It was with rapturous attention that I watched John Oliver’s first post-Trump episode of Last Week Tonight on Sunday. Oliver cracked about the extra eyeballs on the show immediately after introducing his main segment on the defiantly unsexy topic of special district governments: “Hello people watching for the first time because of our Trump piece. . .and also, I presume, goodbye!”
It was a smart line, acknowledging how uncharacteristic the Trump clip that set the Internet afire last week was compared to his show’s usual fare, which has always been significantly less taken by the Beltway theatrics that dominate other political programs on TV, be it news or satire. Trump was again the only presidential candidate talked about in depth during the most recent episode’s opening bit and, yes, they talked about his penis because that’s the latest joke Donald Trump has gifted the Politainment sphere.
But it was not because I was enamored with last week’s Trump segment that I was so anxious to see the follow-up. It seemed I was one of the precious few in Oliver’s core base who didn’t like it. Undeniably funny and massively popular (59 million views on Facebook, 19 million on Youtube; more on those figures later), the “mic drop” on the Republican front-runner actually pits some captivating questions about how Last Week Tonight moves forward in this presidential election cycle, its first since debuting on HBO nearly two years ago.
Why John Oliver means something
“John Oliver can save the world” is one of those fantastic idealist thoughts I’ve allowed myself to have more than once, the kind that exist only in the most quickly passing reveries. He probably can’t, of course, but if such a savior could exist today, someone with a wholly unique media profile would make the most sense. As the agenda of corporate media has somehow gotten more willfully transparent in a time where anybody with an internet connection can find them out, most public voices of the uncompromised split and scatter across millions of channels online, strengthening political tribalism but usually in circles too small to make a difference in America’s political direction.
Oliver says he isn’t a journalist, but he does have the budget to hire four individuals who are, forming his crack research team. The maxim that journalism is shining a light in dark corners is surely more applicable to Last Week Tonight than anything on television enjoying a sizeable audience. Doing this without any obvious sign of strings being pulled by duplicitous interests from above makes Oliver virtually without peer.
The understatedly titled “main segment” that was dedicated to Trump last week is Oliver’s unqualified signature. Twentyish uninterrupted minutes of eviscerating the bad guys, it was an immediate game-changer in American news satire and distinguished Oliver from Jon Stewart and all his other disciples by exposing the storytelling limitations of a show broken up by adverts. Corporate synergy has always run through the veins of our talk shows; interviews with celebrities promoting a film or book often have a shared financial stake with the mega-conglomerate airing the fluff.
But Oliver’s show did more than just eschew the corporate traps of yesteryear. HBO disrupted its own premium business model by allowing the main segments and other bits to be uploaded to Last Week Tonight’s official pages on YouTube and Facebook. All those passionate young political junkies didn’t have to hit up mom & dad for that cable log-in again because somebody big decided that what Oliver was doing was too important to hide behind a paywall.
The real beauty of Oliver’s thorough takedowns on bad guys is that the “guys” is something of a misnomer. By confronting issues like prison re-entry, draconian municipal fines on the poor and America’s barely-even-a-thing supply of public defenders, Oliver’s scorn is directed at a much greater beast: systems and institutions. Attempting to understand shadowy forces with no figurehead to blame is confusing and frankly too damn depressing for most to spend time on.
That a good main segment by Oliver can make the act of learning about these gross injustices kind of fun is a towering achievement in itself. Revelations of cruelty are interspersed with cutaway sight gags that are hit-or-miss but critical to preventing the segments from deluging into total outrage porn. A lengthy dissection on standardized school testing isn’t supposed to be what you and a friend watch on the couch after a beer run, but Oliver and his team have struck a formula that makes it palatable.
Before last week, Oliver and his patented style of reporting hadn’t been under the radar by any stretch, yet he hadn’t been able to scale the peaks of super-duper viraldom with any one item. The viewing stats had been strong for what these clips are (which is to say pretty damn long by contemporary expectations for viral video), with the main segments from last year’s second season averaging 5.4 million hits on YouTube. On Facebook, the shorter, jokier clips have comparable circulation but hits for the main segments have been less consistent and substantially lower – an average of 1.1 million views for the 32 main segments currently featured from Season 2 (the video page on Facebook is three clips short of a complete archive in this category).
This indicates a devoted base of YouTube subscribers who like watching Oliver’s heavy shit for themselves but don’t see a 14-minute video called “Medicaid Gap; as being a smash hit with friends on their FB timelines. The Trump clip having 59 million views on Facebook and 19 million on YouTube doesn’t just make it a high water mark for Last Week Tonight in raw numbers but shows a massively different route in which it was distributed. In other words, Trump was the first time your aunt shared an Oliver video on Facebook.
