Last summer, Jon Stewart took a leave of absence from The Daily Show so that he could helm a film project, and the producers were in a bind: how do you continue The Daily Show with Jon Stewart…without Jon Stewart? They could, of course, have simply put the show on hiatus for a few months, but since part, if not all, of TDS’s draw comes from its ability to digest whatever news has happened in a given day and then present it (semi-) daily with remarkable efficiency, that wasn’t really an option. Their solution, recall, was to place John Oliver at the helm, which was a pretty big risk: sure, Oliver had collected a sizable cult-following from TDS’s modest audience, but no one really knew who the hell he was. They could have gotten any number of uber-famous people to sit in for Stewart—you can just imagine the agent feeding-frenzy that must have occurred when news of Stewart’s absence broke—and they would have been able to put the show on cruise control for the whole summer, watching the slight ratings bump that comes along when any celebrity guest hosts a show.
Then something weird happened. John Oliver made the show…better. It’s not like TDS was in any danger of growing stale under Stewart’s reign, but Oliver’s presence exposed a lot of well-deserved criticism that Stewart never, ever gets. TDS under Stewart is excellent at holding 24 hour news networks accountable for their piss-poor lip service to journalism and their very cynical (but very successful) conflation of news with entertainment. I’m not shattering anyone’s mind by stating that. But what TDS isn’t so hot at is skewering actual politicians, at skewering the system itself that has allowed these politicians to corrupt Washington into a series of golden handshakes. And most importantly, TDS is really bad at holding the viewer accountable for any of it. Indeed, one of the keys to the show’s success is a spirit of look-at-these-assholes, we’re-all-in-this-togetherism that, when you actually stop to think about it for even like five seconds, is a pretty obvious con. TDS flatters the viewer’s ego by always pointing upward and never outward; it is quick to wag a finger at corporations and politicians but never at the consumers and voters who put them there; it happily pokes fun at news networks but shies away from blaming the audience that watches them.
When Stewart went on Crossfire in 2004 and complained that the news networks “had an opportunity to help, but you’re hurting us,” he got praise, but you have to wonder: who exactly is “us” in this grandiose statement? Of course the audience of Crossfire that day roared and cheered, because Stewart was doing what he does four times a week on Comedy Central: playing the everyman who has no ability to change the system, who finds himself luckily in a position to talk to actual journalists and tell them they aren’t doing their job.
Which is all well and good, except of course that isn’t at all what Stewart is. The single criticism that gets lobbed at TDS is that it’s more than a comedy show and shucks the role of being actual news. This criticism is only semi-accurate. TDS is completely right to defend itself by saying it’s a comedy show and not a news program—it is not right, however, in assuming that gives it less power. Satire has tremendous power, and it doesn’t simply amount to “a guy throwing popcorn at the screen” or “shouting at the players from the sidelines,” as Stewart has himself equated it to. There are two kinds of satire: Horatian and Juvenalian, the former being lighthearted ribbing, the latter being righteous anger, and Stewart clearly prefers lightheartedness, content to at best throw up his hands at the end of the day and say, “What are ya gonna do?”
Oliver, however—and now I’ll get to my point—demonstrated both last summer and with his new show, Last Week Tonight, that he prefers the anger. Something pretty vital that you don’t see on his new show is Stewart’s funny voices, or joke props, or obvious filler jokes like TDS’s “meet me at camera three” segments. You don’t see him interviewing people a la Colbert’s Better Know a District wherein Colbert sexily ate a burrito because he was interviewing the congressman of America’s largest porn district.
What you do see, on the other hand, is stuff like the pilot episode, which dedicated a third of its time to the election in India, right after breezing over stories about Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy in about thirty seconds (and it’s worth noting that TDS dedicated seven segments total to those latter two, spread out over two weeks). And furthermore, Oliver not only took down American news for not reporting on India’s election—which Oliver rightly points out directly effects a fifth of the globe’s population and indirectly effects, well, the rest of the globe—but also took down the candidates themselves, Indian media perception of American news (they report on the “Foxification of American news” which has devolved into “shouting matches”, to which Oliver states, “By the way, they don’t actually get Fox News in India, they can just hear them shouting from over here”), and Indian news outlets.
A later segment reports on the NFL’s ludicrously totalitarian rules against their cheerleaders, who evidently get paid less than $5 an hour and are told what to eat and what hygiene products to use. And it’s all capped off with an interview with former NSA director Keith Alexander, an interview that’s shocking in that it’s a.) held with a high-ranking official, b.) substantive (“We’re not just out there collecting people’s personal information, listening to their phone calls, and reading their emails,” Alexander states, “but that’s the first thing people jump to”), and c.) vicious (“But…you are out there doing that,” responds Oliver, “you’re just saying you’re not”).
Let’s pause here and note, by way of contrast, what an excellent relationship with the media Jon Stewart has; TDS is rarely criticized, and when it is it’s in jest, as when Chris Wallace had him on and lovingly pretended Stewart had been dodging phone calls, or when Stewart and well-known friend Bill O’Reilly held a live debate that produced exactly nothing. It’s why Stewart gets invited to be a guest on these shows, and why he can book so many upper-level people (like Condoleezza Rice, who may as well have been on a date when she visited): because it’s all in good fun.
Oliver’s above interview with Alexander, however, makes you wonder whether Last Week Tonight is ever going to have another guest again, because Oliver is not ribbing these people. He seems genuinely angry, genuinely to hold them accountable for their very real sins. Most importantly, you also wonder whether he’ll have an audience for very long, because the other thing he doesn’t do that I’ve already mentioned TDS does in spades is flatter his audience. In a segment on global warming, he shows a clip of Obama stating that global warming isn’t a future problem—it’s affecting us right now. Oliver’s follow up? “He’s right to phrase this in the present tense, because we’ve proven time and time again that we can’t handle future tense. Whenever climate scientists have asked, ‘Don’t you want to leave the world better off for our children?’ we’ve always replied, ‘Fuck ‘em.’”
It’s refreshing to see the first person plural being applied to the concept of perpetrators rather than victims. It’s refreshing, too, to see how little Oliver seems to care about whether any of this will affect his ratings, or his guests, or the branding of his show in general—he seems to actually be what Glenn Beck has pretended to be for the last six years, a real-life Howard Beale, a man who’s mad as hell and who isn’t going to take it anymore.
David Letterman announced his retirement last month, and news followed that Stewart was considered as a replacement but that Colbert ultimately got the spot. You won’t see Oliver hosting a friendly late night talk show anytime soon. But make sure to catch the unfriendly one he does host while you can. Just don’t expect to be flattered.