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Moshe Kasher is trying to solve the internet’s problems, so please don’t kill his dog

Photo: Art Streiber
Photo: Art Streiber

Moshe Kasher wants to talk. The comedian-actor-author is about to launch a new series on Comedy Central, Problematic With Moshe Kasher, that, as he put it in a press release, should hopefully solve all of the world’s problems, from partisan politics to the glut of guns in the U.S. That statement is at least partially facetious, but still, Kasher says, he hopes that his show will be a good place for the public to come together and, with the help of Problematic’s panel of both comedians and experts, talk things out. The A.V. Club sat down with Kasher to talk about talking things out.

The A.V. Club: How are you?

Moshe Kasher: I’m good. Catching up with my comedy news here. It’s a big day.

AVC: Charlie Murphy died, which is very sad.

MK: Charlie Murphy did my old podcast, The Champs, and I would say was one of the great interviews he’s done. Just to give a sense of what an amazing storyteller that dude was.

Sitting next to Neal Brennan and Charlie Murphy. I don’t want to say they made each other’s careers, but there’s a real symbiotic relationship. It’s that Rick James sketch, you know? And so I was just a sort of pass-through observer, like a church mouse on a desk watching two old friends talk. It was a cool interview.

AVC: That episode is a good one for people who want to learn more about Charlie Murphy than just that he was in that sketch.

MK: I like that about podcasts in general—I don’t mean to make this melancholy, but Charlie’s the second Champs guest we had that passed away. It’s like this podcast exists in this weird archival space, you know? The Champs itself I haven’t done in two years, but it’s still there. It’s this frozen archive of history, which I think is interesting.

AVC: Absolutely. When Harris Wittels died, one of the way fans could mourn—or friends could mourn, I suppose—was to listen to his appearances on different podcasts.

MK: Yeah, Aziz [Ansari] spoke to that in his thing.

There’s all this evidence that we leave now of our life, especially if you’re a comedian or an entertainer. I mean, I guess that was always kind of true, but now there’s a lot more. We leave a deeper trail. Like a snail trail of our memories, you know? But it’s not really about arousal. It’s about artistic droppings.

AVC: And more of who someone is as a person than just a series of jokes.

MK: That’s what’s cool about podcasting, actually.

It’s so bizarre—I was just talking to a comedian—I can’t really tell you who it was because he was talking about doing a podcast—he’s a legendary comic—but he was like, “Maybe I’ll do a podcast, but who’d want to listen to me?” He hasn’t announced it yet, so it’s not my business, but he was like, “They don’t want to hear me talk about politics. They know me as this comedian.” I told him, “No, that’s what’s cool about podcasts. It’s this different dimensional window into you.” Joe Rogan has this podcast where he’s talking astrophysics and lean BMI indexes and weird philosophy most of the time and yet, when you see him onstage, you’re like, “Oh, this guy is just a killer comedian.” People like to watch these different dimensions of people now.

What’s kind of funny about podcasting is what I’m actually trying to reverse-engineer into my show. What’s funny is that people have been trying to figure out how to TV-ify a podcast, but I think it’s working the other way around. People are desperate for these breathier, longer, more in-depth conversations. And the only thing I can’t provide in my show is the longer time. But I think that, when I watched Dick Cavett or I watched old Phil Donahue, there used to be more oxygen on television, you know what I mean? And this is not a diss on the Oxygen network. I love the Oxygen network—I love everything about the Oxygen network.

AVC: It’s all crime, all the time now.

MK: [Laughs.] That’s right. But it used to be like, you’d watch these old Dick Cavett interviews, and you’d be like, “How is this television?” I tried to figure out a way to get back to there where it’s a real conversation.

AVC: I’m also a fan of your podcast Hound Tall Discussion Series

MK: Thank you.

AVC: —and I feel like there’s a little bit of Hound Tall in Problematic.

MK: I would say there’s no question about it. There’s a lot of it.

It’s funny, too, speaking of The Champs, because The Champs was this sexy podcast with these big guests—it was a lot splashier of a podcast than Hound Tall. Hound Tall’s more of a nice, slow burn. But, at the end of it all, the show that I developed was around that podcast but not the old one.

Hound Tall definitely led to this show. Mostly it’s about really having good conversations and I think people really want that now, and we’re trying to do that on Comedy Central, which I’m super excited about. It’s not the most home-run-derby, South Park-level, zing-zing thing, though. It’s a real deep dive on substantive topics with a comedic serving plate.

