Can we talk? Salon speaks to comedian Moshe Kasher

The host of Comedy Central's "Problematic" and the "Hound Tall" podcast channels Phil Donahue to start conversation


Melanie McFarland
May 29, 2017 1:00PM (UTC)

All Moshe Kasher wants to do is start a few much-needed conversations. Not screaming matches, or demeaning debates with the aim of seeing which side can get the other to submit. Conversations. Remember those? Why, they were a bit like “The Phil Donahue Show.”

In November it will be 50 years since Phil Donahue premiered his classic daytime talk series, in which the host selected a single topic and invited panels of experts to talk about that topic. Then, and this is crucial, Donahue went into the audience and allowed people to pose questions. This what Kasher aims to do in his work, whether via stand-up, his monthly live podcast “Hound Tall” or on his Comedy Central series “Problematic with Moshe Kasher.” He just wants people to stop yelling and start talking again.

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The six-episode first season of "Problematic" ended last week, though cable subscribers can view full episodes online at cc.com or by using the Comedy Central app. During its run Kasher took on such topics as cultural appropriation, Islamophobia, gun-owning liberals and, in its final episode, the alt-right.

For many, Donahue’s program served as an Everyman’s town hall, bring conversations about issues key to societal well-being into our living rooms on a regular basis. Donahue, and talk-show hosts like him, were the precursors of the cable news pundit, coming into being prior to the era of the partisan talking head and personality-focused celebrity worship fests.

In adopting a daytime talk show format for Comedy Central, the modern progenitor of actual fake news, Kasher is returning to the now-quaint notion of a shared, somewhat neutral space where liberals and conservatives can emerge from their separate pens and exchange viewpoints. To be fair, though, Kasher is an unabashed liberal. “I’m a cuck,” he jokes proudly as our conversation begins.

The meat of each “Problematic” episode features fellow comedians, journalists and expert representatives of the chosen topic fostering lighthearted discussions about it, and several episodes also feature a pre-taped one-on-one between Kasher and a guest of his choosing.

And in every episode Kasher goes into the audience and invites them to pose their own questions. This is where some of the best moments of insight occur.

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“The show was about that kiln of outrage that is being stoked every time anybody posts anything online,” Kasher explained in a recent Skype interview. “We wanted to tackle conversations that were difficult and inspired outrage and controversy. Not for the sake of inspiring outrage or controversy, but so that we could have some conversations that weren't hysterical around the stuff that makes us all super hysterical.”

Is that even possible anymore? Kasher seems dedicated to finding a way, if he can. Throughout his stand-up career, Kasher has been a comedian who thoughtfully explores not only boundaries but walls. Why, for example are certain symbols or words or ideas off-limits to the dominant culture? Do verboten spaces have a useful purpose? How much of what we know about a population, a place or a movement is based on erroneous or incomplete information? And why are so many content to cling to our ignorance concerning people or places we're told not to like?

"What I've come to realize more than anything is that the ideological factions in this country or in this world, we're not just disagreeing, we are in different dimensional universes,” Kasher explains. “We're screaming across the universe at a target that will never land and will never hit. Personally, I didn't come into this to try to change people's minds. I came in to have great, interesting, comedic, weird conversations.”

Kasher has explored these questions in his monthly podcast hosted by Nerdist called “Hound Tall," a live discussion dedicated to “figuring out the mysteries of the universe.” “Hound Tall” has been active since 2014 and, in a real sense, served as a development space for what eventually became “Problematic.”

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As “Hound Tall” continued, Kasher witnessed the American populace become increasingly fragmented in its politics, and social media growing increasingly rancorous. And this confluence of conflict informed the direction of “Problematic.”

Kasher adapted the format of “The Phil Donahue Show” specifically because of what Donahue’s 26-year series represents. The host’s earliest shows allowed regular people to ask questions of politicians, academics, stars, movement leaders, headline-makers, any person who agreed to appear on the show. Though exchanges could grow heated, that wasn’t Donahue’s goal. Instead, his style invited an exchange of ideas. Elucidation, if not agreement.

But, as Kasher notes, while the allure of that kind of TV has gone away, “the luster of having your platform broadcast is more readily available and poignant than ever. So bam, we created what felt like a nostalgic but simultaneously nostalgic and hyper modern TV talk show.”

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His TV show’s title, he says, is an intentional poke at an audience used to witnessing screaming rant-fests on the internet.  "'Problematic’ is one of these meaningless jargon words that people on the internet outrage circles throw at one another,” he explains. “ . . .We can all feel ourselves being dragged down into the undertow of the internet. There is no separation between technology and society anymore. It's just one big lump. I think that there's something weird.”

But in returning to the classic talk-show format — not one for which the audience exists to smile and applaud, or scream and goad, but a structure that fosters discussion — Kasher is seeking to reframe the concept of the obligatory comments section on every YouTube video, podcast or article. That’s an interesting concept to ponder. “The problem with the internet and the way that we communicate on the internet is — I mean it's obvious to everybody — but sometimes we don't stop and take a breath and think about it.”

“I don't know how effective it is or isn't, but there's something weird about putting cameras on human beings, and talking on camera,” he continues. “It's not about it being on TV, but it's about it being a visual medium and going, ‘Here is the comments section if it were filled with actual human beings, not human beings hiding behind anonymized avatars. Here are the real people on camera, asking their questions, and here are real people talking about these big loud issues.’"

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Comedy Central has yet to renew “Problematic.” But even if it ends up being finished, Kasher may have provided a framework for a similar show to build upon.

“Look, TV can only do so much. TV's not that important,” he says. “But hopefully we've collapsed the separation between technology and society and shown it as it is, which is one big mush.”


Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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