John Oliver won’t be your therapist – How he torpedoed the reassuring tropes of fake news – The “Last Week Tonight” host isn’t interested in offering a balm for tough times. He wants you to pay attention by STEVE ALMOND FRIDAY, AUG 15, 2014 12:00 AM +0100
It’s been something of a shock — and a joyous one — to see how quickly John Oliver’s HBO program, “Last Week Tonight,” has gone from an awkward up-and-comer to an outright hit.
Not only is the program wildly popular with critics in the big markets, it’s being hailed in plenty of smaller regional venues. It’s pretty safe to say that landing an extended rave in the Auburn Citizen — circulation 10,000 — means you’ve broken out of the New York City media bubble.
The significance of the show’s surging popularity goes beyond its various laudable, and widely lauded, elements (the more diverse writer’s room, the commercial-free format, and so on). What the success of “Last Week Tonight” suggests, on a deeper level, is that American television viewers may finally be tired of the frantic bombast generated by the Stimulation Media.
What’s more, after years of making do with the therapeutic jibes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, they are finding in Oliver a figure more interested in making sense of the world than in making them laugh.
This is not to say that Oliver isn’t funny. He and his writers and guests have come up with some uproarious bits, most recently an infomercial supplied by comedian Sarah Silverman urging Americans in dire financial straits to do anything other than borrow money from a predatory payday loan firm. “People will pay you to pee on them,” she confides. “That’s true. Doodies too! Doodies are more. Like double.” But a bit like this is not the point of the show. It’s merely the scatological kicker to a much larger story, one about the rapacity of an industry dedicated to exploiting our most economically vulnerable citizens.
Oliver spent more than 15 minutes detailing what payday loans are, how the industry targets desperate consumers with misleading ads, conceals its draconian fees and dodges regulation. It was a tour de force of explanatory journalism. After eviscerating the obvious targets, Oliver even took aim at those consumers who fail to use common sense in dealing with their debt. Everyone involved had to shoulder some blame.
This was precisely the kind of story that would never appear on a fake news show. First, because it’s not part of the idiotic news cycle that most of those shows wind up aping (i.e., there’s no “hook”). And second, because it happens to be about the segment of our population most underrepresented in the media: poor people.
As much as Oliver has been praised for his radical decision to cover stories about people other than Americans — the election in India, Uganda’s state-sponsored homophobia, Singapore’s gambling problem — the most striking aspect of his editorial vision has been his willingness to turn his gaze away from our shiny temples of wealth and power.
Instead, he’s offered viewers a long, thoughtful disquisition on income inequality, an impassioned deconstruction of the death penalty and, more recently, a cri de coeur about the prison industry, which ran nearly 18 minutes. That’s almost as long as an entire “Daily Show.”
Not only did Oliver point out that America has more prisoners than any other country – nearly 1 percent of the population — he explained the historical reasons for this, the racism inherent in our criminal justice system, and the profound corruptions of privatization. He sprinkled jokes throughout this epic rant, most of which landed. (A clean-cut Brit who favors boxy suits and skinny ties, Oliver exudes the goofy charm of a substitute teacher, which often masks the subversion of a first-class wit.)
But the crucial innovation of his show is that it dares to privilege education over entertainment. And as a viewer, therefore, I’m in a different headspace when I watch “Last Week Tonight.” I’m not constantly waiting to have my outrage lanced with a joke. I find myself more compelled by the ways in which Oliver serves as a cultural narrator rather than a court jester.
For the past two decades, as our civic institutions have become increasingly corrupt and decrepit, Americans, particularly on the left, have turned to our court jesters as a means of opiating our anger and helplessness. Morality gets served up, these days, with a mandatory laugh track.
Oliver and his staff seem to recognize that the vital ingredient isn’t the gags, but the capacity to tell large and disturbing truths about these broken institutions. In contrast to the fake news programs, he doesn’t much rely on punny graphics and rapid-fire video montages. In short: He appears to have evolved past the point of shtick.
There are moments during “Last Week Tonight” when I can sense Oliver’s nervous need to crack wise. This makes all the sense in the world. He made his name at “The Daily Show,” where big laughs were the coin of the realm, and still performs stand-up.
