Magazine | December 22, 2014, Issue

The Guest Scold

(Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
Welcome to America, John Oliver

Those destroyers just keep on coming. First there was Jon Stewart. Then we had Stephen Colbert. And now, for your edification and delight, there is John Oliver, an extra-erudite, super-truthy, this-time-it’s-serious British-born comic who for the last 24 weeks has spent his Sunday evenings laying out what in the week’s news was worthy of consideration and what was not, calmly walking his audience through one tricky topic after another, and informing the country at large how it should go about navigating the vast, dirty, and irredeemably corrupted informational morass that the explosion of the Internet has occasioned. On November 9, Oliver wrapped up the first season of his HBO show, Last Week Tonight — its semi-self-effacing slogan: “Just like the nightly news. Only weeklier” — and took a little time off to bask in the lavish, ubiquitous praise that America’s arbiters of taste have thrown his way, and, in good time, to figure out how best to capitalize on the suggestion that Oliver had finally managed to take the popular comedian-is-upset-by-the-news genre and do something substantial with it.

The “magic” of Oliver’s show, The Atlantic’s Terrance Ross proposed in August of this year, is to be found in its star’s ability to take “a seemingly complicated issue, remove the talking points and cultural baggage surrounding it, break it into understandable parts — and then slowly rebuild.” This process, Ross added, is “making a difference in the real world.” In The New Yorker three months earlier, Ian Crouch had put the case a little differently. “Rather than become the leader of an audience of acolytes,” Crouch submitted, Oliver “seems to be out to subtly correct his audience’s prejudices and blind spots. If Stewart is evangelical, Oliver is professorial.” This being so, Crouch concluded, Oliver’s offering is “akin to the current rush of explainer journalism, in which a smart person more or less reads the newspaper for you, tells you why this or that thing matters, and nudges you toward a final judgment.” Well, then.

There are certainly some material differences between Oliver’s own product and the brisker, glibber, shallower form of joke-laced, faux-indignant, mouth-agape political commentary that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have perfected over the years. Because he has been freed from the time and content restrictions that cable-with-advertising inevitably imposes, Oliver has been accorded a golden opportunity to run through his chosen topics in detail — and to roam into areas that most “funny” shows would assiduously avoid. Much of his debut, for example, was spent discussing the Indian general election — a massive world event that rarely even makes the nightly news in the United States. Other lengthy segments have served as genuinely excellent examples of crusading opinion journalism. Oliver’s takedown of the corrupt carbuncle that is the Fédération Internationale de Football Association was satisfying for this lifelong soccer fan to watch. His piece on net neutrality was nicely put together, if entirely one-sided, and for better or for worse had such an impact on its audience that the FCC’s website crashed under the weight of the traffic that its interest provoked. His recent treatise on the scourge of asset seizure and civil asset forfeiture, meanwhile, was well researched and typically well delivered, and it prompted me to look more deeply into the issue.

Vitally, Oliver is generally pleasant to spend an hour with. To my tastes, he is unusually funny, possessing in abundance that rare advantage in a humorist: an inherently comedic persona. As with John Cleese, Eric Morecambe, and Eddie Izzard, one needs only to take a look at the man to want to laugh. (No insult.) His delivery is top-notch, he has a good sense of timing, and, mercifully, he does not seem to believe, as Jon Stewart does, that tapping a pencil on a table is in any way representative of wit.

And yet, despite all of his talent — and for all the programmatic differences between him and his forebears, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert — Oliver is ultimately being received in precisely the same manner as those who came before him. Pace Ian Crouch, the audience of Last Week Tonight is indeed full of “acolytes,” and Oliver is providing them with a familiar and much-desired service: affirmation. Bottom line: There has been no revolution. Rather, Oliver has discovered the sweet spot that exists between comedy and the news, and he is sitting in it more comfortably than anyone has to date. Far from being a trailblazer, Oliver is Jon Stewart with an HBO show, Bill Maher without the rebellious streak, John Fugelsang with a sense of humor. He’s entertaining, sure. He’s likeable, too. But he is in no way the antidote or the answer to our lazy, politically segregated, sound-bite-happy culture. Instead, he is our lazy, politically segregated, sound-bite-happy culture — just with a bigger budget and a more prestigious platform.

