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 amusement. Later, 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.
Listen to how vicious he got at the news that the company first learned of flaws in its vehicles all the way back in 2001: "That means a child attending her first day of school the day you found out would be old enough to die driving one of your cars the day you fucking did something about it.” Contrast that with his old boss Jon Stewart's take on the topic over at Comedy Central. It was funny and informative, but it wasn’t fortified with anger, nor was it nearly as long.
It’s not that other satirists wholly shy away from any corporate criticism, but there’s a certain line that usually won’t be crossed. Oliver crosses it. In his August 2nd native-advertising segment he spent the first fours minute on a tirade, insulting random companies while repeatedly stating, almost like a whiny child, that there is nothing anyone could do about it. (The Atlantic’s scientology-ad scandal later got a mention.) He has described this immunity gifted to him as “a confusing amount of freedom.”
Yet for all of his strong opinionating, the show’s nowhere near as polarizing as you might expect. Though he does lean left socially, Oliver, who’s English, still approaches his topics from the viewpoint of an outsider sneakily peering over the hill (in this case across the pond) with his binoculars. It’s refreshing in this partisan age to hear from a commentator with a point of view, but not a political agenda.
For example, Oliver’s rant about wealth inequality was equal parts praising and criticizing. His ultimate point revolved around American optimism, “one of the things that I love the most about this country.” That's in contrast to his home nation, where, he says, “We’re raised in a rigid class system where we have all hope beaten out of us." Yet he turns the idea around, showing the dark side of the American dream: “Your optimism is overwhelming positive except when it leads you to act against your own best interest.”
The lack of commercial breaks coupled with its status as a weekly show also offers logistic benefits that allow Last Week Tonight to make a greater impact than many programs. Oliver’s able to go on and on about a topic uninterrupted. He also doesn’t have to report on the news of the day, freeing him from the pressures that lead others to produce superficial, quick-hit coverage. With his time allowances he’s able to truly delve into issues that much of society has either forgotten about or not paid enough attention to in the first place.
The most recent episode, for example, focused on the business of payday loans. Sure we’ve all seen those commercials promising fast cash, but how many people have given them a second thought? But Oliver took 16 entertaining minutes to dissect the payday loan scheme, exposing the multiple fallacies that drive the multi-billion dollar industry.
Segments like these prove out the wisdom of a line Oliver gave when talking about the FCC: “The cable companies have figured out the great truth of America: If you want to something evil put it inside something boring.” And if you want something done about evil, Oliver has found, you find a way to make it interesting.