AVC: Luckily, there were examples before you. You had your Daily Shows, your Colbert Reports—

MK: [Joking.] I feel really offended that you compared me to those things. I think of myself as a standalone.

AVC: Well, what I mean is that at least Comedy Central knows its viewers can tolerate more than just one-liners.

MK: Exactly. Basically, the origin of this show is that Alex Blagg, who’s one of the creators of @Midnight, who’s also an old friend of mine—I started comedy in San Francisco back when he did stand-up—but Comedy Central had come to me and said, “Oh, we should develop a show.” And then Alex came to me and said, “We have this idea to create this show that would occupy the intellectual space between @Midnight and The Daily Show.” So a little more serious than @Midnight and a little less serious than The Daily Show. Less serious has come to represent being not as directly connected to the political cycle. More about social issues and outrage culture and internet culture and social justice culture—as we call them, the tectonic plates the news cycle is based upon. So that’s sort of where it came from. What would a Daily Show watcher want to see that isn’t just a clone of The Daily Show?

AVC: Because that’s been tried.

MK: It’s been tried and, by the way, other people do it really well. Who out here is trying to out-Oliver Oliver? I’m not interested in doing that. No one but John Oliver is going to be able to figure out the code of making a 20-minute monologue on futures, securities, and currency speculation interesting, funny, and poignant politically. So my thing is that I just want to have conversations about topics that are fascinating to me.

AVC: In the initial press release for your show, you talk about how you’re going to try to solve all the internet’s problems. Do you think that your show, Problematic, can make some sort of change perhaps, the way John Oliver has, by telling jokes about serious things?

MK: The short answer is no, and the “no” comes with a caveat. As we have seen so dramatically in this last political election, I don’t think that TV and great points make major systemic changes in the way people think or in the way people vote.

AVC: It’s just an echo chamber. It’s the same 100,000 people agreeing with each other.

MK: That’s it. Oliver’s the best in the business, and there are people convinced by them—generally, but not always. He is really good and good enough to convince people who come from a certain worldview—but generally, it’s people who are already kind of preloaded. I’m preloaded and ready to like what Oliver says and to believe what he says. So the longer argument is whether rhetorical power can make people change their minds.

I do think that people looking into topics that they never looked into from angles they’ve never looked into can make people’s minds expand. So, to the extent that somebody watching the show will hear an in-depth examination of a topic they just thought was ridiculous, or they just thought they disagreed with, yes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about a line from the Alcoholics Anonymous book, of all things. It’s talking about resentment, and it says, “To conclude that others were wrong is as far as most of us ever got.” I’ve been thinking about that line a lot, because really that’s where we’re at, right? People hear a thing, they don’t agree with that worldview, and then they decide they are done. They’ve stopped listening at that point. But that’s when they should start listening. “Okay, I don’t agree with anything you’re saying, but I have to figure out why you do.” That’s why I say, yeah, we’re going to make a difference, because people are going to get educations on things where they had no idea a story was there or didn’t know that there’s another side to the story there.

AVC: Why do you think it’s important to kind of joke about tough topics?

MK: I almost reject the form of that question because it’s like—and this comes more from my theory of comedy, which is this notion that me saying something important is the ultimate goal of the comedian—not that you were saying that, I recognize that you weren’t—but the comedy world in general is saying that. There are certain confessional comedians who have become the most popular in the last five years. So it becomes this thing where, “If you’re not telling the truth, and if you’re not speaking truth to power, what are even you doing?” I’m like, “I don’t know, telling observational jokes? Being silly? Making people laugh?” That’s what it’s about: having a good time and making people laugh. So I don’t know if telling jokes about tough topics is important. I do actually think that conversation about tough topics is important, and I happen to be a comedian, so that’s the delivery device. I don’t know how important it is, but I think it’s really fucking interesting.

AVC: It’ll get more people in the door than if you were like, “Let’s have a book group where we talk about these super-serious things.”

MK: [Laughs.] We’re not a bunch of fucking nerds with a book group.

People have expressed their interest in the deep dive. I think that, as our brains atrophy and become shallower as a result of the internet, the parts of them that are not atrophied are screaming for deeper engagement. I know that sounds a little bit self-important, but I do think it’s true. People really want big ideas and big concepts. That’s why TED Talks are popular, that’s why podcasts are popular. People like real conversation on real topics. I think if there’s one thing I’m good at and I feel really confident in, it’s being able to engage. Hound Tall is the best example. I’m able to engage in big conversations with people that are way outside of my league intellectually and make them engaging and funny.

