Why John Oliver’s new show matters even if it’s not funny (which it is!)

Old people have been marveling at/lamenting the idea that “young people get their news from Jon Stewart (and Stephen Colbert)” for so long that people who were young back when that idea first became A Thing are now old. CBS helpfully provides us with this full decade old news article wherein lots of Youngs told the Pew Research Center that “The Daily Show” was “a place where they regularly learned presidential campaign news.” Considering that accounts for fully 2/3 of the 15 years Stewart has been on TDS, it’s clear that this phenomenon has been around, or at least has been observed, for quite a while.

The thing is, as the Project for Excellence in Journalism argued a mere five years ago, it’s probably not a fair characterization. Too much of the TDS/Colbert humor riffs off of what they assume people already know, if not about the particular story in question, then about the personalities involved (if people were learning who, say, Michele Bachmann was just by watching Comedy Central, then they wouldn’t be nearly as attuned to those shows’ jokes about her as they clearly are). A lot of the stereotype, I think, has been formed from some lazy analogies, like this piece that says, “oh, hey, lots of young people watch Colbert and Stewart, ergo they must get their news from those guys QED!”

That’s not to say that Stewart and Colbert don’t inform while they’re entertaining, just that they’re probably not the sole, or even primary, news source for, well, anybody. And if they are, it’s always seemed to me that such a thing would say a lot more about the state of our carnival freak show media than it does about some perceived failing on the part of The Young American, but that’s just me.

Enter John Oliver’s new show, “Last Week Tonight,” airing Sundays on HBO. His first episode (available on YouTube) was last night, and it was a little uneven (though, sheesh). If they’re going to do a once-a-week show then it probably needs to be less like “The Daily Show” than it was last night, but for a first outing it was fine from an entertainment perspective. Where it actually exceeded my expectations, and this is why I kind of hope they get away from the TDS format, was in the deeper pieces they did. Most of the attention seems to be focused on his interview with former NSA chief Keith Alexander, which let Oliver play to his abilities as an interviewer and somebody who can cut through when he’s being bullshitted:

The segment on bogus food labeling was also good (and led to my favorite line of the show, “Frosted Mini-Wheats are Arguably Preferable to Hunger”), but what really floored me was that Oliver spent almost 9 minutes of a 30 minute show talking about India, in which I think it’s fair to say that he really was serving as a legitimate news source for a segment of his audience:

Now, I don’t have facts to back this up

"Go on..."
“Go on…”

but it wouldn’t surprise me if the 8:43 Oliver spent covering India’s elections, our media’s complete disinterest in those elections, and the ways in which our ridiculous cable news environment is unfortunately degrading India’s news media, is more time than any domestic American cable news network apart from Al Jazeera America (and maybe CNN International if you consider that “domestic”) has devoted to India this year. Cable news in this country just doesn’t do international news unless America is directly involved or there’s some kind of major disaster to cover. It’s a sad state of affairs that leads to things like Americans not being able to find Ukraine on a map even though they’re pretty sure we should be doing war there for some reason. If John Oliver and HBO are prepared to give international news some serious attention, both in terms of covering important stories and ridiculing our real media for their failure to cover them, then I’ll keep watching even if he never tells another joke.


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