Or, Thoughts on the Astronomical Rise of Mansplaining Expert John Oliver
Discomfort in comedy is nothing new.
In fact, the particular genre of “cringe comedy” that is currently en vogue is probably the type of comedy I consume most heartily. I’ve watched Steve Carrell as Michael Scott proclaim his workplace a “color-free zone.” I’ve watched Larry David as “himself” extract a golf club, quite literally, from a man’s cold, dead hands. I’ve listened to Louis CK equate a pedophile’s “love” of children to his own love of Mounds bars. (I must confess, I too love Mounds. The dark chocolate exterior and smooth, sweet coconut filling distract me from scary things like pedophiles.)
I’ve seen every episode of Chappelle Show (RIP), 30 Rock (still hanging on in the form of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Mr. Bean, Arrested Development, and Seinfeld. I’ve watched and rewatched the standup bits of Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Tig Notaro, and Lenny Bruce. I’ve cringed retroactively along with the Michael Richards/ Andy Kaufman/ Jack Burns brawl on Fridays, relished SNL’s best casting choice in recent memory, Leslie Jones, and have been subjected to Pootie Tang on at least two occasions (thanks, Mom and Dad).
These comedians, films, and shows all, at some point, have succeeded in making me uncomfortable. But all in a way that allows the comedy to shine, to succeed, to prove a point, to parody, to satirize—so I’m not interested in talking about discomfort comedy that works. I’m much more interested in comedy that may not be branded as “discomfort comedy,” but, in fact, makes me far more uncomfortable than any of the aforementioned comedies.
I’d like to talk about Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
Now, this show certainly is not “discomfort comedy” à la the outrageousness of Always Sunny or the quiet brooding desperation of Louie. This show actually seeks to agitate its audience by “revealing” injustice, inconsistencies, and often, plain old absurdities in American (and global) governmental, societal, and cultural systems. John Oliver himself is in discomfort throughout each half-hour episode, in a way that tells the viewer, “hey, you should get upset too,” as Oliver dissects the bigoted/ idiotic/ discriminatory practice du jour.
So why am I picking on John Oliver, that charming British fellow with a coveted Sunday night HBO slot? The guy who enlightened us about everything from net neutrality to civil forfeiture laws? The comedian who brilliantly takes down idiocy, sticks up for the little guy, and fights voraciously for what he believes in? The TV personality who can actually galvanize a nation to act, often causing real change that affects the very laws, policies, and practices he’s ranting about?
Well, mostly, it’s because I don’t agree with any of that. John Oliver, and the canon of “satire” news, from which he was spawned, is a dangerous genre. Also, I don’t think he’s very funny. As a result, he makes me highly uncomfortable.
Now before I move forward, I should confess something: I was once an avid consumer not just of Last Week Tonight, but also of the entire “satire news” genre. Perhaps my distaste for this type of comedy is partially rooted in sheer oversaturation and exhaustion; however, my own fatigue serves only to strengthen my argument.
Of course, John Oliver did not do this himself. No, there has been a line of white males working for decades to make Oliver’s particularly annoying blend of pseudo-journalism and lazy comedy not only possible, but also hugely popular. Oliver himself comes to HBO straight from Comedy Central’s Daily Show: He’d garnered attention over the course of his long tenure as a correspondent, especially for his scathing interviews with everyone from government officials to protesters on the street. When Jon Stewart had to take a leave of absence in the summer of 2013 to do Something More Important, John Oliver took his turn behind the Daily Show desk for eight weeks. Twitter went bonkers, America fell in love, and HBO made an offer. Last Week Tonight (admittedly, a brilliant name) was born.
Initially, Oliver’s no-frills, sincerity-fueled rants served as a refreshing palate cleanser to Jon Stewart’s jaded delivery and Stephen Colbert’s over-the-top performativity. But all too quickly, Oliver lost his sheen, falling into the cyclical, stale, format-induced routine that now dictates every 30-minute missive of Last Week Tonight.
Much of my discomfort with John Oliver stems from the way he is treated by the mainstream media. I cannot scroll through Twitter, Facebook, or even Instagram on a Monday morning during LWT season without bearing witness to everything that John Oliver “explained” to the masses the night before.
Real, recent examples of this include:
“John Oliver explains the myriad challenges facing transgender rights”—Digg[1. “John Oliver Explains The Myriad Challenges Facing Transgender Rights.” Digg. Web. 03 Mar. 2016.]
“John Oliver calls out ‘Racist’ Redskins.”—New York Magazine[2. Godfrey, Elaine. “Watch John Oliver Call Out Redskins’ Attempt to Defend Their Name.” Daily Intelligencer. 09 Nov. 2015. Web. 03 Mar. 2016.]
“John Oliver explains where daylight savings time comes from.”—Business Insider[3. Guerrasio, Jason. “John Oliver Explains Where Daylight Saving Comes from and Why It’s Totally Irrelevant Today.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 09 Mar. 2015. Web. 03 Mar. 2016.]
“Watch John Oliver’s Hilarious Take on the Gender Pay Gap.”—Time Magazine[4. Alter, Charlotte. “Watch John Oliver’s Hilarious Take on the Gender Pay Gap.” Time. Time Magazine, 19 Aug. 2014. Web. 03 Mar. 2016.]
“John Oliver explains why the deck is stacked against former prisoners.”—The Daily Dot[5. Baker-Whitelaw, Gavia. “John Oliver Airs Sympathetic Segment about Former Prisoners.” The Daily Dot. 09 Nov. 2015. Web. 03 Mar. 2016.]
