Almost every Monday a comedic political rant goes viral on YouTube.
John Oliver, The British comedian and host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, hones in on a single target and, joke-by-joke, takes it apart in videos that can be up to 15 minutes long. On some days, HBO will release more than two thirds of the episode from the previous night for free on YouTube.
So far targets have included the FCC, the Miss America Pageant, the tobacco industry, the President of Ecuador and many others. There are a couple of things that separate Last Week Tonight from other political comedy shows: Oliver’s rants are heavily researched, and more importantly, he has an inherent understanding of what makes the Internet tick.
While The Daily Show With Jon Stewart — where Oliver was a writer for more than six years — has always commented on the news, Oliver’s videos go deeper. Freed from a daily schedule, he is diving into under-explored subjects and bringing them to the attention of his audience — both on HBO and, the following day, all over the Internet.
If it stopped there, Oliver would just be another successful comedian — albeit one who’s got a taste for esoteric topics. The difference is that he is actively engaging with the Internet. Not only is Oliver able to turn online viral-ity into a force for good, he also lets the Internet influence the show and engages with it in interesting ways. Even before his success with Last Week Tonight, Oliver was a presence online: for the past seven years, he’s had a podcast, The Bugle, which inspired all kinds of crowd-sourced craziness. But Last Week Tonight takes this to another level.
The FCC Foolishness
Just last month the FCC voted to keep net neutrality, one of the core principles of the Internet. This was a big change from a year ago when the situation looked substantially different. Internet service providers were petitioning the FCC to change its position and for a long time it looked as if they would succeed. One of the major turning points was when Oliver weighed in.
In a thirteen minute takedown, Oliver exposed net neutrality to an audience who largely didn’t know or care — and he made them care. Throughout the video, he likened FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the cable companies he was supposed to be regulating, to a dingo asked to look after a baby. He also encouraged everyone to contact the FCC through their website and leave their opinion on net neutrality.
The fallout was immediate. More than a million comments were submitted to the FCC, repeatedly crashing their website. Wheeler, called on to make a statement on the situation, denied he was a dingo. Oliver’s video was one of the major turning points in the fight for net neutrality.
That is not the only time Oliver’s comedy has had a real life effect. The Miss America Pageant claims to be “the world’s largest provider of scholarships for women.” Given the bikini requirement, such a statement was an open invitation for Oliver’s ire. In a fantastic video that blurred the lines between comedy and investigative journalism, Oliver went through the organisation’s claims with a fine tooth-comb and separated the truth from the marketing.
As the A.V. Club reports, in his rant Oliver featured several other scholarship funds that “don’t require candidates to parade around in bikinis on screen.” The result? The Chicago Society of Women Engineers’ website doubled its traffic and the organisation received $25,000 in donations in just three days.
This Court Is Going to the Dogs
Oliver doesn’t just influence the Internet; he also lets it influence him. The US Supreme Court doesn’t allow video recordings of oral arguments. This, as Oliver highlights, makes the resulting, highly important, audio clips extremely boring to watch. He suggests that news networks take a lesson from the Internet and add the audio to videos of animals dressed up like judges.
Rather than leave anything to chance, Last Week Tonight released all the footage required on their YouTube channel. Seriously: they created stock video footage of all the Supreme Court Justices, two lawyers, an assistant and a court stenographer as animals, free for anyone to use. The Internet has been quick to make use of the opportunity, and most Supreme Court sessions are now available in canine form. Even The Verge released a video.
The show isn’t just cynically pandering to an online audience; everything Last Week Tonight does recognises the importance of social media in a way few other shows do. For New Years Eve HBO released a special web exclusive episode.
Oliver wasn’t a fan of Jamie Doran’s casting as Christian Grey so he created a hashtag, #notmychristian, that is flashed on screen every time 50 Shades of Grey is discussed.
Oliver even got into a ridiculous Twitter spat with the President of Ecuador.
It’s things like these — the casual drop ins throughout out a 30 minute show — that really show how deeply Oliver and his staff understand the importance of the Internet. The writers aren’t creating hashtags in a vain attempt to generate “social media buzz” about the show, they’re doing it because they understand that this is the way entertainment is going: an ongoing conversation between a show and its audience.