This morning, Paul posted another John Oliver clip, as have many blogs on many mornings of late. Last Week Tonight has enjoyed an unmistakable traction since it premiered in late April of this year, and there are good reasons for that. Paul mentions a few of the big ones in this morning's post: "Oliver is funny, he's deeply engaged with the news he's sharing, and the commercial-free Tonight allows him to do a deep dive into the subjects that matter."
Last week, Steve Almond took a deeper look at Tonight's popularity for Slate, and he successfully articulates some of the show's many appealing qualities in a way I hadn't yet considered. Among many points—Oliver's willingness to delve further toward the core nature of the injustices his show covers, to pay continued attention to the plight of the truly poor, or his insistence that the show often cover stories outside of the news cycle and outside of our country—here's the most revelatory:
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.
And that's the poignant realization about shows like the The Colbert Report and The Daily Show. It's the reason those shows are the last thing I watch before I go to bed. There's always the fleeting sense that the sound bites they're skewering are taken out of context, that there's more to the story. But the segments justify our anger and then assuage it with a joke. It's the idea that there are limits to the effectiveness of satire, and that satire has a self-satisfying way of preaching to the choir. That's not to say there isn't a value to what Almond calls "fake news" shows, but it raises the ultimate question of their value to quality discourse. Are Colbert and Stewart more valuable to the debate than Fox News—which employs a similar method of justifying its viewers' outrage—just because I agree with them? I'd like to think so, but all this has spurred me to ask myself some questions.