Filling Jon Stewart’s Shoes–The Growing Political Clout and Comic Appeal of John Oliver

John Oliver on his comedy show “Last Week Tonight.”

Who will fill Brian Williams’ shoes at NBC News isn’t clear, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that Jon Stewart’s insightful, cutting analysis, clever parody, and witness-stand interviews of politicians and government officials  has a soul mate in biting and relevant satire with John Oliver and his relatively new show, “Last Week Tonight.”

Mr. Oliver is a former member of the “The Daily Show” cast as a special correspondent who so honed his comedic skills that Jon Stewart asked him to sit in as his replacement while he filmed and directed the movie, “Rosewater.”  Mr. Stewart’s faith was not misplaced.  Already Mr. Oliver’s comedic brilliance and even political clout as a result are moving the needle of public opinion and political response.

Three cases in point.  The first involved Mr. Oliver’s withering parody of cable companies claiming that a “fast” and “slow” lane Internet would really be “good” and “better” when in fact Oliver’s scathing dissection of that argument showed it was more like the difference between “none” and “hardly any.”  At the end, he said that the Internet is so important and the two-tier system so potentially destructive to its global potential and user fairness that he implored viewers to write to the FCC pleading to keep the net neutral with no special “fast” lane for cable companies and other large Internet content providers.

Lambasting those who would jeopardize net neutrality.

The upshot? The FCC had to extend its comment period because its website crashed after Mr. Oliver’s show and just last week issued regulations preserving net neutrality.

The second case involved the supplement industry and its massive lobbying attempts to keep the FDA from regulating its ingredients that are in some cases toxic, causing severe liver and heart ailments and even death in those who consume them or just sham products with none of the ingredients as advertised.


Skewering Dr. Oz for calling dietary supplements “magic in a bottle.”

The upshot?  Last week, the New York attorney general’s office accused four major retailers of selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous herbal supplements and demanded that they remove the products from their shelves.

New York Attorney General Targets Supplements at Major Retailers

Health supplements on display at Walgreens in Times Square in Manhattan.

The authorities said they had conducted tests on top-selling store brands of herbal supplements at four national retailers — GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart — and found that four out of five of the products did not contain any of the herbs on their labels. The tests showed that pills labeled medicinal herbs often contained little more than cheap fillers like powdered rice, asparagus and houseplants, and in some cases substances that could be dangerous to those with allergies.

In fairness to other watchdogs, the issue of supplement risks has been long a focus of industry watchers of over-the-counter products.  The concerns raised by the New York Attorney General’s office reflect testing conducted, for example, by the Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics at the New York Botanical Garden as well as other organizations.  Still, the John Oliver segment went viral on social media and no doubt brought increasing pressure to bear on government officials for action.

The third instance involved civil forfeiture, the practice that allows police and other law enforcement officials to take money or other property from drivers who they stop and whose vehicles they search but who have not been charged with any crime. Shortly after Oliver’s hilarious expose on civil forfeiture and the show’s segment going viral on social media, the traditional media, led by The Washington Post, jumped on the issue and practice and did exposes of the blatant (but legal) practice, raising it to national level scrutiny and law officials promising to end the practice.  Millions of dollars have been taken from motorists without their committing a crime or having legal recourse.

Rampaging against the ridiculous logic and unfairness of civil forfeiture.

That was followed in January 2015, with the Attorney General of the United States announcing he was putting limits on what police could seize from motorists without criminal cause:

Holder limits seized-asset sharing process that split billions with local, state police

“Attorney General Eric Holder is barring local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without proof that a crime occurred. The Post’s Robert O’Harrow Jr. explains the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago. “(The Washington Post)

Does Oliver represent a new form of investigative journalism? No. He’s a comedian, which he will tell you, but Oliver’s mentor, Jon Stewart, changed comedy and journalism with his sharp, aggressive, and no-holds-barred humor and tough questioning of politicians for their behavior and actions.  Mr. Stewart’s satiric prism added a new lens to politics that seems a permanent transformation in the way news is interpreted and blended into comedy.  Mr. Stewart’s style, in the words of New York Times critic Jason Zinoman,  was honed from his New Jersey roots, legacy of smart aleck Jewish comedians, and outsider’s perspective.  Mr. Oliver, for his part, brings a British, across-the-pond outsider’s viewpoint, with all the articulate brilliance of the Monty Python troupe holding a mirror of America up to its citizens and asking them, “don’t you see you’re being snookered here, my good American friends?”  And evidently we do.

Unfortunately, Mr. Stewart has announced his retirement and his other mentee, Stephen Colbert of “The Colbert Report,” is moving on to take over David Letterman’s desk at “The Late Show.”  That leaves only Mr. Oliver and Larry Wilmore, who now hosts Comedy  Central’s “The Nightly Show” that follows “The Daily Show” to carry on the master’s legacy.  In Mr. Oliver’s case that brand of late-night scathing analysis, politics, and humor comes with a refreshing self-deprecating, unpredictable, and hilarious accuracy and fearlessness.

Look for bigger things and continuing clout from the trending John Oliver and “Last Week Tonight.”  We need him and others in a world turned upside down by social media, 24/7 news cycles, and someone who can make sense, instill action, and extract belly laughs out of it all.  Lots of big news and comedy shoes to fill these days, Brian Williams’ six month suspension from “NBC Nightly News” for crossing the line separating news anchor trustworthiness and celebrity puffery notwithstanding.

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