What do John Oliver, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock have in common? Hard truths.
Until a few weeks ago, I’d met very few Americans who could name the prime minister of my homeland, Australia. But that was before John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight, on HBO, ran a short segment about him. Suddenly, Americans I met were joking about Tony Abbott, the social conservative best known for being photographed in Speedos and telling people to vote for him because his daughters are so good-looking. Oliver’s recurring segment, “Other Countries’ Presidents of the United States,” profiles various world leaders — France’s François Hollande has also received the Oliver treatment — and handles them with the same comic contempt with which the show treats American politicians.
Oliver spent many years as a correspondent on Comedy’s Central’s The Daily Show before moving to HBO to host Last Week Tonight, which premiered in April. In addition to informing the American viewing public about the most laughable parts of Australian politics, the show is doing something truly remarkable: Making comedy out of some of the darkest and dullest issues in American and global politics.
Oliver’s addition to the news-comedy landscape demonstrates the value of a half-American’s perspective on American politics and culture. He was born and grew up in Britain, moved to the United States as an adult, and has a strong Birmingham accent. He has been living here for almost a decade, is now married to an American, and has become a citizen. He is at once an outsider and an insider, a powerful position from which to critique and mock the United States.
At times, Oliver is explicit about his outsider status, particularly when he is addressing those subjects that are especially hard to joke about. In a May segment about the death penalty, Oliver noted that, as a Briton, “I come to this as a bit of an outsider. Britain does not have the capital punishment, so in a way, I really don’t know what I’m talking about.”
“But,” he continued, “in another way, I really do know what I’m talking about.” He then proceeded to give a brief overview of the lurid and grotesque history of British execution methods — “we boiled people, and in the grand tradition of British cuisine, if anything, we over-boiled them” — and joked about how British people respond when asked if they want to reinstate the death penalty, which was abolished there in 1965. It was, quite literally, gallows humor. It also demonstrated Oliver’s ability to joke about grim topics and situations that no one wants to talk about, in a way that does not detract from their gravity or strip the people involved of their humanity.
Oliver and his writing staff are, thankfully, among the few comedians who can artfully make light of serious topics. In the last few months, they’ve taken on topics that seemed hard to imagine laughing about, until Last Week Tonight tackled them. His recent segment about the prison industrial complex and the mistreatment of incarcerated Americans, hardly giggle-inducing subjects, was at once informative, touching, maddening, and, most surprisingly, hilarious. The difference was that, unlike a lot of jokes about prison, Oliver’s were not at the expense of the prisoners; indeed, he opened the segment by noting that our habit of making light of prison rape is a perfect encapsulation of how little regard we have, as a culture, for the millions of people who are imprisoned in this country.
Oliver’s willingness to shed light on these types of topics — and make light of them — is a form of public service. Just as Stephen Colbert’s faux run for office did more to educate his viewers about Super PACs than any real newscaster could have, Oliver might find himself running a hilarious national civics lesson — and, between chuckles, viewers might find themselves getting politically enraged, and engaged.
It would be easy to discount Oliver’s observations of American culture — after all, he didn’t grow up here, and there may be things he simply cannot understand as a result. And yet, some of the most biting political comedy in recent memory has come from Americans who are themselves outsiders in their own country, with African-American comedians like Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock being the most searing examples. Beyond comedy, the American tradition of learning about ourselves through the eyes of outsiders dates back to Alexis de Tocqueville — whose writings about the American relationship to government and other collective enterprises came to shape Americans’ own understanding of their country. As an outsider, Oliver can see things — and question and be comically baffled by things — that native sons take for granted.
The result is that American viewers of Oliver’s show are now, improbably, learning about some of the most serious social and political issues their country faces — and laughing along the way. They’re also learning about India’s electoral process, Francois Hollande’s extramarital affairs, the Commonwealth Games, European royalty, anti-gay policies in Uganda, and Tony Abbott. There is enormous value in his perspective, and in his willingness to tackle topics that are hard to cover, even for news-comedians.
Of course, as an Australian, I’d like his show even more if he performed it in Speedos.
PHOTOS: Comedian John Oliver poses for photographers backstage during the 41st International Emmy Awards in New York, November 25, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Host Chris Rock speaks during the 2014 BET Awards in Los Angeles, California June 29, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni