and a former senior editor at Jezebel. The perspectives in the room are varied from background and outlook (including a majority female room), contributing at all stages to a richly thoughtful – and funny! – final product. “I think we find the humor in it by looking at what is ironic, or unexpected about the situation. Also trying to keep an eye out for those places where there is a little bit of levity. Even though we’re dealing with super sad issues like police brutality, there’s always little moments and pockets of truth that we can find to make a light-hearted comment or joke about.”
For a comedian that tries to infuse elements of her perspective into her standup, this opportunity to extend that task into her debut writing role is invaluable. She recognizes this confluence of her passions and talents is an extremely rare one – yes, for Black women, but also for Kerry Coddett. “I don’t know what it’s like for any other Black woman in a room or any other Black person, but as Kerry the activist that tries to use her — and I don’t want it to sound cliche, I don’t use my comedy to make a point, but I do use comedy to speak truth to certain things, and that happens to be where I’m very focused and passionate right now. So a lot of my stuff is about this kind of commentary.” Problem Areas is aiming at that kind of commentary with a pointed and nuanced perspective, putting Coddett right where she wants to be – and where her vision board has wanted her all along.
Problem Areas with Wyatt Cenac airs Fridays at 11:30pm ET on HBO. See more of Kerry at kerrycoddett.com and on social media @Overfab.