Since Donald Trump became the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party for President of the United States in early May , pundits and commentators have attempted to understand how this once unthinkable scenario came about. In fact, since his strong showing in the Iowa caucus this winter, people have tried finding the culprit for the rise of the reality television personality.
The old saying claims success has many fathers while failure is an orphan. In the case of Trump, however, it seems the failure of the political system has many fathers. During the past months President Obama has been blamed for the rise of Trump, so has the Republican Party, so has income inequality, and racism, and political science. The most usual suspect, however, remains the media. The case has been made that the media, and television especially, gave Trump unlimited airtime to peddle his particular brand of racism, xenophobia, nationalism, and conservatism. Leslie Moonves, executive chairman of CBS, articulated the relationship between media and Trump when he admitted that “it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”.
The lavish media attention given Trump includes late-night comedy, the former Apprentice host has appeared on all three network’s late-night shows, and even hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live on NBC. Showbiz politics is nothing new in American politics; celebrity has been a part of presidential elections for decades as historian Kathryn Cramer Brownell has shown. I have previously written on this blog about late-night campaigning and how integral comedy has become to presidential communication. What makes the appearance of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live for example so controversial, however, is that his statements are far outside the political mainstream. Balancing the quest for ratings with the risk of normalizing the rhetoric of Trump, while keeping the comedic integrity, has made for very different late-night appearances.
I wish I had coined the phrase: “The John Oliver Effect.” I wish I had jumped onto the John Oliver bandwagon before this past June when I first wrote about it for Humor in America. I wish more people had read my post in June. Here is the link to it for those who want a second chance: John Oliver, FIFA, American Humor, and Topic Sentences. The title is a bit long. I see that now. This follow-up post is better since is shamelessly rides the crest of the “John Oliver Effect” wave. About 60 words into the post, and I have used it three times, including the title. I am seeking traction. John Oliver Effect.
The phrase was coined by Victor Luckerson for Time online (20 January 2015): How the ‘John Oliver Effect’ is Having a Real-Life Impact. At least I think he coined it. In any case, although he introduces it as “so-called John Oliver Effect,” implying that someone had already “called” it, the internet has decided that he coined it based on the multitude of sources that use it and cite him as the originator. I’m in, too.
In a compelling article, Luckerson examines how reactions to particular sketches on Last Week Tonight have encouraged specific responses in the public square. In an especially useful post following the same idea, Sara Boboltz, for the Huffington Post (HuffPost Comedy) discusses ten specific segments from the show: 10 Real-Life Wins for John Oliver. Although I certainly quibble with the tendency in both pieces to use the term “real-life,” I will avoid a tedious existential argument here and simply say that both writers successfully capture a crucial transition in television comedy history. The list of segments from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver that deserve substantive attention in the pubic sphere is growing. The show, in no uncertain terms, encourages and even demands responses from politicians, policy-makers, public figures, and, well, from all of us.
This follow-up post on the show reiterates my belief that the most important characteristic of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is the essential quality of the writing. In particular, the thesis-driven approach to satirical humor that the show promotes is deepening the dialogue on any of a number of issues, and it does so with great skill and, so far, substantive success. It is television comedy in long-form, expository writing. What Last Week Tonight is proving that American audiences, indeed, can have an attention span greater than amphibians, current polling on the presidential race notwithstanding. Moreover, humor is effective in proving points. Who knew?
More and more viewers and critics are noticing. The show has earned four Emmy nominations for 2015: for “Outstanding Variety Talk Show Series”; “Outstanding Picture Editing for a Variety Series”; “Outstanding Interactive Program”; and “Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series.” It is the last one that has the most implications for the quality of the show and its long-term impact on American humor and satire. We will find out the results on the Emmys to air on Sep. 20th. Although the competition is formidable, the conclusion should be clear. Long form writing deserves its due.
In the much heralded–and very funny–Daily Show with Jon Stewart farewell episode, the brief banter between Stewart and Oliver was both funny and telling. The core joke, quite simply, was built around the definitive difference between the two shows and their approaches to humor and culture. Here is a link to the segment, wherein Oliver’s part starts five minutes into the seven-minute clip: John Oliver on Jon Stewart’s final Daily Show. The bit begins as Oliver goes on and on about his first day on set. Stewart tries to get Oliver to be more brief in his narrative, saying, “We’re gonna have to pick up the pace, just a smidgen.” To that Oliver responds, “No, no, no, no…we can’t. When something’s important, it’s worth taking the time to discuss it in depth. I’m talking fifteen, eighteen, even twenty minutes, if necessary. Otherwise, what are you really doing?”
This is a direct reference to the writing style of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, wherein the thesis-driven segments run, generally, 15-20 minutes. The comic but pointed rhetorical question is a good one for any politically conscious humor: “What are you really doing?”