To be clear, I know these headlines, or the general mainstream media parlance regarding his show, is not Oliver’s fault. He has said himself: “We’re done with the show once we’re done. I have to accept I cannot control what happens to it, how it’s repackaged out in the world.” Oliver, like his predecessors, has always been a comedian first, and has never assumed any responsibility as a journalist.
But these headlines perfectly exemplify the social and political danger of John Oliver that makes it so uncomfortable for me to watch his show. Each episode of LWT can easily be reduced to a headline Madlib: “[white male name] [explains/ eviscerates/ blows the whistle] on [social/ political/ economic ill].” When the “social/ political/ economic” ill involves discrimination against, well, any minority group, John Oliver, as straight white male, becomes very whitemansplainy. And as a wealthy white male with his own HBO show, he is by default given credit for “shedding light” on issues that the affected minorities have been raising the alarm about for years. And that’s a problem.
The counter argument to this could be that Oliver is using his privilege “for good.” He brings these long-standing injustices into the mainstream, into the living rooms of HBO subscribers—and even further, by disseminating bits of content democratically throughout the internet, so that one doesn’t even have to have an HBO subscription to have their own lack of privilege explained to them. To that I say, “Sure, whatever helps you sleep at night.”
But wait! You cry. John Oliver takes everything from the egregiously unjust (the school-to- prison-pipeline), to the mundane (regifting), to the bizarre (geckos in space) and makes it funny, and therein lies his genius!
My response to that is, of course, that he’s not even funny.
Like the headlines that surface about him in the Monday morning LWT mania, a John Oliver joke can also be reduced to a Madlib: “[insert explanation of unjust/ mundane/ bizarre thing here]. That’s like [insert outrageous-yet-apt comparison, extra points if it involves poop or fuzzy animals].”
No kidding, folks: all of Oliver’s cracks, in fact his best jokes, are simply lazy, clichéd similes. My discovery of this tired, formulaic joke-manufacturing process was the first crack in the wall of my love for satirical news that eventually sent it crumbling. Now, I nearly cannot watch the show, because the facility of each punch line is infuriating:
On former cable industry lobbyist Tom Wheeler’s appointment as FCC chairman: “That’s like needing a babysitter and hiring a dingo.”1
On student debt: “It’s like HPV. If you go to college, you’re most certainly going to get it. And if you do, it will follow you for the rest of your life.”[8. Last Week Tonight. “Episode 16.” Oliver, John, Tim Carvell, James Taylor, and Jon Thoday, prods. HBO. September 7, 2014.]
On cranberries: “Cranberries taste like what a raspberry drinks before a colonoscopy.”[9. Last Week Tonight. “Episode 22.” Oliver, John, Tim Carvell, James Taylor, and Jon Thoday, prods. HBO. October 26, 2014.]
On the death penalty: “The death penalty is like the McRib. When you can’t have it, it seems so tantalizing. But when they bring it back, you think, ‘Wow, this is ethically wrong.’”[10. Last Week Tonight. “Episode 2.” Oliver, John, Tim Carvell, James Taylor, and Jon Thoday, prods. HBO. May 4, 2014.]
On New Year’s Eve: “It’s like the death of a pet. You know it’s going to happen, but somehow you’re never really prepared for how awful it is.”2
I could go on, but I’ll stop here for the sake of my own sanity. Just watch any episode and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
The ultimate discomfort of John Oliver’s Sunday-night routine is that it fools people into thinking they are actually effecting change. Oliver’s shows often end with a rousing call to action that never involves anything more than annoying an elected official, overrunning a server, or tweeting a hashtag. #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain has been a glaring example: a completely harmless attempt to poke fun at The Donald that, once circulated heavily throughout social media, is heralded as “Very Important” when, really, it’s just not.
Often these calls to action work in the sense that they accomplish what they set out to do: A targeted individual will be asked about it at a press conference, a government official will issue a response, a website will be shut down for a couple hours. But none of this leads to real change, and thus Last Week Tonight just becomes yet another unnerving piece of pre-chewed, easy-to-digest media that convinces viewers that just by watching, you’re doing something.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and the rampant, still-growing culture of slacktivism that pervades life in this century needs to be silenced, not amplified. This is the most discomforting comedy: the sort that allows itself to be masqueraded through the mainstream as a revolution, when really, it’s just another rich white guy, mansplaining things that don’t affect him, without even the slightest bit of responsibility, self-awareness, or deprecation.
Again, I cannot, and do not, fault John Oliver completely. The current lamestream media’s sensationalist, click-bait driven headlines and culture’s constant must-find-a-white-male-messiah complex (Bernie Sanders, anyone?) are hugely to blame for many of the reasons Last Week Tonight makes me so uncomfortable. But I do, and I must, place much of the blame squarely on John Oliver’s shoulders. It is too easy for him to continue to cry “I’m a comedian! Don’t blame me!” when his show is the subject of controversy or even undue praise and adoration. He must take responsibility for the fact that he is essentially a pundit: the left’s version of a Rush Limbaugh, or a Bill O’Reilly, except being a fan of John Oliver comes with a unique false sense of superiority as the comedian is trumpeted through the media as the second coming of Christ.
Until John Oliver is able to sharply skewer both the media accolades he’s been given and his own refusal to acknowledge the implications of his so-called “comedy,” I certainly will not feel comfortable watching, and thus, participating, in his well-oiled, quick-click-fueled mansplaining machine. And even then, I probably still won’t laugh.