I often find myself wanting to say to him, “Hey, man, you don’t need to prove you’re clever, or make a dumb joke about Cheerios. We’re with you. Just trust the story you’re telling, and the power of your insight, and that’s enough.”
But in fairness, most of the time Oliver seems to have the same instinct. When he makes a joke he rarely luxuriates in the ensuing laughter — as Stewart and Colbert do reflexively. He often actually interrupts the laughter a bit, in his eagerness to get on with the story.
In the end, the segments that have critics and regular old people buzzing aren’t necessarily the funniest. They’re the ones in which Oliver is teaching us something vital that the rest of the media has not seen fit to cover. Or which they cover so simplistically or sensationally as to render unintelligible.
The quintessential example was Oliver’s exploration of those who oppose “net neutrality,” a term I had read and/or heard a hundred times but never (for the life of me) understood. Oliver spent more than 13 minutes explaining why eliminating net neutrality would allow huge cable companies to jack up prices. What people remember about this segment isn’t the cheap laugh he got slagging Sting, or his awkward effort to imitate a mobster. What they remember is the piercing insight he delivered about why the public has yet to raise any hue and cry about net neutrality. “The cable companies have figured out the great truth of America,” he noted. “If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring. Apple could put the entire text of ‘Mein Kampf’ inside the iTunes user agreement and you’d just go ‘Agree.’”
They might also remember that Oliver helped crash the FCC’s website by encouraging his viewers to send them comments — a call for direct citizen activism almost never seen in the world of comedy news, where the goal is to relieve, rather than incite.
Oliver’s most recent coup was a segment about “native advertising” — sponsored content dressed up as news — that doubled as a sophisticated lesson in the historical relationship between corporations and the Free Press. Among his most prominent targets was the New York Times, the supposed gold standard of journalism in this country. I’m sure this marks me as naive, but I’d never heard the term “native advertising.” I have now.
As corny as it might sound, Oliver is performing a public service with his program. He is following in the tradition of our finest journalists, which is to help us understand the hidden systems of power and injustice in the world around us.
It is my hope that he’ll see the initial success of “Last Week Tonight” as a testament not to his comedic chops but to his moral instincts, and to the stunning, hopeful revelation that Americans want more substance and insight than they’ve been getting from their Fourth Estate — even from a Brit who steps on his own laugh lines.
How John Oliver Beats Apathy – With a combination of humor and fearlessness, Last Week Tonight has done an unlikely thing: spurred action. TERRANCE ROSSAUG 14 2014, 2:51 PM ET
John Oliver’s segment on net neutrality this past June perfectly summed up what his HBO show Last Week Tonight is so good at: transcending apathy.
Oliver starts with a series of quick jibes about the Internet, hooking viewers with laugh lines about cats and coyote urine. Next he introduces the topic at hand—a topic that, Oliver acknowledges, doesn’t inherently lend itself to good TV: “The only two words in the English language more boring than net neutrality are ‘featuring Sting.’” Then comes a clip of a dry FCC hearing. When the camera cuts back to Oliver, his mouth is agape at the dullness of the proceedings. Two minutes in, and he’s not shaming viewers for failing to care about net neutrality before—he’s sympathizing with them.
Then Oliver’s tone switches. “But here’s the thing. Net neutrality is actually hugely important.”
Oliver grounds his explanation for the significance of net neutrality by focusing on the growth of well-known brands like Facebook. He’s simplifying things, showing how the beauty of the Internet lies in its level playing field, something that the loss of net neutrality would threaten. The jokes become less frequent, and real issues begin to take prominence. As the segment approaches its conclusion he begins to put it all back together, and you might be left wondering why you are frantically heading to the FCC’s webpage to complain about something even Oliver himself described as “boring even by C-SPAN’s standards” merely 10 minutes prior.
This is the magic of John Oliver. It’s been only 14 episodes so far (the show is slated for 19 this season) but the Last Week Tonight team has found a way to take a seemingly complicated issue, remove the talking points and cultural baggage surrounding it, break it into understandable parts—and then slowly rebuild it. It’s an ingenious formula that’s making a difference in the real world.