#page#This, one suspects, would be news to Oliver’s fans, who typically treat their idol less as one opinionated person within a broad and thriving market of opinions than as The One, who, being sufficiently detached from the political process and the vicissitudes of the advertising world, is able to tell his audience “everything” that it needs to know and to omit from consideration what he deems irrelevant. Consider how Oliver’s clips are sold by those who agree with his message: less as humor than as earnest, holistic commentary. By the progressive account, Oliver spends his Sunday evenings not “mocking” or “lampooning” his targets but “killing,” “wrecking,” “blasting,” “smashing,” “obliterating,” “annihilating,” “decimating,” and “destroying” them so thoroughly that they can be taken to have been discredited for all time. This impulse, as it happens, is rather embarrassing, for in my experience it is the exponents of precisely this form of zeal who are more likely than anybody else to shout “Fox News!” during an argument, or to posit that their ideological opponents believe what they believe only because they limit themselves to a few friendly sources that they regard as oracles. Can those who smugly tell their antagonists that they need to “watch something other than O’Reilly” not see how funny they look to the outside world?

Evidently, some can, at least. Indeed, so embarrassing have the impassioned recommendations become that, to his great credit, Oliver lately felt the need to acknowledge the phenomenon by running a self-mocking segment in which he “literally destroyed” a piñata. Others have also noticed the penchant. Vox, which offers up Oliver clips as if their weekly presentation were mandated by law, recently felt the need to build an online feature with which readers might create their “own hyperviolent John Oliver headlines.” A sample offering: “John Oliver sends wave after wave of his own men to defeat Slovenian surveillance policies.” Haha?

To search for heroes and vindicators is a human — and bipartisan — trait. But no man is the fount of all wisdom, and, as informative as his show can be, Oliver can at times be downright embarrassing. “All those conspiracy theories about a shadow government are actually true,” he contended a few days before the 2014 midterm elections. “Only it’s not a group of billionaires meeting in a mountain lair in Zurich; it’s a bunch of pasty bureaucrats meeting in a windowless room in Lansing, Mich.” This claim, which formed part of a longer diatribe against the power and influence of state and local governments, was widely celebrated by Oliver’s ideological allies. In Tech Times, Laura Rosenfeld opined that “Oliver brilliantly took on state legislatures during his monologue on his weekly HBO political satire show Last Week Tonight. Though there’s a lot of talk over which party will rule the U.S. Congress after this election, Oliver shows that the real power lies in state legislatures. And that is an unfortunate fact indeed.”

That the United States is primarily run at the state level — and that the federal government is intended to take care of only those few questions that are of genuinely national import — is not an “unfortunate fact” or a “pessimistic view,” nor does it need to be “shown.” Rather, it is how the country is deliberately and explicitly set up. During his monologue, Oliver expressed his irritation with a local candidate who repeatedly told voters, “I believe in the U.S. Constitution.” I daresay that I can sympathize with anyone who is bored by politicos who limit their pitch entirely to groveling expressions of admiration for the Founders. But at least the aspirant had read the damn thing. Really, for someone who has deliberately set himself up to educate, Oliver might have been expected to show a little more familiarity with the country he was criticizing. One can only wonder what to anticipate next. Will Oliver and his team perhaps discover the Bill of Rights? “Unbeknownst to many of us, America remains in the thrall of an ancient document that prevents majorities from restricting the exercise of certain rights!” Or perhaps we will be treated to a disquisition on the nature of the Senate, replete with the astonished recognition that the body serves to boost within the national legislature the representation of smaller, less-populated states?

As a British immigrant who writes daily about America and its system of government, I must admit that I find basic mistakes such as these both peculiar and frustrating. To me, Oliver seems to be a man who has been given his introduction to the country by a small group of New York City progressives and has yet to transcend their confines. That, naturally, is his right. We all have our own political and social proclivities. Nevertheless, our choices have consequences. By his own admission, Oliver first appeared on The Daily Show on the second day he had ever spent in the United States. By anybody’s standards, that’s quite the baptism.

Admirably, Oliver is happy to concede that he still feels “different” — even all these years later. In an interview with the A.V. Club in July 2012, he confirmed that, to him, the United States is “sonically different, culturally different,” and that, despite having moved from describing his peers as “you” to labeling them “we,” he has nevertheless kept “an outsider perspective on America in general.” Just as in his capacity to shuttle between his “earnest” and “comic” poses, he regards this alienation as a net professional benefit. Increasingly, he noted in the same interview, he sets himself up as an insider, but, “if it’s a time that I’ll want to be particularly accusatory of America then fine, I’ll, all of a sudden, play the national outsider again. I have it both ways.”

