Each John Oliver monologue takes a different weighty and urgent political issue and deconstructs it with wit, clarity and moral purpose.
By Matt Hanson
HBO’s Last Week Tonight, hosted by British comedian and Daily Show alumni John Oliver, is generating a lot of buzz. Excerpts from the show posted on Youtube are going verifiably viral, with several million hits apiece. They deserve the attention. Each one takes a different weighty and urgent political issue (America‘s broken prison system, capital punishment, income inequality) and deconstructs it with wit, clarity and moral purpose.
The show’s take on the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri is the most fully realized example of Last Week Tonight’s use of humor as a means of social critique. Oliver doesn’t just report the fact that Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot by the police. He shows us the event’s significance in both local terms (racial tensions in the community, the tone-deaf responses of the mayor and governor) and connects it to national ones (police militarization). Oliver artfully provides important information while remaining funny, engaging and focused:
His seven year apprenticeship as a Daily Show correspondent and occasional fill-in host clearly wasn’t wasted time. Jon Stewart’s been perfecting this kind of informed, playful, and hyper-referential style of comedic riffing since the 21st Century began. Stewart’s much-vaunted brand of “fake news” is, in some ways, more accurate than the “real” news could ever be. It’s not just that he comments on the news, he exposes the absurdities of the people who deliver the officially sanctioned version of it. The style of comedy The Daily Show perfected lampoons frauds and potentates of all kinds so effectively precisely because its targets aren’t aware of how ridiculous they are.
It’s easy to see why The Daily Show has paved the way for a new generation of comedians to break into the mainstream. Remember that Steve Carell, Lewis Black and Boston’s own Rob Corddry all started there and each has gone on to solid careers. The Colbert Report (a Daily Show spin-off) has stayed funny and culturally relevant. Stephen Colbert recently got the nod for the coveted position as the new host of The Late Show. Finally, current Daily Show correspondent Michael Che was named one of the new co-hosts of Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live. The crossover makes sense – in many ways, The Daily Show is now officially as much of a cultural landmark as SNL ever was.
John Oliver isn’t yet as eminent as Stewart or Colbert, but he could be. Take Last Week’s approach to net neutrality for example, which is the most popular monologue on Youtube to date. It takes a Stewart-level talent to build an effective comedy routine around subject matter which, on the surface, is dull and boring. Net neutrality is an issue which is often overlooked but may have troubling consequences for all who use the internet. In brief, net neutrality concerns whether or not internet service providers can control what data travels at what rate, how much they can charge for the information to be sent through their pipelines and whether or not they can slow down, block or deny access to web sites they don’t approve of.
Oliver’s monologue explained the disturbing economic (Comcast is spending millions to lobby for a two-tiered system, second in lobbying cash only to the military) and political (Obama chose a former cable company lobbyist to head the FCC) issues at stake and proposed a creative way to vent the viewer‘s outrage. Speaking directly to the trolls of the internet, he encouraged them to “for once in your lives, focus your indiscriminant rage in a useful direction” and send their thoughts on net neutrality to the Comments section at the FCC’s website.
Evidently the plan worked, maybe even a little better than expected. Not long after the clip went viral the FCC website was flooded with more than three million responses, causing it to crash. This isn’t exactly a storming of the Bastille, but it does represent a democratically healthy response to Oliver’s eloquent and hilarious outrage. It means that Last Week Tonight has inspired millions of people to express their dissent on a significant issue in a very public way. People aren’t just watching John Oliver, they’re responding to him.
A few days ago, the show did a segment mocking the hypocrisy of the Miss America pageant. It’s already nearly as popular as the Ferguson monologue, with a little over five million hits and counting. Of course the pageant’s a superficial farce, spray-tanned from heel to hairdo with sexism and patriarchy, but its problems run deeper than that. Oliver amusingly rebutted the pageant’s false and far-fetched claim to be “the world’s largest provider of scholarships for women.” In contrast, he mentioned several legitimate and under-funded scholarship programs for women and posted their web addresses on the screen. Within 48 hours, the Society for Women Engineers received a huge donation bounce. When was the last time a comedy show could do something so impressive?
Last Week Tonight is less than twenty episodes old. There’s room for improvement. Oliver is a charming host but he ultimately needs to be more than that. The interview segments are weak and sometimes gimmicky. When he sat down with a blue-chip guest like bestselling author and CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria, the conversation became rambling and uninformative. The comedy sketches don’t work as well as the monologues, which is disappointing. This should be remedied – not only would better sketches make Last Week more cohesive but they would also give Oliver and his writers a chance to experiment with the form. Hiring new comedians as correspondents would be an innovative move worth exploring. Oliver’s Englishness might be worth delving into, offering an international perspective on America’s moronic inferno and giving America a look at itself from outside. Ultimately, the rest of Last Week needs to be on par with the monologues, brilliant as they are, in order to truly hit its stride as a TV show.
With a strong start, Last Week Tonight has tremendous potential. HBO has shown interest in possibly expanding the show to a full hour and start airing twice a week after Oliver becomes more experienced as a proper host. The consistent popularity and audience response to the Youtube clips proves that its satirical style is resonating with a mass audience. It will be interesting to see how Last Week Tonight will evolve over time. Whether Oliver can reach the comedic eminence of Stewart and Colbert is an open question, though it could be within his grasp. For now, the very exciting fact remains that millions of people are watching him.
Matt Hanson is a critic for the Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.