John Oliver Showing The Way

I know I already wrote about this recently, but I simply cannot say enough good things about John Oliver’s HBO show. In fact, the only negative thing I can think of to say about Last Week Tonight is that it airs on HBO, so its audience is more limited than it might be – and that’s a shame, because everyone should be watching this breakthrough in comedic activism. Here’s Oliver again the other night, going after the big chicken packing conglomerates, and simultaneously going well past the marker laid down by his mentor Jon Stewart:

Don’t get me wrong: Stewart’s Daily Show wouldn’t have shied away from taking on this topic, not at all. But they’d have played it strictly for laughs (which, as you can see, Oliver also does just as capably as Stewart would have), and maybe a gasp or two of outrage. And that would have been it. On to the next “bit.”

Not Oliver’s Last Week – he channels the outrage he generates with his incisive, dead-on skewering of the fat cats – er, chickens – into a call for engaged, fun, likely effective citizen activism at the end of his piece. That’s an evolution from Oliver’s Daily Show roots. This is what bursts the cynicism bubble. If you can get people laughing, you’ve got them on your side. If you can get them outraged simultaneously, you’ve got a force to be reckoned with. Stewart did that, regularly, but what he either appears to never have understood, or simply didn’t feel was his job, was that once you’ve gotten them that far, you have to help nudge them toward activism. Give them something to do, preferably something both fun and effective, that allows them to channel the outrage and humor you’ve just generated.

Because if you don’t, you’ve almost done worse than nothing: you’ve likely inculcated cynical apathy. Humor + outrage, without any avenue to express or channel it, essentially invites the viewer into a state of passivity (which they’re already mostly in by virtue of sitting on their butt watching TV). It tells them subtly: this is all you can do: turn on your TV, watch some stories that will piss you off, but all you can do is laugh about them. So just sit back, open the Chee-tos, maybe take a bong rip, and forget your troubles.

So many kudos to John Oliver for not continuing down that road.

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