Best known to American audiences for his own HBO series Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and his earlier contributions to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, John Oliver is an Englishman with equal flair for comedy and political punditry. Oliver’s claim to fame extends to popular podcasts and radio broadcasts as well, including Political Animal, The Department and The Bugle. He made his public debut at Edinburgh’s annual Festival Fringe – the world’s largest arts festival – in 2001 as part of a showcase of new comedy acts. Oliver’s infectious appeal is largely a result of his skillful comedic handling of “real world” issues – problems that normal people face on a daily basis, but rarely see depicted in mainstream news media.
While working as a “correspondent” alongside Jon Stewart, Oliver’s Briticisms and over-exaggerated caricatures drew frequent comparisons to the Monty Python brand of slapstick wit and humor. Today, however, his goals seem to have shifted. The primary objective of his current program is drawing attention to “hot button” topics impacting all Americans – whether they’re part of the 1% ruling elite or the malcontented majority.
Whether or not he chooses to state it explicitly, driving viewers to take action on issues such as the mistreatment of farm animals, climate change, and net neutrality is a core component of the program. Unlike other talking heads, who largely prefer to gloss over the systemic problems at the root of today’s most pressing concerns, Oliver chooses to dive in head first. His show, for many, stands as a beacon of light and truth amidst the constant and chaotic squabbling from anchors on FOX, CNN, MSNBC and similar corporate news networks.
When explaining net neutrality, for example, Oliver cleverly pushed the concept by using cat videos as an example to illustrate his point. A superficially silly tactic perhaps, but Oliver’s clear and concise explanation of the issue drove thousands of viewers to the Federal Communication Commission’s website to demand net neutrality protection, going so far as to crash the site’s comments section. Watching anxiously on the sidelines, as a result AT&T decided to halt plans to expand fiber optic internet service to nearly 100 US cities until the issue was resolved. Oliver knows how to appeal to his viewer’s minds as well as their funny bones – a lethal combination.
Oliver’s penchant for choosing controversial guest subjects has thrust him further into the limelight, Edward Snowden standing out as perhaps the most pertinent example. The man responsible for exposing the extent of the government’s infringement on our personal privacies is now effectively shuttered up in Siberia. During the interview, Oliver first made light of Snowden’s predicament before shifting to more aggressive questioning that seemed to rattle the former intelligence agent – or at least make him appear clearly uncomfortable. Oliver wasted no time challenging statements he’d made since the release of the documents, ultimately questioning his assertion that he’d read the thousands of documents he exposed.
The comedian – and yes, he considers himself a comedian first and foremost rather than anything resembling a journalist – hasn’t shied away from topics just because they happen to be uncomfortable. Topics given his treatment of humorously cold hard truth also include the sugar industry, America’s aging infrastructure, inadequate sex education, the consequences of food waste, as well as the widening wealth gap. The mainstream media, for the most part, has fully desensitized viewers to anything they see coming out of a glowing television box. Oliver’s unconventional delivery shows these complex problems in a new light, encouraging viewers themselves to find fresh solutions.
Oliver’s brand of comedic activism is unique, undeniable, and largely responsible for any upswing in average people paying attention to important “news” issues. Whether you identify with today’s apathetic Millennials, Boomers, or [insert generational identifier here], there is something to be gained from watching the show. There’s no denying that John Oliver shares his pal Jon Stewart’s ability to connect and communicate with the broader public, and there’s no time like the present to get everyone involved in solving the most pressing social, environmental, and economic challenges currently facing the planet.