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Monday, August 18, 2014

On the Popularity of John Oliver's Last Week Tonight and the Limits of Satire

Posted by on Mon, Aug 18, 2014 at 4:35 PM

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.


Comments (17) RSS

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care bear 1
Oliver > Colbert > Stewart.
Posted by care bear on August 18, 2014 at 4:50 PM · Report this
dnt trust me 2
Hey, I pay attention to the plight of the truly poor too! I just rather talk about them not to them. They make for good gossip in these troubled times.
Posted by dnt trust me on August 18, 2014 at 4:51 PM · Report this
Very thoughtful comment. Thx.
I don't have a TV but I have seen Colbert and Stewart (& Maddow) and they are obviously extremely talented but I have never really found them that compelling. Maybe they laugh too much -- or rather, they try to make us laugh. It's a somewhat similar discomfort I had with Robin Williams -- just not everything is hilarious. Even remotely.
Posted by caution&daring on August 18, 2014 at 4:55 PM · Report this
Are Colbert and Stewart more valuable to the debate than Fox News?
Faux news isn't part of the debate.
Unless standing in the middle if the auditorium pissing oneself while screaming obscenities and eating ones boogers is now defined as "part of the debate".
Posted by Pol Pot on August 18, 2014 at 5:41 PM · Report this
yes, the satire is more than preaching to the choir. It's proclaiming the emperor in new clothes when no one else dares. Like Tina Fey's parody of Sarah Palin. after that, no-one could take Palin seriously again.
Posted by pat L on August 18, 2014 at 6:34 PM · Report this
Fox News—which employs a similar method of justifying its viewers' outrage

What false equivalency bullshit. Oh the angst you feel! Why there is no television program pure enough to give you all the answers you need! Ohs nos!

Fox News is a wholly owned subsidiary and propaganda outlet of the far right billionaire establishment that peddles pure lies.

This similarity to a left leaning comedic satire is a product of your neurotic vapidity.

"Contribute to the dialogue?" What does that even mean? When have YOU contributed to the dialogue? This entire paper exists on pimping outrage. Give me a break. At least Oliver is comedy/satire and isn't fooling himself into thinking he needs to contribute to the dialogue.

Though this post did surprise me. Your usual dopey far-left "fawning adoration-to-backlash cycle" happened faster than I expected with Oliver's show.
Posted by tkc on August 18, 2014 at 6:56 PM · Report this
Grant Brissey, Emeritus 8
I like you.
Posted by Grant Brissey, Emeritus on August 18, 2014 at 7:20 PM · Report this
dnt trust me 9
If I may, I'd like to pretend to be Brian Williams or whichever TV talking head you may choose.

Breaking News: tkc@7 has just wiped his ass with Grant Brissey's face. Brissey likes it.
Posted by dnt trust me on August 18, 2014 at 7:28 PM · Report this
Cato the Younger Younger 10
@7 thank you. There isn't debate: we have shows that simply reinforce people's preconceived ideas of what they think is right and wrong. The current zeitgeist is self-congratulating smug "I told you so!"

The left just does it with much more skill and talent.
Posted by Cato the Younger Younger on August 19, 2014 at 5:16 AM · Report this
My anger has never been lanced by a television show. In fact, some of Jon Stewart's montages have been so compellingly brutally honest that my anger has been augmented by them.

The only sense of rejuvenation I get from TDS and Colbert comes from the potential value of storytelling. At least someone somewhere is telling the story as I see it. That's a source of hope--not apathy.
Posted by stating the obvious on August 19, 2014 at 7:11 AM · Report this
My main problem with Oliver's show is simply that it is on HBO, which means, to me at least, that no matter how biting or deep or important his take on the news is, it is not reaching a big enough (or diverse enough) audience to truly make a difference. I've never seen his show because I choose not to support Comcast. Until his ideas can reach a truly mainstream audience easily, I just can't take these articles completely seriously.
Posted by paulus22 on August 19, 2014 at 8:48 AM · Report this
I'm really loving Oliver's work on LWT (what little of it I can catch on YouTube, because screw cable) precisely because he's not afraid to get into the meat of a subject and doesn't get nervous when he hasn't gotten a laugh in a few minutes. I don't know who his writers are, but they're fabulous. And his delivery is impeccable.
Posted by Jenkitty on August 19, 2014 at 11:34 AM · Report this
Oliver is just absolutely crushing it right now. I was really skeptical that another satirical news cast was even needed, but I really think this show is on its way to being vital in our national discourse. I think the weekly format contributes to this. The 24 hour news cycle has been a nightmare for thoughtful commentary. Oliver and his writers have a week to put these pieces together and it shows in the depth they are able to achieve with them.
Posted by longball on August 19, 2014 at 11:57 AM · Report this
Grant Brissey, Emeritus 15
@13 and 14: Totally with you.
Posted by Grant Brissey, Emeritus on August 19, 2014 at 12:14 PM · Report this
LWT makes me feel ok about paying for HBO. I mean, Hell, someone has to.
Posted by Nic in Greenlake on August 19, 2014 at 1:58 PM · Report this
@12, Oliver's main segment (i.e. The really awesome ones that regularly run in excess of 15 minutes) are posted every week on slate, and usually salon too (and I assume youtube). They're unedited too. Anyway, I highly recommend taking those in. . Oliver has been crushing it virtually every week.
Posted by dave1976 on August 19, 2014 at 3:30 PM · Report this
Sir Vic 18
Stewart is a stand up comedian - he is great at telling jokes about the news.
Colbert is a comedic actor - he is great at playing the part of a dingbat news pundit.
Oliver is a British comedian in America - he is great at pointing out how we're fucking up the whole "Life, Liberty & Pursuit of Happiness" thing without having to break for his sponsors every 6 minutes.
Posted by Sir Vic on August 19, 2014 at 4:57 PM · Report this

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