Why John Oliver Is Edgier Than Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert
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Just ahead of the sixth episode of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” comedian John Oliver admitted on “CBS This Morning” that he and his crew are “still trying to work out what this is.” But Oliver seems to know what “Last Week” isn’t: “The Daily Show.”
Oliver, of course, is a seven-year “Daily Show” former correspondent. His executive producer is former “Daily Show” head writer Tim Carvell. But his new show is drastically different from Stewart’s for one main functional reason: it’s on HBO. In the run-up to the premiere, Carvell told U.S. News that HBO’s commercial-free format and increased editorial freedom, along with a weekly orientation, would give his show the ability to “hopefully … step back and take more time to do one or two stories in great depth.”
“For one of our test shows we did a really harsh thing on General Motors and I know that ‘The Daily Show’ also did cover General Motors,” Carvell added. “But it’s nice to, at HBO, feel like there won’t be any phone call you need to deal with; nobody’s having a shitty day because you did a General Motors piece.”
And so this has contributed to a somewhat surprising development: Oliver’s program is at times even angrier than either of its Comedy Central cousins, “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” And it’s certainly more instructive. Stewart and Colbert “are adept at identifying problems but rarely cross over into agitation,” the Guardian wrote recently, paraphrasing Dannagal Young, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Delaware who teaches satire and the psychology of political humor. Oliver is fully engaged with the topics he satirizes; he’s not just raising an eyebrow and dismissing them.
Though both Stewart and Colbert are excellent comics who offer cathartic relief from mind-numbing bureaucracy and the 24/7 reactionary news cycle — and can, when they want to, rally the masses, their jokes are usually in the service of mocking Fox News anchors and rolling their eyes at cartoonish figures like Donald Trump. Rarely, if ever, does their comedy seek to fix the broken systems they so frequently mock. In a 2012 essay for the Baffler, writer Steve Almond described the shortcomings of Stewart and Colbert’s style: “What Stewart and Colbert do most nights is convert civic villainy into disposable laughs … [treating] the ills of modern media and politics as matters of folly, not concerted evil.” He identified the core emptiness of their satirical approach: “Rather than targeting the obscene cruelties borne of greed and fostered by apathy, they harp on a rogues’ gallery of hypocrites familiar to anyone with a TiVo or a functioning memory.” Stewart and Colbert’s goal, he said, is to “mollify people, not incite them.” But comedy, at its loftiest, should confront the “moral complacency” of its audience.
Enter John Oliver, who is confronting America’s “moral complacency” much more effectively than either of our two leading cable satirists. On the “Daily Show,” he could seem like the goofy, faux-oblivious British lackey peering through the window at American politics. But on his own show, he has demonstrated the potential to convert his audience’s frustration into action, challenging his viewers to answer tough, uncomfortable questions that Colbert and Stewart often sidestep.
Take, for example, the Indian elections. Stewart introduced his segment on India’s elections with the “four stereotypes” Americans have of India, and coverage of the elections with correspondent Jason Jones hamming up the “dumb American” act for comic effect. The joke was, again, the media circus and bureaucratic inefficiency, with enough foreign culture as context sprinkled in to allow us to laugh at their dysfunction, not unlike the way we do at Fox. By the end of it, we’ve learned something about India’s election, yes, but the segments don’t provoke any deeper thought or challenge our previous assumptions.