Education

HBO Documentary Comedy Devotes Season to Education’s ‘Problem Areas’

By Mark Walsh — April 03, 2019 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

“Documentary comedy” and “comedy news” seem to be booming, with performers such as John Oliver on HBO, Hasan Manaj on Netflix, Samantha Bee on TBS, and W. Kamau Bell on CNN using their comic sensibilities to explain our crazy times.

Sometimes these comedians have focused on education topics, as Alia Wong described in The Atlantic in late 2016. On his HBO show, “Last Week Tonight,” Oliver has done lengthy segments on charter schools, standardized testing, and school segregation.

Late-night comedy shows are an “underrecognized source of information about issues related to schools and higher education,” Wong wrote.

On Friday, April 5, education will be the focus for the new season of a returning show.

Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas,” which airs Fridays on HBO (11 p.m. Eastern and Pacific times), features the former correspondent on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” in a frenetic half-hour program that features interviews with experts, site visits, some silly gags, and thought-provoking commentary from Cenac.

Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas S2 Promo

Oliver is an executive producer of the show. HBO repeated one viewer’s description of “Problem Areas” as “a millennial, stoner version of ‘Mister Rogers’ [Neighborhood]’.”

The first season of “Problem Areas” mostly looked at policing, but also aired segments on vocational schools and teacher pay.

In an interview, Cenac said education seemed like a natural theme to build the second season of “Problem Areas” around, since schools have a lot of—well, problem areas.

After doing several segments on education last season, he said, “It really started to feel like, ‘Oh, there’s a lot here about education that’s worth unpacking and looking into.’”

In the first episode, Cenac returns to the topic of teachers, focusing on the teacher revolt of 2018. With camera crew in tow, he visited West Virginia earlier this year as teachers again briefly went on strike.

Cenac sets up the piece around the concept of underpaid teachers spending their own money on supplies and taking second jobs, as Time magazine featured in a cover story last year. But Cenac unearths some old copies of Life magazine (Time’s publishing sibling) from the 1950s, including a cover story about a crisis in the nation’s teacher corps.

“Sixty years later, and it looks like the only thing that feels like it’s changed is that news has gone digital,” Cenac says in the episode.

And discussing grassroots funding efforts that teachers have enlisted to get basic supplies, Cenac observes in the show, “Can you imagine if doctors had to use GoFundMe for scalpels?”

Cenac introduces viewers to some teachers, journalists (including Dana Goldstein and Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times), policy experts (including Diane Ravitch), and other interview subjects whom I presume will be featured throughout the season.

Their take, as does Cenac’s, leans progressive. And this is HBO, so Cenac can, and does, use swear words as much as John Oliver does on his show.

Cenac said in the interview that other episodes this season will continue to look at the education workforce, such as the support staff in schools, as well as issues including school safety, the lunchroom, sex education, and immigration as reflected in the schools.

“It would probably be foolish of me to assume that a televison show could change policy or create some sort of a sea change,” Cenac said with genuine humility. He said he hopes educators will see something on his show that they can replicate in their communities.

Cenac, 42, is a New York City native who was a writer on the animated Fox series “King of the Hill” before joining “The Daily Show” for four years under former host Jon Stewart. He has numerous voice acting credits on animated shows on his résumé.

When I asked him about the trend of “documentary comedy,” Cenac politely took issue with the premise.

“I don’t think what we’re doing is all that new,” he said. “As you look throughout history, comedy has always been a way to talk about issues in society, and satire has always played a role in civil discourse.”

He cited political cartoons, Mark Twain, and Lenny Bruce.

“What is happening now is perhaps an evolution of” those forms, he said. “On television, there is more of a landscape for show’s like mine or John’s [“Last Week Tonight”]. People aren’t reading newspapers as much any more for that kind of discourse.”

Ouch. The truth hurts, Wyatt. And people aren’t getting their education discourse from Life magazine, anymore. But that’s a whole different problem area.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP