The tension between the scattered storytelling of “Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas” and the tight focus of its ideas is typical of an emerging genre of humor-inflected advocacy journalism.
In “Klepper,” on Comedy Central, the former “Daily Show” correspondent Jordan Klepper embeds himself with various activists and agitators, from environmentalists to immigrants’-rights organizers. Titles that might better express the show’s M.O. and P.O.V. include “How to Be a Good Ally” and “Interrogating My Own Privilege.” Last week’s pilot took Klepper to Texas, where he talked to a group of Iraq War veterans, whose improvised P.T.S.D. therapy involves a modest professional-wrestling league. The show gently placed the veterans’ pile-drivers and power slams in relation to both a broader mental-health crisis and to the V.A.’s systemic failures. When the host asks a grizzled old soldier what actions he, a coddled civilian, could take to “do better,” he was advised to “get off your goddam lazy ass and go see what true veterans live through.”
“Klepper” lays a lot of stress on the idea that its host is “an indoor cat” venturing out of his comfort zone and into the wild for the sake of supporting progressive causes and upholding human decency. It’s an experiment in combining civic engagement and personal growth. When visiting direct-action protesters who are prepared to chain themselves to machines that would bulldoze a bayou, he asks, “Am I cut out for enacting change?” When he goes to Atlanta, where the Georgia Board of Regents has barred undocumented immigrants from enrolling in the state’s public universities, he asks, “What can people like me do to help a situation like this?” Klepper is among nine people arrested for disrupting a Board of Regents meeting; I appreciated the plain sincerity of his commitment less than I admired the space he made for DACA recipients to tell their own stories, and more than I admired his mentioning, twice, that the jailhouse-booking process involved checking his anus for contraband. “Klepper” isn’t hilarious, and doesn’t intend to be. It succeeds in being funny-ish—in building and diffusing tension with cathartic barbs, self-deprecating jests, and dumb sight gags.
A funny thing happened on the way to Rome burning. In the Trump era, American politics are not amenable to irony of the “Colbert Report” school. (Thus the brief life span of “The Opposition with Jordan Klepper,” which left the Comedy Central lineup in June, after one season of its satirical pro-Trump fulminating and conspiracy-mongering.) The contemporary audience is resistant to leftist sarcasm as a form of home entertainment, and, anyway, you can get that on MSNBC. Instead, we get appeals to conscience and calls to action, phrased as the questing citizen journalism of class clowns made good.
“Klepper” shares its emphasis on grassroots organizing and local action with “Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas,” which is now in its second season on HBO. Where “Klepper” tends to be scored to an upbeat fuzz of arena rock, as if it were a woke “Jackass,” “Problem Areas” relies on noodling jazz flute, a gentle sizzle of high hats, and a mellow electric organ, which seem to personify the bubbling thoughts of a socially conscious stoner. That the new season of “Problem Areas” centers on education issues is a useful strategy for containing Cenac’s antic tangents and absurdist discursiveness.
Indeed, the very announcement that the season will center around education plays as a loopy digression. Cenac began the season with a bit in which he took a soccer ball to the unguarded testicles, as prelude to the observation that “unions are kinda like a cup, in that they protect an employee’s most valuable assets, like fair pay and health coverage,” which in turn brought him around to last year’s teachers’ strike in West Virginia, on which he offered an impressive, thorough view—at once broad and granular—of the issues at stake. Then he announced schools as his running theme and regular topic. Now, he is leveraging that theme into an examination of everything else in American life: race, gender, class, money, public health. The tension between the scattered storytelling of “Problem Areas” and the tight focus of its ideas is typical of this emerging genre of humor-inflected advocacy journalism. Here, as on “Klepper,” jokes take the edge off the rage and sand down the square corners of the earnestness. Each deploys a goofy voice for speaking truth to power.