Before last week, I had always hoped that one of these days there would be a main segment that would introduce the formula to a vastly expanded audience. Oliver’s delivery would be so ferocious, his team’s research so revelatory and, most of all, an underreported story so startling that people who saw it would feel like they had no choice but to share this must-watch with every close friend. As someone who met and protested alongside those affected by Detroit’s mass water shutoffs, a segment on that was a wishful little fantasy of mine.
But anything would do if it could evoke an empathy and awareness in those well outside the show’s normal reach of young bleeding-hearts. Share after share on the social media grid, spreading at a wildfire speed to tens of millions of people worldwide in less than a week! This was how John Oliver would save the world. He couldn’t even finish his introduction of the main segment that would check all those boxes (well, except the ones about empathy, awareness and underreporting) before me and probably everyone else watching the original broadcast on Feb. 28 knew the day had come with the perfect story no one would be able to turn away from. . .
“Our main segment tonight, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, is Donald Trump.”
Of course it was Trump. It was always going to be Trump. Fuckin’ Trump, man.
It’s strange that when Oliver announced what became far and away his most popular segment ever, the live studio audience groaned. If anyone or anything could be further from a light in a dark corner, it’s Trump. Here is the man who keeps thriving from the deal he brokered with the corporate media: He provides them ratings and clicks through stunningly excessive behavior. In return they award him the pixie-dust merit of “viability” by providing unapologetic wall-to-wall coverage, giving the impression that someone so talked about must be on to something. It’s become such a hugely destructive charade that Oliver partaking in it, though probably inevitable, felt personally disappointing. Yes, disappointed that a comedian lowered himself to engage an insult spectacle he should be leaving to a presidential candidate and professional reporters. That’s just where we are.
This isn’t to say people are wrong to like and share the video. Funny is funny and there’s real cathartic value in seeing Trump taken on with the same level of confidence that the Billionaire Brand Man displays when he cuts down milquetoast stiffs like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. But when an Oliver main segment creates a splash beyond social media analytics, it does so by making a tangible difference, like the call-to-action in flooding the FCC’s comment box on Net Neutrality in 2014, which viewers followed and created an apparent turning point. Last year, he traveled to Russia and conducted one of the only televised interviews with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, effectively simplifying the complexity of metadata collection for millions by exploring the plight of a hypothetical dick pic. It was easy to think Oliver hit on his biggest shake-up yet when the expertly-delivered Trump piece exploded. But compared to his previous work, this was a skewering that came cheap and with little chance of making an impact on the Republican race or the general election.
Notably, there still hasn’t been a Trump response to the segment, something everyone (especially John) expected. I’d suspect Trump knows that Oliver has the creativity and the bully pulpit to make a public fight with him a wash at best. But more importantly, he knows his support and Oliver’s influence is not one he has to wrestle them away from, as he’s done with Fox News host Megyn Kelly. For Trump fans who caught the segment, you would have to think the debunking of arguments for their preferred candidate was secondary to the loudness that a liberal Brit insisted a vote for Trump would be insane. It’s as much of a reverse endorsement to that crowd as Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein calling Bernie Sanders “dangerous” was to the ears of the left.
That leaves two basic groups the segment had a chance to reach: the choir tapping their feet to Oliver’s preaching and the Trump fence-sitters, as hard as it is to believe such a thing could possibly still exist. We in the choir had a big laugh at the segment but needed no converting, rendering our impact null and void. My skepticism that Oliver had an influence to the undecideds can be summed up with one line while he was still justifying the need for the segment: “It is no longer wise to ignore.” No longer wise to ignore? Not being able to ignore him is Trump’s WHOLE FUCKING HUSTLE.
If the publicity=viability model that Trump is riding here works on anyone, it’s the casual voter for whom not being bored is of chief consequence. Even if a total blackout isn’t feasible, smugly minimizing Trump talk is the only way you’re not losing the game of chicken he’s perpetrating on all media. And if Trump is too big for that too, holding him up as a mirror that reflects America’s ugliest warts seems to be the only reasonable course. Breaking down what an asshole he is isn’t just low-hanging fruit but comes from a tree that Trump planted himself.
