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John Oliver and the rise of investigative comedy

It speaks volumes about the current state of journalism in the United States that it takes a 38-year old British comedian to draw attention to topics much of the mainstream media has chosen to ignore, using investigative reporting methods many of these organisations have long abandoned.

Take Donald Trump. A lot has been written and aired about the bombastic billionaire Republican presidential candidate. But when John Oliver – the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight – turned his fire on Trump Sunday, he touched a nerve that even other presidential contenders had failed to. After trashing Trump’s business record and denouncing the property magnate turned reality TV star as a “serial liar,” Oliver launched a campaign for the Donald to be referred to by his ancestral German name ‘Drumpf.’ By March 2, the #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain campaign was trending on Twitter and the episode had been viewed by more than 50 million people on YouTube.

This is the kind of crowd-pleasing trouble-making that has helped make Oliver one of the hottest tickets on American TV. Since April 2014, the British stand-up has used his satirical show to deal with some of the thorniest issues on the planet. Among the topics tackled: Net neutrality, the rise of Islamic State, Europe’s refugee crisis and corruption at the governing body of world football FIFA. Along the way he has interviewed luminaries and heavyweights such as whistleblower Edward Snowden and scientist Stephen Hawking.

“It is undeniable that the British stand-up is guilty of committing ‘acts of journalism’ in the service of comedy.”

By devoting 15-20 minute chunks of prime TV airtime to complex issues in a thoughtful, provocative manner and digging deeper into stories usually glossed over in 40-second bites by mainstream channels like Fox News and CNN, Oliver has won the plaudits of journalists and media commentators across the globe.

“More and more often, the HBO newcomer looks, sounds, and feels like real news,” wrote Asawin Suwebsae in a profile of Oliver’s show in The Daily Beast. David Carr, the late New York Times media critic, suggested Oliver was pursuing a “kind of new journalism.”

These are accusations Oliver, who cut his comedic chops as a reporter on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, strenuously rejects. In an interview with reporter Jorge Ramos in May 2015, Oliver stressed: “I am not a journalist. I am a comedian. I make jokes about the news.”

Despite Oliver’s protestations, however, it is undeniable that the British stand-up is guilty of committing ‘acts of journalism’ in the service of comedy.

Here’s why:

Firstly, Last Week Tonight focuses on a complex subject and attempts to simplify this for audiences – as journalists have been doing for centuries. The fact that he uses comedy as a tool to grab the attention of viewers does not make the journalism less credible, but keeps the viewer engaged and makes political points without sounding angry or preachy. In this respect, Oliver is firmly in the tradition of the strain of humorous American journalism that started with Mark Twain and James Thurber and has continued with the Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Onion and even Buzzfeed. It also surfs the current wave of ‘explainer journalism’ by focusing less on the ‘who, what, where, whens’ of the world and more on the ‘whys and hows.’

For example, Oliver’s shows have focused on the privatisation of America’s prison system, the implementation of Shariah law in the sultanate of Brunei and political corruption in Ecuador – which sparked the fury of President Rafael Correa, who took to Twitter to insult him. In so doing, Oliver has upended many of the lazy assumptions made by mainstream American media that today’s hyper-distracted audiences cannot handle complex subjects, have little patience for analysis and no interest in far-flung places that do not affect their lives.

Secondly, Oliver’s assertions are backed up by evidence. “We have very aggressive fact-checkers and researchers, so that we are not wrong. If you make a joke about something that is factually inaccurate, the joke collapses,” he told Ramos. An example of this was the September 2014 segment of the show about Miss America. When the organisation behind the beauty pageant claimed it made $45 million in college scholarships available to contestants every year, Oliver questioned the figure. “That is an unbelievable amount of money—as in, I literally did not believe that,” he said. So his team of researchers, which includes many former journalists, investigated the tax forms of every state in the country and discovered that the Miss America Organisation spent closer to $4 million on scholarships. No wonder Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, has called the show “investigative comedy.”

Thirdly, Oliver’s show follows the classic journalist tradition of holding power to account by probing authorities, investigating wrongdoings and questioning received wisdom. For example, Last Week Tonight was one of the first to dig into allegations of corruption at FIFA and is widely credited with drawing attention to the empire of sleaze presided over by Sepp Blater.

Finally, in the words of Ramos, the British comedian’s show helps “spark a national dialogue.” In other words, it creates a conversation about important issues in interesting ways – one of journalism’s oft-held claims. A case in point is his segment about net neutrality – “the only two words promising more boredom in the English language are ‘featuring Sting’” as he quipped on his show. The public disagreed, with the clip attracting over 10 million viewers and stoking so much indignation that when Oliver urged fans to flood the Federal Communications Commission with comments about proposed changes to net neutrality, so many did that the FCC website crashed.

So is Oliver an activist? “That’s not the goal,” he told the Financial Times in a recent interview. “That is a completely unintended byproduct. All we are focused on is trying to make really the best comedy show that we can and make it interesting and immediate.”

After Oliver denied being a journalist in his interview with Ramos, the Mexican TV anchor protested that he had “more credibility than most journalists in the United States and many other countries.” Oliver’s reply sums up why it is so difficult to pigeonhole this bespectacled Birmingham native: “But that is more of an insult to the current state of journalism than a complement to the state of comedy.”

However you define what he is doing – alternative journalism, investigative comedy, stand-up reporting – it seems Oliver, who was included in Time’s 100 most influential people of the year in 2014, is having the last laugh.

About Gareth Harding

Clear Europe Managing Director and head of Missouri School of Journalism's Brussels Programme. Former journalist and speechwriter.

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