Friday, August 22, 2014

Why John Oliver rants so well

Posted By on Fri, Aug 22, 2014 at 7:49 AM

It’s maddening that, with an American city ablaze with protests and police brutality, our national leaders think it’s OK to just take a vacation.

I’m speaking, of course, of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who took these past two weeks off when America has needed their outrage and comedy the most.

And so our nation turns its lonely eyes to you, John Oliver. Thankfully, on Sunday, Oliver delivered:

Oliver only has a handful of episodes of his new HBO show, Last Week Tonight, under his belt. But in at least one way – the 15-or-so minute rant –  the former Daily Show correspondent has bested his former boss.

Nearly every Monday, HBO releases Oliver’s 15-minute exploration of an outrage on YouTube. And nearly every Monday, it’s dutifully shared and hyperbolically celebrated by numerous news outlets.

Here’s why Oliver’s rants work so well:


During HBO shows, there are no commercials. But few HBO shows (In Treatment comes to mind) regularly take advantage of the freedom that provides. Oliver does.

He has eight extra minutes to work with, isn’t saddled with the need to bring on a celebrity to talk about her latest movie and doesn’t have to stop every 10 minutes to let the network sell blenders or promote Tosh.0

In practice, the Daily Show and Colbert Report work more like daily papers: Shorter stories and more of them. But Last Week Tonight looks more like an alt-weekly — finding big stories few people are talking about and really exploring their ramifications. The deep dives are made possible, not just by the additional screen time, but by the fact that Oliver only has to do one show a week.


While his Ferguson comments have been widely praised, I believe Oliver's even better when he tackles more underreported subjects – like the scumminess of the soccer organization FIFA, the impact of Net Neutrality legislation, the collapse of the wall between news and advertising, the shady ethics of Doctor Oz, and the predatory tactics of payday loan organizations. 

The Daily Show has its moments of unpacking undercovered and complex topics, exposing financial scandals or huge problems with the veteran’s administration bureaucracy. But because of the sheer quantity of material the Daily Show has to produce, they fall too easily back on montages of Fox News idiocy or political hypocrisy. 


Obviously, Colbert, Stewart and Oliver focus on similar themes. But it’s Oliver’s tone that makes the difference. He’s not spittle-flecked furious like occasional Daily Show contributor Lewis Black and he’s not screw-it-all cynical like Stewart, and not satirically self-confident like Colbert.

Instead, his rants seem almost happy. And, that, oddly enough, makes them more effective. He’s pointing and says, “Check this out! This is so absolutely, mind-blowingly horrible, you’ve just got to let out a little chuckle. Ha ha! Everything’s terrible!”

Maybe his best moment is this one, where to soaring music, he summons the legion of the internet’s worst denizens, the sort who unleash vile rants without any of the irony or sophistication of Oliver’s rants, to flood the FCC with their complaints about net neutrality.

For once in your life, we need you channel that anger, that badly spelled bile, that you normally reserve for unforgivable attacks on actresses you disagree with, or politicians you disagree with, or photos of your ex-girlfriend getting on with her life, or non-white actors being cast as fictional characters. And I’m talking to you, RonPaulFan2016. And you OneDirection4Ever, and I’m talking to you, OneDirectionSuxBalls. We need you get out there, and once in your life, focus your indiscriminate rage in a useful direction, seize your moment my lovely trolls! Turn on caps lock and fly my pretties! Fly!”

With a different tone, one less gleeful, you could see the comedy falling flat. Instead, it comes off as nearly inspirational. And it worked: Those trolls broke the FCC’s website. Jon Oliver, clearly, has just as much power as Colbert or Stewart to inspire the masses to do his bidding.

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Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters was a staff reporter for the Inlander from 2009 to 2023. He reported on a wide swath of topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.His work investigated deep flaws in the Washington...