Clearly, Last Week Tonight is accomplishing something substantive. Allie VanNest in Parse.ly (8 Sep 2015, Measuring the Impact of ‘The John Oliver Effect’) demonstrates a clear impact of Oliver’s segment examining chicken farming. Here is a link to the segment on YouTube: .
VanNest includes a graph revealing the impact this particular segment had on public awareness. The data is not ambiguous here. VanNest acknowledges that the more seemingly obscure the subject is, the more easily the John Oliver Effect can be measured. Still, the graph below nonetheless offers a formidable indication of the potential of the approach that Last Week Tonight is taking.
I argued in the earlier piece that Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, though equally funny to any late-night peers, aspires to alter public debate in a much more clearly articulated manner than any of its predecessors. It is all in the thesis and the sustained argument, all supported by carefully considered evidence, all made palatable with humor. Here is my advice to writing teachers: use John Oliver to teach argumentative writing. Everyone will win with this approach. Call it the John Oliver Effect. It may actually change things.
John Oliver got rid of Sepp Blatter. That would be a bold statement if I cared at all about Sepp Blatter or FIFA. I do not. I do care, however, about John Oliver, my favorite funny person from Great Britain (currently; it is a long list). More importantly, for this venue, is the contribution that John Oliver with his work on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) is making to American humor. As one who has been distraught over the loss of The Colbert Report and the impending departure of Jon Stewart from The Daily Show, I have been worried that we were facing the end of a golden age in American television political and social satire. I think it will last a bit longer, and I am sure that John Oliver is key to its future.
The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore is solid, and Trevor Noah may prove to reinvigorate the Daily Show, so my worries may be overblown. It is Last Week Tonight, however, that holds the most promise. Quite simply, it transforms the basic formula codified by The Daily Show under Jon Stewart (and applied to a specific parodic context by Colbert) and makes it decidedly more argumentative. Last Week Tonight is thesis-driven humor, which marks a dramatic shift in ambition, or, perhaps, confidence. In either case, Oliver will not admit it.
Oliver is nonetheless catching fire. On a recent appearance on CBS This Morning , Charlie Rose asked one question that seemed clear and concise (if you can believe it): “What is the intent of this ‘dumb’ show?” (Oliver had already called it “dumb” based on the introductory clips).
“Just to make people laugh.” OK, John, you get a pass since this is the standard answer for any such discussion of humor. Why a duck? Because ducks are funny, that’s why. But you are lying.
Oliver’s self-deprecation notwithstanding, the fact is that no one in American television has ever put together satirically charged arguments in segments ranging from 12 to 20 minutes (easily 2 to 4 times as long as standard Daily Show bits) that are focused on one issue with such depth and humor. Never. There are easier ways to make people laugh.
In the interview, Oliver would not assert a more elaborate purpose and underplayed any major role for satire itself. As to whether satire served a deeper purpose in his work, he simply said, “I have no idea. Ideally, satire would do no better than anyone.” He went on to explain the show’s long form, weekly approach: “It’s some slow cooking, what we do.”
Yes, slow cooking. It took a year to get Sepp Blatter. That is the pace of satire. C’mon, John, admit it.
To begin a closer look at the Last Week Tonight formula, let’s stick with Blatter and the two episodes that most directly skewer FIFA, the first of which aired on 8 June 2014 and the second on 1 June 2015. A brief look at these two episodes should provide a good indication of the power of Oliver’s thesis-driven comedy and the potential of long-form television satire. Both episodes feature FIFA as the main topic, and each segment runs just over 13 minutes. Here are links to each:
The key to Oliver’s approach could be understood best, perhaps, by considering it as a model for clear, argumentative writing. In fact, I urge all freshman composition instructors in the nation to drop all textbooks and simply use Last Week Tonight to teach the modes of argumentative writing. Let’s consider the most basic element of building effective arguments: Write clear and concise topic sentences. Note the few examples below:
–“FIFA is a comically grotesque organization.” (8 June 2014).
–“There is a certain irony in FIFA setting up any kind of justice system given the scandals that have dogged it over the years.” (8 June 2014).
–“The problem is: all the arrests in the world are going to change nothing as long as Blatter is still there.” (1 June 2015)
–“When your rainy day fund is so big that you’ve got to check it for swimming cartoon ducks, you might not be a non-profit anymore.” (8 June 2014)
–“Peanut butter and jelly are supposed to go together; FIFA and bribery should go together like peanut butter and a child with a deadly nut allergy.” (8 June 2014)
–“That is perfect because hotel sheets are very much like FIFA officials; they really should be clean, but they are actually unspeakably filthy, and deep down everybody knows that.” (1 June 2015)
Note the clarity of the argumentative position in each statement above. They assert positions, all followed by multiple levels of support within the show (follow the links). That, dear readers, is how you build good essays! It is also how to build fresh, ambitious humor.