On Aug. 21, before a month-long hiatus for HBO’s Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver spent five minutes highlighting the similarities between Donald Trump, a “racist voodoo doll made of discarded cat hair,” and the protagonist of a 1996 children’s book called The Kid Who Ran For President.
In the book, Judson Moon, “a charismatic, somewhat bored class clown who runs for president as a joke,” realizes that if he says the most outrageous, quote-worthy things he can think of, a certain segment of the population will support him no matter what. “I felt like I could tell them that the earth was really flat and they’d agree with me,” says Moon. Oliver encouraged Trump to take the advice of this fictional 12-year-old, who ultimately gives up his run on moral grounds.
It was a funny bit — dumb and irreverent, but also unexpected, entertaining, and more thought-provoking than we’d all like to admit.
Oliver has become one of the best political comedians on television (with help from his crack writing team, of course). But he has also pushed back strongly on assertions from media outlets — many of which have praised Last Week Tonight’s long-form investigative pieces — that he’s doing actual journalism. Anchor Jorge Ramos pressed Oliver in May 2015: “But you’re doing the work of a journalist.” “No,” Oliver shot back, “I’m doing the work of a comedian.”
Hard to blame him for acting defensive. As The Daily Beast put it in 2014: “the moment you admit you’re committing random acts of journalism, you have to assume the responsibilities and standards of a journalist — something no comedy writer is particularly eager to do.”
But in an era when hard reporting is undervalued, and we each hone in on the truthy, self-reinforcing news cycles of our choosing, Oliver’s belief in “the work of a comedian” starts to look progressive. His show incites laughter and indignation by shedding light on under-reported topics, and the aggressive fact-checking and thorough research shore up every punchline (senior news researcher Charles Wilson, who came to HBO from The New York Times and The New Yorker, is Oliver’s secret weapon).
Why can’t a show built for telling jokes fly to Russia for a sit-down with Edward Snowden, dismantle Miss America’s scholarship claims, prompt supporters of net neutrality to crash the FCC’s website, and sing songs about the for-profit prison system? Satirical comedy is perhaps the public’s most potent and time-honored tool for fighting the forces that prefer to keep us divided (or worse, apathetic).
Which is why, despite a recent surge in cable and late-night political comedy shows, diversity matters more than ever. Historically, it’s something that our comedy institutions have been pretty terrible at. In October 2015, a Vanity Fair feature praising the new late-night ran a photo spread of 10 hosts — all of whom were male (despite the looming presence of accomplished comedians like Samantha Bee, Chelsea Handler, and Jessica Williams). Out of the two men of color featured in that article, one — Larry Wilmore, host of The Nightly Show on Comedy Central — saw his program cancelled in mid-August because the show, said network president Kent Alterman, wasn’t “resonating.”
That’s a big shame, because The Nightly Show — which featured an upside-down map of the world behind Wilmore’s desk — was an engaging, intelligent, and nuanced space for discussing touchy issues like reparations and the Black Lives Matter movement. In the midst of a cynical election cycle charged with sexual and racial prejudice, that space wasn’t just rare, it was enormously refreshing.
Laughing at Trump’s hair is one thing. Watching Wilmore’s recurring segment “Pardon the Integration,” in which Rory Albanese (who is white) and Mike Yard (who is black) would argue tough topics, then switch sides — was something else entirely.
“As a culture, we’ve all agreed with the opinion that the world should be seen in a certain way,” Wilmore said on his final night on the air. “Our chief mission was to disagree with that premise, and to see the world in a way that may not make everybody comfortable. And to present it with a cast of people who don’t always get to have a voice.”
We have a long way to go. But that’s where we need to go next.
Contact Hunter Styles at firstname.lastname@example.org.