The Limits of the Late-Night Comedy Takedown

Samantha Bee or John Oliver may do biting, amusing segments on Trump or Syria—but fans shouldn’t overstate their real-life influence.


You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, but John Oliver, the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, is a violent man. In the last year, he’s destroyed a “lying, hypocritical GOP idiot.” He’s eviscerated Congress over the issue of America’s infrastructure. Apparently desiring more viscera—this time from ideas rather than people—he went on to eviscerate voter-ID laws. If you take these headlines—and the articles they advertise—at face value, Oliver’s brand of late-night satire is a force to be reckoned with, and a potent political weapon.

Yet, Oliver’s victims remain surprisingly whole. The aforementioned “lying, hypocritical GOP idiot” is now the governor of Kentucky. Congress—approval ratings notwithstanding—continues to function with the same set of people Oliver reportedly eviscerated a few months ago. And, as many people participating in the current Presidential primaries can tell you, voter-ID laws haven’t gone away. Which probably explains why Donald Trump (despite being destroyed, taken down, demolished, systematically picked apart, annihilated, and...murderslayed?) remains the GOP’s presidential frontrunner. Simply put, the bombastic headlines used to describe Oliver’s late-night antics overstate the real-life impact such takedowns can have. At best, such headlines are exaggerations, but at worst, they perpetuate the myth that late-night comedy is an effective tool for broad political change.

Hyperbolic headlines aside, the only people who tend to see issues or politicians being “eviscerated” by Last Week Tonight are ideologically liberal. If a conservative voter watched any of the show clips the above headlines reference, he or she likely wouldn’t see an evisceration, but rather an attack by a biased media. (And, to be fair, the aforementioned conservative also wouldn’t see an evisceration because it’s a near certainty he or she wouldn’t be watching the show in the first place.)

Look at Last Week Tonight’s ancestor, The Daily Show. Its viewers are more politically knowledgeable than most others. Further, its viewers also skew overwhelmingly liberal. Add in the fact that viewers of all ideologies tend to select media sources based on ideological leanings, and it becomes very difficult for any of these late-night segments—be they delivered by Oliver, Samantha Bee, or Trevor Noah—to reach anyone outside a predominantly liberal audience.

Thus, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the “interest” created by late-night comedy is merely amplification within an echo chamber. The segments appeal to a liberal audience who may already know about the issue—or are otherwise likely to agree with the show’s position regardless. This also likely explains why interest dies down immediately thereafter—the same audiences are merely moving on to the next segment to share within the same circles. Which, in turn, explains why late-night comedy rarely causes policy change—it undoes its own work the moment the next segment airs.

Last Week Tonight makes for a great case study, as each episode covers at least one story in substantive detail, devoting several minutes to it if not the entire show. In some cases, the top story is so widely covered in the news that it’s impossible to isolate amid the larger conversation around the topic online. Trump’s rise is a great example of this. But in other weeks, whether it’s because the news cycle is slow or because Oliver feels strongly enough about a particular issue, the top story is evergreen—or newsworthy regardless of timing. In those weeks, you can frequently see that Oliver’s show does cause an increase in interest around that subject. The web-analytics firm pooled its data to chart this “John Oliver Effect.” But interest isn’t the same thing as action, which itself is a far cry from political change.

As notes, Oliver’s impact is strongest when it comes to relatively unknown issues, and quickly weakens the more prevalent the issue is. Take, for example, Last Week Tonight’s investigation of daily fantasy sports. The segment aired on November 15, 2015. Per Google Trends, there was a modest uptick in interest the week before the segment, but it’s been in decline since the segment aired—and is much lower than its peak several weeks before the segment.

The show’s investigation of paid parental leave, which aired on May 10, 2015, is a good example of its ability to generate temporary interest. There’s a notable uptick in interest in the topic immediately after the segment aired; it’s not a huge logical leap to say the segment caused the interest. But a week after the segment, interest fell back to previous levels.

To be fair, conflating temporary interest with change is an easy trap to fall into. It’s true (and compelling) that the FCC website crashed immediately after Oliver’s segment on net neutrality, but examining the glut of comments that crashed the site reveals that relatively few are explicitly tied to Oliver or Last Week Tonight. Similarly, Oliver’s “Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption” church, established to complement his piece on televangelism, received a staggering amount of donations—enough that Oliver closed it rather quickly and donated the proceeds to Doctors Without Borders. Yet televangelism hasn’t gone anywhere, and while the donation is certainly a net positive, it’s a small blip on the radar that didn’t translate to long-term results.

Which isn’t to say that John Oliver and Last Week Tonight haven’t done good. But several of Oliver’s “victories” are likely better credited as assists, which coincided with major events. Last Week Tonight has covered FIFA corruption multiple times, including before last year’s arrests of several top executives. But the chronology between the air date of the first FIFA episode and the start of the investigation that ultimately toppled Sepp Blatter were almost a year apart—a long enough time that it’s hard to credit Oliver. It’s far easier (but also far more rare) to credit Last Week Tonight with helping reform the bail system in New York City, a move that Bill de Blasio announced within a month of the show covering the topic. It’s a legitimate win, but also precisely the type of win (an obscure but important issue, only within the geographic boundaries of a city with an enormously liberal voting bloc) that Last Week Tonight is limited to achieving.

That’s a far cry from winning on national issues like voter-ID laws, predatory televangelism—or stopping Donald Trump. Following Oliver’s #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain bit, thinkpieces sprung up praising the efficacy of this form of journalism (though Oliver himself has rejected that label). One Bustle article posited that Wikipedia having a “Donald Drumpf” page is a sign that Oliver’s attack is going to stop Trump, while a Vanity Fair article already assumed efficacy on the part of Oliver and only wondered if the attack came too late.

Meanwhile, the hosts of these shows seem more than aware of their limitations. “My years of evisceration have embettered nothing,” the former Daily Show host Jon Stewart laments at the end in a clip highlighting that virtually every problem The Daily Show covered in his 16 years as host remains just as bad—if not worse—than ever before. Meanwhile his successor, Noah, has changed the tone and substance of the show and is less likely to engage in the substantive barbs that marked some of Stewart’s best-known segments.

The heir apparent to Stewart’s style, Samantha Bee, whose TBS show Full Frontal debuted earlier this year, does engage in substance at the same level as her former Daily Show colleague did, but it seems unlikely her “eviscerations” would fare much better. Her experience trying to fact-check a group of Trump supporters helps illustrate why, and goes back to the point of how big a role ideology plays in how receptive viewers are to what they see on TV. A correction to anything Trump (or any politician, really) claims is viewed with a partisan lens rather than an objective one. In many cases, a citizen, when presented with a correction to misinformation, doubles down on the misinformation rather than changing his or her beliefs. Thus, it’s no wonder that support for Trump hasn’t wavered in the face of numerous attacks, be they from Oliver, Bee, or anyone else.

To be clear, this isn’t an indictment of any late-night host—as Stewart noted, they already recognize their limits, no matter how funny, investigative, or correct their segments may be. Nor is it an indictment of those who share funny video clips with friends—that’s part of what the Internet is for. That said, given that these segments don’t change policy outcomes and that interest in these bits is pretty ephemeral, it’s time to stop pretending these progressive late-night shows have more calculable political power than they do.