“Now, I’m comfortable making those jokes. Am I comfortable with the whole internet piling on her? Honestly, that kind of depends on how and for how long,” Oliver said. “If it’s death threats and vile comments, then of course not.”
But aren’t vile online comments, at the very least, inevitable when an HBO host marshals his writers’ room to heap scorn and contempt on a teenager for laughs?
“If it defines her forever, that seems unfair,” he said. “The window for making fun of her is probably closing.” But isn’t being mocked by a major television show a determinant of how long a scandal defines a person?
In any event, Oliver snuck in another shaming standard: a window for mockery that closes relatively quickly.
“That is the difficult thing here,” he continued. “When joining in a pile-on, there’s a lot to take into account. When millions of people all feel the need to weigh in and do it potentially for years, the punishment can be vastly disproportionate to the offense. And perhaps the best example of this is Monica Lewinsky.”
The host admitted that he participated in Lewinsky jokes that he now regrets. Then he resurfaced a series of old Jay Leno jokes about the sex scandal.
“Those jokes have not dated well in any sense of the word,” Oliver said. “And they’re pretty rough, especially coming from a guy who just this week complained about late-night TV, saying he’d ‘like to see a bit of civility come back.’”
At that point, the segment took a turn.
In the middle of a monologue acknowledging that he had engaged in unjustified shaming in the past and arguing that we all ought to do better now, Oliver proceeded to shame Jay Leno for hypocrisy.
“You know, like that time he did a bit with a fake book about Lewinsky titled The Slut in the Hat,” Oliver said, suddenly righteously indignant. “And if that’s what he means by civility, may I offer my new book, Oh the Places You Can Go Fuck Yourself, Jay Leno?! Look! Look how civil I’m being! Look how civil this is.”
One could argue that Oliver was holding Leno “accountable” for jokes he told in the 1990s that now seem cruel and unfunny. But Oliver could’ve criticized the old jokes while still treating Leno as he treats himself: as an imperfect but not malign comic who told jokes that are regrettable in hindsight.
Surely Leno ranks low on any list of evil forces in American society. He doesn’t warrant a “Go fuck yourself,” delivered here for the supposed hypocrisy of making uncivil jokes on a subject and then, a quarter century later, in a polarized moment, yearning for more civility.
And whether one feels love, disdain, or indifference toward The Tonight Show under Leno, it was arguably more civil on average than Last Week Tonight.
Indeed, Oliver regularly goes the “Go fuck yourself” route, and it isn’t because profane shaming does “a lot of good” for society—it’s because it’s popular. The conflict-hungry internet ate up the segment; it circulated with a telling headline that is often attached to viral Oliver clips: “John Oliver Destroys Jay Leno’s ‘Civility’ Plea With Clips of His Disgusting Monica Lewinsky Jokes.” Last Week Tonight depends on a formula that includes a villain, a punching bag, someone to “destroy,” so that audience members can feel that they’re part of a morally and cognitively superior in-group, perennially exasperated by malign idiots in the out-group. (The formula’s genius: Virtue-signal charmingly with mistake theory, then go viral with conflict theory.)