There is a certain irony to the fact that, at a time when British politics needs it more than ever before, there has never been such a dearth of satire in our mainstream media. Sure enough, websites such as The Daily Mash do a reasonable job of poking fun where it needs to be poked, but such websites feel as if they’re on the outside looking in, whilst in the mainstream media it can often feel as if there is next to no satire that effectively hits its targets, these days. Have I Got News For You, for example, became a part of the political establishment long ago – one can only question the satirical effectivity of the television show that gave Boris Johnson such a springboard that he ended up as the mayor of London and is now planning a return to parliament and, as many commentators agree, a likely eventual run at the Conservative party leadership – whilst Mock The Week’s true satirical leanings have always been questionable to the point at which it’s possible to argue that it has ended up as little more than a vehicle for Russell Howard’s gurning and Dara O’Briain to umm and ahh too much.
On the other side of the Atlantic ocean, however, things have been heading in a somewhat different direction. The Daily Show’s John Stewart and The Colbert Report’s Steven Colbert are well-established names already, but 2014 saw the rise of a third satirist, whose skilful use of the freedoms allowed to him by his programme’s producers and the opportunities to widen interest through the Internet have seen him catapulted to fame. For British television viewers shaking their heads sadly at the almost criminally easy ride that the powerful are given in this country, there’s a further layer of dismay at the fact that he’s one of us. I talk, of course, of Birmingham’s own John Oliver, whose HBO series Last Week Tonight was one of the surprise television hits of 2014.
Oliver did his time in Britain, trying to break through into the mainstream, but a few appearances on Mock The Week were as close as things got for him in this country as a stand up comedian. Eight years ago, however, a show reel sent to the American channel Comedy Central impressed and Oliver was hired as a writer for The Daily Show, where he subsequently became a reporter, and in the summer of 2013 a spell standing in for Stewart won sufficient rave reviews for HBO to step in and offer him twenty-four half hourly slots on a Sunday night, presenting a weekly satirical take on global news events and the grubbier side of American political and corporate culture. The show was successful enough for a second series to be commissioned, and this time to run for thirty-five episodes, beginning a week on Sunday on the eighth of February.
The importance of the word “global” cannot be understated, here. The United States of America has long been a famously insular society, but it might be argued that the internet has opened up the wider world to a population who might not have had access to it before. Whether deliberately or accidentally, Last Week Tonight has tapped into this curiosity, and has done so with considerable bravery. Its very first episode featured a lengthy segment on the then-forthcoming Indian general election, which, with 850m potential voters, was the biggest that the world has ever seen. Conventional wisdom would have suggested that this could not work in America, but it did, and subsequent stories on such diverse topics as the Sultan of Brunei, the Scottish independence referendum and Argentinian debt default have proved that interest is there in stories that the mainstream media would almost certainly never have touched.
This philosophy has also extended itself into discussion of American domestic policy and lawmaking. Oliver’s concise explanation of rule changes over net neutrality led to the FCC’s website buckling and crashing under the weight of complaints from viewers of the programme, whilst a piece on civil forfeiture (a peculiar law under which the police have the right to seize goods and sell them for their own benefit on the mildest of suspicion that they may be the proceeds of crime without charging am individual with a crime, a practice which which has been alleged to be abused by the police across the length and breadth of the country – police in Texas alone seized a staggering $486m worth of goods, property, vehicles and other assets in 2014) is credited with being one of the drivers behind recent legislation attempting to restrict such practices. Oliver may be British, but has lived in America for a long time, is married to an American, and habitually describes himself in the first person when talking about issues facing the American public. But many of the gambles that Last Week Tonight has taken – a foreigner gently ribbing the USA, a reliance on long form journalism, that desire to investigate stories that might at the outset be deemed “too boring” for a television audience – have been dependent on one thing: trust. Watching Last Week Tonight, it is clear that Oliver credits his audience with the intelligence to be interested in and understand the issues that he raises and that, simultaneously, the audience trusts the host to pick stories that are of interest and dissect them in a way which makes them comprehensible without insulting that intelligence.
That Last Week Tonight is shown on HBO is also of significance in understanding the show’s dynamic. The subscription channel doesn’t interrupt the show with advertisements, which gives Oliver the space to feature stories for fifteen to twenty minutes, and that lack of advertisers to please also means that the show can criticise corporations and products without fear of losing important revenue. Considering the tie-up between HBO and Sky, it will be interesting to see how or whether Oliver addresses the recent Twitter excesses of Rupert Murdoch, but it is difficult to imagine that he won’t be able to resist touching upon that subject when it returns next month. What we can say for certain is that Oliver will require all of his deftness in order to cover recent global events in the tactful but incisive way to which his audience became accustomed during Last Week Tonight’s first series. He certainly won’t be short of material.
There have been those that have been critical of the fact that it is necessary to package current affairs as humour in order to sell it, but if Last Week Tonight continues to raise public consciousness of stories that otherwise wouldn’t be addressed at all in the media, then so be it. The evidence of its first series has been that this combination can be a potent mix, and it’s a mix that the United Kingdom could certainly do with at the moment, especially considering the rapid descent towards madness that our political culture has been displaying signs of over the last few years or so. The irony of the fact that it is an Englishman that is the flavour of the month in delivering this to an American audience has not been lost on those of us who yearn for such inventiveness and wit at home, but it seems unlikely that John Oliver will be returning to these shores any time soon. In spite of the wealth of comedy material that would be available to him here, it’s not difficult to see the continuing pull of his adopted home.
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