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

By Mark Walsh — April 03, 2019 3 min read

“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.


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