Where Last Week Tonight goes from here in its 2016 election coverage
John Oliver isn’t the source I expected to look toward in rescuing election coverage out of the gutter, even beyond the “not a real journalist” stuff. While he certainly doesn’t hide a progressive bent, a lot of main segment topics have been of a non-partisan nature. He clearly doesn’t love talking about politicians (something his show has been better for up to this point) and still hasn’t shown his cards on any of the remaining major party candidates outside of Trump.
On Sunday’s episode, he touched on Lands’ End and its distancing from Gloria Steinem after receiving complaints from pro-lifers over the retailer featuring her in a recent catalog. Quite noticeably, Oliver made no reference to Steinem’s controversial remarks a month ago that stirred the pot in the Sanders-Hillary Clinton race. Another story that would have been worth following up on was the troubling news this week that Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz hopped into bed with payday loans, an old villain with its own main segment from Season 1, but there was nothing.
There’s still plenty of time for Oliver to roll up his sleeves on these fronts but a continued avoidance of non-Trump candidates will eventually seem egregious to an audience he’s taught all too well to be wary of deceptions. While there still has been nothing to tip off the influence of overlords on Last Week Tonight, if Oliver takes it easy on Hillary for example, you can expect some will point out that HBO is a division of Time Warner, one of Clinton’s biggest donors. Reading the social media comments on the Trump segment, there was already a little of that in the water supply. Fair or unfair, these are suspicious times where even beloved satire can’t escape the gaze of a crooked eye. Oliver may not have asked to be a beacon of light in television journalism but the competition has dictated that he takes the mantle.
My desperation for Oliver to carry the mail on hard news was cemented on Super Tuesday. I wanted to scientifically prove to myself what I already knew – that MSNBC was far from a safe haven for progressives. In what was a weird way to prove I wasn’t just going crazy, I watched five straight hours of the network that night from 7 p.m. to midnight EST, documenting all their pivots in coverage (punditry, speeches and interviews) from one party’s race to the other. MSNBC might be the lowest-rated of the big three 24/7 cable networks but their struggles with fairness are the most intriguing. Marketing themselves as the liberal flag-planters in the cable news wars, it actually makes the most sense for them to provide Trump saturation. He gives them fresh meat stories, his fame is viewed as bad for the Republican establishment and plugging into the ratings charge that’s expected of Trump gives them a pragmatic reason to say there’s nothing to see in the Democratic race, hoping Hillary can sleepwalk to the nomination as she was once expected to.
I expected it to bad. But it was so, so much worse than bad. My data was admittedly sloppy because I made the mistake of only recording the minutes and not the seconds on the clock but over such a long period of time it made for a generally accurate overview. Taking out time spent on their “big board” where anchors reviewed results with no specific focus on either party, I came away with 135 minutes of GOP coverage compared to 59 for the Democrats. Going into the night, Oklahoma and Massachusetts were considered toss-ups in the Democratic race. Bernie won Oklahoma, earning a few words before a quick commercial only for his name to go an hour without another mention. Conversely, Hillary’s win in Massachusetts was treated as a stunning deathblow to Sanders and talked about at length.
There were plenty of surreal moments, like guest anchor Eugene Robinson’s seemingly straight-faced reference to Bernie’s “real photos and the fake one” from the Civil Rights protests he was at in 1962, a nod to the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart’s ludicrous assertion that had already been debunked. The final tally also saw 60 minutes of commercials, one more than was dedicated to the Democratic race at this supposedly liberal bastion. If any trusting MSNBC viewers were “feeling the bern” on Super Tuesday, they were hypochondriacs being exposed to too many Prilosec ads.
Maybe I’m just asking too much of John Oliver to encapsulate everything you’d want in an antidote to this madness. The man only has 30 minutes a week, after all. It speaks to the power of what Oliver has done when you can visualize that intensely frustrating series of clips on MSNBC’s Super Tuesday coverage being strung together for a devastating future main segment on Last Week Tonight: The perfect voice and research methods to take a narrative on blatant media agendas and bring it all home.
But those are just my whims. Last Week Tonight’s hyped coverage of Trump is going to continue for more reasons than there just being a public appetite for it. Since the optics of a presidential election decided by xenophobia are genuinely horrifying for America’s place in the world, perhaps an argument could be made that going purely anti-Trump is a noble fight. But the problem with anointing Trump as the bogeyman of 2016 is not just that it’s a popular opinion and that he’s all too happy to play the part. If Oliver takes an Anybody-but-Trump stance while the other candidates skate free of similar inspection, it would feel like an unspoken reverence for the very systems Oliver has been begging us to wake up to for years.