Comedic nonfiction entertainment resides in this unusual place these days, trying to take root in this hopefully welcome ground between the extremes of the short, punchy expressions of Twitter and Snapchat, and the longform deep dives of podcasts. Those who have succeeded, like Last Week Tonight and Late Night With Seth Meyers, have done so by taking inspiration from the world of newsmagazines (60 Minutes, 20/20) or the more freewheeling talk shows of yore hosted by Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett.
One of the freshest entries into this camp is Problematic With Moshe Kasher. Premiering tonight on Comedy Central, the half-hour show takes its cues from a potentially even more unlikely source: daytime talk shows like Oprah and Donahue. Each installment explores one big topic bubbling up in our cultural consciousness, like the debut episode which looks at cultural appropriation, and explores it from a variety of angles via commentary from experts (in tonight’s episode, Kasher has long chats with Black-ish creator Kenya Barris and 3rd Bass rapper MC Serch) and some fellow stand-up comics.
“I’ve always been very high brow/low brow,” Kasher says, speaking during a break in the production of Problematic’s first season. “I want to get a high brow topic and talk about it with great vulgarity and take a low brow topic and talk about it with intellectual reverence. I love taking conversations that shouldn’t be comedic and finding a way to make them funny.”
That has been a guiding principle of much of Kasher’s non-stand-up work for nearly a decade now. In that time, he has been the host or co-host of a pair of podcasts that mined some similar territory. The Champs, for example, found he and his buddy Neal Brennan having long chats with people of color like Tariq Trotter aka Black Thought of The Roots, comedian Cristela Alonzo and Simple Life star Nicole Richie.
While that show ended last year, his still-running podcast Hound Tail Discussion Series is the one that most closely mirrors Problematic. Recorded live, each hour-long episode worms deep into a particularly knotty subject—recent editions included looks at the Electoral College and using psychedelic drugs to treat PTSD—with someone well-versed in the issue and Kasher’s funny friends.
Translating that aesthetic to a half-hour TV show with commercial breaks posted a bit of a challenge to Kasher, but he had some able hands working behind the scenes, including @midnight co-creator Alex Blagg and, in the role of Problematic’s showrunner, former NBC News producer Meaghan Rady.
“I was insistent that the showrunner be a news person and not a comedy person,” Kasher says. “Comedy’s not something I’m concerned with. I know how to make things funny. I want someone to help make things cogent and float on a boat that floats. Meaghan is very nimble and very adept and making that kind of show. She’s figuring out how to make a comedy show, and I’m figuring out how to make a news-y show.”
Another aspect of Problematic that Kasher is determined to avoid is having to be news-driven. While some of the discussion unavoidably touches on things in the headlines, the scale of the topics they will unpack will be far bigger. Some potential subjects on the table include the Deep Web, Islamophobia, the surveillance state, and an episode called “Losing My Religion” that talks to people raised in a religious household but that walked away from their faith.
“This is the show I’ve always wanted to do,” Kasher says. “I think the bifurcation and polarization of our society has made conversation all the more rare. We live in a world where the fact that you don’t agree with a person’s area of expertise means that that person shouldn’t have the right to share with you their field of expertise. That’s just not something I believe. I’m an old fashioned ACLU free speech type of person. I feel like people should talk about this stuff even if I don’t believe it’s real or true.”
Problematic with Moshe Kasher premieres on Comedy Central tonight, April 18, at 10 PM ET.
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.