AVC: It must be interesting for your experts to have to engage on a wider level. If you work at Caltech in particle physics, you probably don’t regularly have to explain your job or the world’s problems to the average TV viewer.

MK: That’s exactly right. I always tell people when they’re on the podcast, “Every episode is a different topic. This is not a science podcast, this is an everything podcast, so really, really make sure that you talk to people like they’ve never heard the topic before.”

AVC: Like you’re at eighth-grade career day or something.

MK: Exactly. That’s what’s important, and I think that’s what’ll make a big change, is talking to America like they’re a bunch of eighth-graders. You know, we kind of are.

AVC: I think the average American reads at an eighth-grade level.

MK: Not just intellectually. I would say emotionally we’ve all turned into these sort of toxic, shallow, angry, polarized demons screaming at each other from across echo chambers. My whole thing is that I’m trying to get underneath the anger into the truth that’s underneath it.

AVC: Do you get trolled a lot on Twitter?

MK: Oh, yeah, sure. Part of it’s my fault. I used to really like to get into it. I used to love humiliating people on Twitter, and so I would kind of tease it out. But they have this new technique—this really smart technique that they’re doing right now—you can kind of watch the trolls move through techniques to try to find the ultimate one—and their new thing is that they physically threaten you and say they know where you live. It’s really good because it’s like, “All right, you win.” Any time you mention that, I’m like, “Okay, I’m not going to keep engaging with you. You win this one.” It’s not really worth my dog’s life.

AVC: You are going to be drawing some more attention to yourself with the TV show. You might need a new gate for your house.

MK: Oh, I have a gate. It might be German shepherd time, which comes before an AR15.

Speaking of AR15s, there is an episode of the TV show that I really want to do, which is the liberal case for guns. I’m really excited about the idea of doing that. That would be a perfect example. I don’t know if that’s going to be in the first six episodes or not, but that’s the perfect example of an issue that I don’t necessarily agree with the premise of, and yet I see that there is an argument for. Does that make sense?

I don’t like guns personally. I’ve looked into them. They’re not for me. They make me very uncomfortable. But I also recognize that there is a counterargument to the gun control argument that isn’t just a bunch of stupid, murderous, wild people going, “Give me my guns!” There’s a deeper conversation to be had there, and just because I happen to know where I fall into that conversation doesn’t mean that I don’t want to have that conversation.

AVC: There was an episode of Radiolab

MK: I know exactly what you’re referring to.

AVC: —about the case for the big game hunting. That episode did basically what you’re talking about. I went in thinking, “Shooting a tiger is terrible,” but then the show explained it to me, and I went, “Okay. I still wouldn’t want to do it personally, but if someone’s going to have to do it, maybe conservationists should make money from it?”

MK: Exactly. Honestly, that episode was a big part of why I wanted to do this show. It was such an eye-opener. It was like, “Wow. Here’s a topic that I would never in a million years have thought to myself, ‘Oh, no, there’s another side to this story. There’s another angle that you can look at this from that makes it okay for people to shoot endangered black rhinos.’” Never in a million years would I have thought there was another side to this story. And then you go, “Wow, if there’s another side to this story that’s compelling, there must be another side to all of them.”

AVC: You mentioned that it’s interesting to see the trolls evolve through different strategies. Have you learned anything else from them? It seems like there’s an army of trolls, but there are probably only 20,000 of them out there.

MK: That is an army. I mean, how many people do we have in the real army? 400,000? A 20,000-member expanding army of internet trolls is pretty significant. But your point is taken.

The hardcore trolls, the people that are like, “Oh, there’s no point in talking to you,” the shit-posters of the world, yeah. Those are mostly just cloned accounts. If I’m being honest, there’s something about the shit-posters that I find fascinating. The nihilistic, “burn it all down,” “it’s worth it to just hurt people in order to see what happens at the end of the earth” people. It’s not like I think it’s cool, but I’m definitely interested.

AVC: I don’t know if they believe it all. Some do, but a lot of them, if you call them on their shit, they back down. This is neither here nor there, but we’ll have people really flame out and shit on The A.V. Club hardcore, and when we confront them on it, they’re like, “Oh, my god, I’m so sorry.” They back down super quick. “I love you guys, I’m so sorry, I’ve been reading you guys for 10 years.” They just need someone to know that they’re paying attention, I guess.

MK: Oh, yes. Everybody’s had the experience of the person who trolls them so hard and then they’re like, “Dude, I’m a fan.” It’s like, “What? Why? You’re a fan? You just ruined my day.”