“Making a difference” isn’t hyperbole. The FCC’s website actually crashed from overwhelming web traffic the day after Oliver’s segment originally aired.
The crash itself may have been an unintended consequence, but it didn’t just happen by accident. The last couple minutes of the segment consisted of Oliver imploring viewers (in this case, specifically, Internet commenters) to contact the FCC. “This is the moment you were made for, commenters,” he says before the inspirational background music begins and he continues to wax poetic about the importance of speaking up. It’s ridiculously cheesy, sure, but it’s not trying to be anything else.
Whether satirical or not, most of Oliver’s segments end with some sort of call-to-action like that. Sometimes the action is audacious or silly, but it’s still action. Even Vladimir Putin got some pretty annoying emails I’ll bet.
And Oliver is not just influencing viewers; he’s actually having an effect on the people he’s criticizing. In the wake of his neutrality rant, an official FCC meeting began with a mention of the show, much to Oliver’s amusement. Later, Thailand—yes the country—denounced “John William Oliver” in an official military document after a segment made fun of its crown prince. Oliver welcomed the criticism. “Let’s burn more bridges,” he said, before dissing other countries that have anti-free-speech laws like Thailand’s.
Last Week Tonight has found a way to take a seemingly complicated issue, break it into understandable parts—and then rebuild it.
Part of the reason for Oliver’s success comes by virtue of his show being on HBO. He’s liberated from the advertising concerns that affect network TV. His scathing take on General Motors’ disastrous handling of the recent recall crisis won’t win him any sponsorship dollars from Detroit, but he’s in a position where he doesn’t have to care.
Listen to how vicious he got at the news that the company first learned of flaws in its vehicles all the way back in 2001: “That means a child attending her first day of school the day you found out would be old enough to die driving one of your cars the day you fucking did something about it.” Contrast that with his old boss Jon Stewart’s take on the topic over at Comedy Central. It was funny and informative, but it wasn’t fortified with anger, nor was it nearly as long.
It’s not that other satirists wholly shy away from any corporate criticism, but there’s a certain line that usually won’t be crossed. Oliver crosses it. In his August 2nd native-advertising segment he spent the first fours minute on a tirade, insulting random companies while repeatedly stating, almost like a whiny child, that there is nothing anyone could do about it. (The Atlantic’s scientology-ad scandal later got a mention.) He has described this immunity gifted to him as “a confusing amount of freedom.”
Yet for all of his strong opinionating, the show’s nowhere near as polarizing as you might expect. Though he does lean left socially, Oliver, who’s English, still approaches his topics from the viewpoint of an outsider sneakily peering over the hill (in this case across the pond) with his binoculars. It’s refreshing in this partisan age to hear from a commentator with a point of view, but not a political agenda.
For example, Oliver’s rant about wealth inequality was equal parts praising and criticizing. His ultimate point revolved around American optimism, “one of the things that I love the most about this country.” That’s in contrast to his home nation, where, he says, “We’re raised in a rigid class system where we have all hope beaten out of us.” Yet he turns the idea around, showing the dark side of the American dream: “Your optimism is overwhelming positive except when it leads you to act against your own best interest.”
The lack of commercial breaks coupled with its status as a weekly show also offers logistic benefits that allow Last Week Tonight to make a greater impact than many programs. Oliver’s able to go on and on about a topic uninterrupted. He also doesn’t have to report on the news of the day, freeing him from the pressures that lead others to produce superficial, quick-hit coverage. With his time allowances he’s able to truly delve into issues that much of society has either forgotten about or not paid enough attention to in the first place.
The most recent episode, for example, focused on the business of payday loans. Sure we’ve all seen those commercials promising fast cash, but how many people have given them a second thought? But Oliver took 16 entertaining minutes to dissect the payday loan scheme, exposing the multiple fallacies that drive multi-billion dollar industry.
Segments like these prove out the wisdom of a line Oliver gave when talking about the FCC: “The cable companies have figured out the great truth of America: If you want to something evil put it inside something boring.” And if you want something done about evil, Oliver has found, you find a way to make it interesting.
John Oliver skewers FIFA (Blog)