PC Culture

John Oliver’s Micro-Trolling

John Oliver in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 2014. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
Who is the real hater in this latest circus act?

John Oliver is sometimes classified as a political satirist, but what he really seems to fancy is nonsensical trolling. Remember his big idea for taking down Donald Trump two years ago? It was a lengthy segment making fun of an ancestral name, Drumpf, that might have been changed to Trump as far back as the 17th century. Hey, immigrants sure have funny names! Oliver built the gag into a weak publicity stunt via a catchphrase that didn’t catch (“Make Donald Drumpf Again”), a registered Web domain, a Google Chrome extension, and baseball caps emblazoned with the slogan. Oliver must have sold more crap over the years than the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, but at least Cracker Barrel doesn’t pretend it’s bending the arc of history.

Oliver’s latest Barnum-of-comedy effort meant going after a target so small it was virtually invisible on the cultural radar before Oliver dabbed his tiny bull’s-eye on it — the children’s book Marlon Bundo’s Day in the Life of the Vice President, about a pet rabbit living in the vice president’s residence. It was written by Mike Pence’s daughter Charlotte and illustrated by Second Lady Karen Pence.

“Please, buy it for your children, buy it for any child you know, or just buy it because you know it would annoy Mike Pence,” Oliver pleaded with his viewers, informing them that buying his book (actually written by his staffer Jill Twiss, with illustrations by E. G. Keller) would amount to telling Pence to “go f*** himself.” Here we pause to reflect that Pence these days is silent about homosexuality, yet Oliver is telling him to “go f*** himself.” Which one is guilty of being a “hater”?

Oliver’s viewers complied, joining an imaginary Pence-annoyance frenzy by buying the parody book Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Presents a Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo. Oliver’s book — here’s where the trolling comes in — is gay. (The Pences’ book is a bit gay too, albeit unintentionally; Quincy Jones recently said that their bunny hero’s near-namesake Marlon Brando hooked up with Richard Pryor in the 1970s, and Pryor’s family confirmed the tryst. Bless the Pences for managing to stay innocent of the latest gossip, though.)

Take that, Pence and the charities to which you are directing all profits! (They are A21, which seeks an end to human trafficking, and Tracy’s Kids, which provides art therapy to kids with cancer.)

Oliver’s book features bunny hero Marlon Bundo falling in love with a male rabbit named Wesley while being harangued by a stink bug who resembles Pence. Take that, Pence and the charities to which you are directing all profits! (They are A21, which seeks an end to human trafficking, and Tracy’s Kids, which provides art therapy to kids with cancer.) Collateral publicity seems to be helping the Pences, though: As of Tuesday noon, Oliver’s book was No. 1 overall on Amazon’s best-seller list, but the Pence story that inspired it was not far behind, in fourth place.

Oliver’s book is a success at its actual, if unstated, goal: creating publicity for John Oliver. The stunt generated headlines from a cooing press, which in many cases reported as fact Pence’s supposed “homophobia” (Slate) or “opposition to LGBT rights” (People). “John Oliver’s Gay-Bunny Book Is Outselling the Mike Pence Book It’s Trolling,” in Vanity Fair, was a typical breathless headline among dozens chronicling Oliver’s pseudo-event. As for Oliver’s stated goal, “Annoy Mike Pence,” it isn’t obvious that it’s being met.

On Fox Business Network, Charlotte Pence responded with equanimity, noting that Oliver had also promised to donate profits from his book to charity, in his case AIDS United and the Trevor Project, which supports LGBT youth.

I mean, I think you know, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery in a way. But also, in all seriousness, his book is contributing to charities that I think we can all get behind. We have two books giving to charities that are about bunnies, so I’m all for it really.

As for her unflappable father, Oliver must be confusing Pence with someone else if he thinks the veep is easily irritated by celebrity putdowns. Previous attempts to troll Pence by the cast of Hamilton, Oscars host Jimmy Kimmel, and people hoisting a gay-pride flag behind him at a St. Patrick’s Day parade elicited no sign of irritation whatsoever. Oliver’s action raises an enduring point of philosophy: If you leave a flaming bag of dog poop on the Naval Observatory’s doorstep, but no one comes out to stomp on it, can you really call yourself a prankster?

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