How John Oliver Beats Apathy

With a combination of humor and fearlessness, Last Week Tonight has done an unlikely thing: spurred action.
HBO/AP

John Oliver’s segment on net neutrality this past June perfectly summed up what his HBO show Last Week Tonight is so good at: transcending apathy.

Oliver starts with a series of quick jibes about the Internet, hooking viewers with laugh lines about cats and coyote urine. Next he introduces the topic at hand—a topic that, Oliver acknowledges, doesn’t inherently lend itself to good TV: “The only two words in the English language more boring than net neutrality are ‘featuring Sting.’”­ Then comes a clip of a dry FCC hearing. When the camera cuts back to Oliver, his mouth is agape at the dullness of the proceedings. Two minutes in, and he’s not shaming viewers for failing to care about net neutrality before—he’s sympathizing with them.

Then Oliver’s tone switches. “But here’s the thing. Net neutrality is actually hugely important.”

Oliver grounds his explanation for the significance of net neutrality by focusing on the growth of well-known brands like Facebook. He’s simplifying things, showing how the beauty of the Internet lies in its level playing field, something that the loss of net neutrality would threaten. The jokes become less frequent, and real issues begin to take prominence. As the segment approaches its conclusion he begins to put it all back together, and you might be left wondering why you are frantically heading to the FCC’s webpage to complain about something even Oliver himself described as “boring even by C-SPAN’s standards” merely 10 minutes prior.

This is the magic of John Oliver. It’s been only 14 episodes so far (the show is slated for 19 this season) but the Last Week Tonight team has found a way to take a seemingly complicated issue, remove the talking points and cultural baggage surrounding it, break it into understandable parts—and then slowly rebuild it. It’s an ingenious formula that’s making a difference in the real world.

“Making a difference” isn’t hyperbole. The FCC’s website actually crashed from overwhelming web traffic the day after Oliver’s segment originally aired.

The crash itself may have been an unintended consequence, but it didn't just happen by accident. The last couple minutes of the segment consisted of Oliver imploring viewers (in this case, specifically, Internet commenters) to contact the FCC. “This is the moment you were made for, commenters,” he says before the inspirational background music begins and he continues to wax poetic about the importance of speaking up. It’s ridiculously cheesy, sure, but it’s not trying to be anything else.

Whether satirical or not, most of Oliver’s segments end with some sort of call-to-action like that. Sometimes the action is audacious or silly, but it’s still action. Even Vladimir Putin got some pretty annoying emails I’ll bet.

And Oliver is not just influencing viewers; he’s actually having an effect on the people he's criticizing. In the wake of his neutrality rant, an official FCC meeting began with a mention of the show, much to Oliver's amusementLater, Thailand—yes the country—denounced “John William Oliver” in an official military document after a segment made fun of its crown prince. Oliver welcomed the criticism. “Let’s burn more bridges,” he said, before dissing other countries that have anti-free-speech laws like Thailand's.

Part of the reason for Oliver’s success comes by virtue of his show being on HBO. He’s liberated from the advertising concerns that affect network TV. His scathing take on General Motors’ disastrous handling of the recent recall crisis won’t win him any sponsorship dollars from Detroit, but he’s in a position where he doesn’t have to care.

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Terrance F. Ross writes for and produces The Atlantic's Education Channel.

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