Columns

Friedman ’19: Comedy shows do not an informed voter make

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, November 3, 2016

Few comedy shows are more popular right now than John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight,” which airs weekly on HBO to an average of 4.7 million viewers. The show’s success isn’t surprising since episodes are relatively short, funny and informative, and John Oliver is brutally — and often satisfyingly — unfiltered and brash in his criticism of public figures and current events. For these reasons (and because watching the show helps me go to sleep), I make a point of watching every week, and I assume many of my peers at Brown do, too.

Oliver’s meteoric success has also transcended the realm of TV ratings and entered the political sphere. Though a self-labeled comedian, he has also become one of the country’s most powerful and conspicuous social critics and a de-facto lobbyist, a phenomenon that Fabiana Vilsan ’19 noted in her most recent column (“Vilsan ’19: News with a punch line,” Oct. 25). For example, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio “announced that the city would relax bail requirements for people charged with nonviolent crimes and misdemeanors” just a month after Oliver’s segment on unfair bail requirements for poor defendants, according to TIME Magazine. The Federal Communications Commission “voted to adopt net neutrality regulations” eight months after Oliver’s corresponding segment caused the FCC’s servers to crash because of the number of angry comments on its site. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he would enact major limitations on civil forfeiture laws after Oliver’s segment shed light on the shortcomings of laws that allowed police to confiscate “cash and property from people who have not been charged with a crime.”

In light of his political influence, Oliver’s recent criticism of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump seems especially incisive because, to many of his viewers, Oliver presents a genuine, pseudo-Tocquevillian outsider perspective on American democracy in a way that Trump, in his attempt to be an “outsider candidate,” never could. “Donald Trump” is Last Week Tonight’s most viewed episode to date, with 30 million YouTube views. Oliver eviscerates Trump by walking through every inaccuracy and contradiction in the candidate’s personal history, from Trump University to faux lawsuits to inaccurate statements of net worth. The episode is replete with its own viral hashtag (#MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain), web domain name and 35,000 hats (which sold out within a month). Given the amount of political change Oliver has already effected, his criticism of Trump should not be taken lightly, and there is no doubt that his choice words influenced public opinion about Trump. But should we afford that amount of political influence to a comedian who denies his significant role in the political process? When asked to describe his show, Oliver said, “(Last Week Tonight is) not journalism, it’s comedy — it’s comedy first, and it’s comedy second.” Perhaps Trump deserves a more responsible, principled critic than he gets in John Oliver.

If you’re a fan of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Oliver’s denouncement of Trump could be a good thing. But Oliver’s choice to include his voice in the presidential election has adulterated the altruistic purity that had previously characterized his brand of entertainment journalism. As Vilsan argued, the rise of comedy as political entertainment threatens objective journalism. While I think Oliver is extremely entertaining to watch and appreciate his show’s role in the realm of comedy, we have to remind ourselves that he is subject to the same motive of profit and pursuit of fame as Trump. Ultimately, they follow the same rules but choose to preach to different choirs.

After the success of his Trump episode, Oliver made five additional episodes, each of which analyzed Trump in more depth. It is now clear that he no longer chooses topics based on their urgency or relevance but rather on potential viewership. As critical viewers and potential voters, we have to understand that “Last Week Tonight” is a show that, first and foremost, generates revenue by maximizing viewership; though Oliver’s altruistic causes sometimes seem too genuine to be motivated by such shallow objectives, this assumption may be naive.

I encourage my fellow Brown students who inform themselves about the upcoming election via “Last Week Tonight” and other satirical outlets to find a reason other than John Oliver’s criticism to vote for Clinton. Grounding one’s political opinions in a comedy show is a practice that is as flawed on principle as the act of voting for Trump.

Andrew Friedman ’19 can be reached at andrew_friedman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.