#page#Now, I have no doubt that Oliver is sincere in his pronouncements and that he is presenting the United States to his audience precisely as he sees fit. Indeed, it is his obvious sincerity that makes his show so watchable. Nevertheless, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a British accent is associated with erudition in the American psyche, and that any immigrant who talks coherently about the country and its politics quickly becomes useful to his friends. Presenting one’s view in a foreign accent gives it, in the mind of the sympathetic listener, a certain imprimatur. “Look,” a partisan can say, “this guy from abroad agrees with us. If he can see it, why can’t you?”

This being so, I must confess that it can be rather galling to witness my fellow émigrés scoff so breezily at the hand that feeds them. In my experience, there are two basic types of British immigrant. On the one hand, there are deliberate exiles who adore their new country and were drawn here by its virtues. On the other, there are wanderers who came here for a job but who do not quite seem to like or “get” the place, and whose broadcasts are in consequence tinged with a certain disdain.

Even Christopher Hitchens, who could be harshly critical of the United States, realized nevertheless that he had benefited immeasurably from the openness of the society, and sought better to understand its intricacies and to embrace its character. “Life in Britain,” Hitchens once wrote, “had seemed like one long antechamber to a room that had too many barriers to entry.” Not so America, which took to him immediately. John Oliver, it seems, has had a similar experience, the country having come to prize him because he is talented and not because he was born in the right place. Oliver did not grow up rich. He did not grow up as an aristocrat. His parents were teachers, not celebrities. Indeed, by his own account, Oliver was quite literally plucked from his television job in Britain and put onto a national American stage, the actor Ricky Gervais having spotted his talent from afar and recommended him to Comedy Central. Having enjoyed a mediocre career in Britain, Oliver is now being paid a “1 percenter” salary to tell jokes on television and beyond, and enjoys full creative control over everything he does. And yet he does not seem entirely to appreciate the scale of the opportunity he has been afforded.

In a segment that aired last July, Oliver griped that Americans were too “optimistic” about their prospects. Rather than attempting to maintain the circumstances in which they might eventually “make it,” Oliver proposed, voters should instead be looking to the state for their sustenance, requesting their lawmakers to take steps to close the “income gap.” To make his case, Oliver relied heavily on a Pew Research Center study that found that as many as 60 percent of Americans believe that they can still get ahead if they are willing to work hard. This, Oliver spluttered, was absurd. Thus did we see a man who has been welcomed into a new country and invited to lecture its people about their affairs for a handsome salary express palpable irritation that others believe that they, too, can achieve their dreams.

At the root of Oliver’s condemnation one can sense John Steinbeck’s asseveration that “socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires” — a gripe that was celebrated for its perspicacity by all the “right” people at the time it was proferred but that nevertheless served as little more than a pessimistic and myopic overture to the largest economic expansion in the history of the world. (It is a time-honored tradition that those who make their fortunes quickly and relatively easily — Hollywood actors; the wildly talented; the seventh employee of the successful technology start-up — are inclined to conclude that all success in life takes the form of their own and that prosperity and celebrity are primarily a question of luck.) Accordingly, one can discern a certain sneer in Oliver’s form of anti-gospel — the inescapable presumption being that of course a man like John Oliver can make it in America but that the rest of the plebs are going to have a hard time getting on without help.

And that, as Americans like to say, is the Thing. There is nothing inherently wrong with a man’s electing to dismantle a set of topics into “understandable parts — and then slowly rebuild” them in his image. Nor are the more enthusiastic among us to be lambasted for trying to nudge the “prejudices” of our countrymen in our own direction. But one has to question the value of anybody’s taking this approach before an audience whose membership has decided to buy the reconstructed product long before it switched on its televisions. Evidently, confirmation bias is as real in the age of HBO as it ever was, and the tale here is a sadly familiar one: of new suits and old messages, and of the deleterious effect that self-selection has on any didactic enterprise. For however fiery and enjoyable might be the preacher, and however chastened by his entreaties the flock might presume the Devil must have become, if the converted are in the pews solely to be reassured that they’ve been saved, there is little purpose in the sermon — as slick, as earnest, or as whimsical as it may be.

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