I think people are lonely and desperate for attention and unemployed and bored. I don’t mean that these are losers that live with their mom, although that is true for many of these people. I think people in general are literally underemployed and lonely and bored in this country because of the economic downturn, and because of the isolation that’s available because of the internet. The internet has both freed people up to connect with each other and isolated them.

People are sitting in these digital lonely places, and they’re just like, “Whoa, you mean I could just make Brad Pitt call me an asshole?” I don’t know about Brad Pitt, but pretty much everyone reads their @ replies. They fucking read them. How is it possible that a guy that works at the Sonic drive-thru in fucking Kansas can get on the horn and call Katy Perry a fucking idiot and she’ll write back and go, “Hey, fuck you.” This is amazing, if you see it from their perspective. “Oh, my god, if I call them something nasty enough, they’ll respond. If I just troll them and they’ll eventually say something—man, it’s awesome!”

AVC: There are also people who take it the other way where they just write Katy Perry all day, like, “If you like this, I’ll love you forever,” where they want the most minor contact from their favorite person. They want that person to acknowledge they’re alive.

MK: Oh, that actually does bring us to my show again. In the ’90s and in the ’80s, people were just starting to get on TV, and because nobody had ever been on TV before, it was like, “Oh, anybody can be on TV.” But now we’re at this point where people want their voices to be heard and they feel it ought to be heard because the internet has given everybody a platform. So I think the world is ready for this show because people get to get on and ask questions, old-school, Phil Donahue-style. So, if you are out there, and you want to troll people in real time, come on down.

AVC: In the blurb for your show, you mention that you’re going to create a safe space for offensive comedy. The question is not “is there anything too offensive for you” because that’s a dumb question that’s been asked a million times. The question is whether there is anything that you’re struggling to get the angle on to have it get on Comedy Central?

MK: Oh, absolutely. Every single one of these is the challenge of the show, and it’s a challenge that I relish. That’s the fun part. How do you do these topics?

By the way, some of the topics are light by design. We want every third or fourth topic to be classic daytime TV like, “Why do we lie?” “I had an intellectual change of heart.” Survival stories. You know, these classic daytime TV tropes through a Comedy Central-level funny filter. Topics like cultural appropriation, which we filmed last week, or Islamophobia, or the dark web, all these things that are really intense—that’s the beauty of it all.

There are topics that I’m not interested in touching. The case for white supremacy is not going to make it onto this show. I’m good. I’ve got a show, and I don’t necessarily need that voice to be amplified. But cultural appropriation’s a perfect example. That one was hard for me, personally, because I have a hard time with the concept of cultural appropriation. It’s difficult for me. It’s not easy for me to assess how serious it ought to be taken when so much of it feels so absurd. And yet, doing the reading, doing the research, and then interviewing people about it, and then interviewing Kenya Barris, the creator of Black-ish, who was our main guest, and then interviewing our audience—I came through that experience. I don’t know If I’m going to be the person who’s calling people out for appropriating, but I definitely have an understanding of the nuances and the importance to the people who are arguing about it and why people get upset about it. I get it now in a way I didn’t before. So in that way, at least one mind has been changed.

AVC: I imagine there are things the show just deems too rote. In LA Weekly, you said something to the effect of, “We’re not going to talk about Donald Trump every week.” We’re past that.

MK: I don’t know if we’re past that. But you’ve got Oliver, Sam Bee, The Daily Show, there’s literally the Trump show coming to Comedy Central, which will be amazing. Anthony Atamanuik will be doing the show as Trump the whole time. But I think we’ve got enough Trump comedy. I don’t want Donald Trump to be the editor-in-chief of my show.

AVC: He’s a fascinating guy, but he’s pretty surface-level. It’s hard to make really deep jokes about him. The Onion staff has talked about their struggles.

MK: It’s interesting, right? When life becomes satire in real time, what good is the premiere satire magazine? It might as well just be the newspaper. You could pick up The Wall Street Journal and be like, “Oh, what a funny Onion headline!” And then the editor of The Onion is like, “Huh. I guess you won’t be needing me anymore.”

Honestly, yesterday [when Sean Spicer made his “Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons” gaffe] was so amazing. As a Jew, I was horrified. As a comedian, I was like, “I can’t believe what is happening.” The fucking press secretary of the United States just said that Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons on people. It’s like, “Okay.” It wasn’t even an abstraction. It wasn’t even like, “Assad was using gas, but Hitler was using a different kind of chemical weapons.” It’s the same thing. The only difference is that it wasn’t sarin, and I don’t know what that means.

We’re living in gallows satire in a way that nobody ever wanted to.