Last Week Tonight's John Oliver is adamant that he is not a journalist

John Oliver won the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Talk Series last year for his satirical news programme.
John Oliver won the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Talk Series last year for his satirical news programme. PHOTO: HBO ASIA

Comedian John Oliver's news show offers well-researched takes on politics and current affairs, but he says he is just a funny guy

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, the acclaimed satirical news show, routinely blurs the line between humour and journalism with its mocking, but well-researched takes on politics and current affairs.

Yet its Emmy-winning creator and star is adamant that he is not a journalist. This despite his singular brand of news-analysis-as-comedy, which led the headline of one admiring Time magazine piece to conclude: Unfortunately, John Oliver, you are a journalist.

The label seems to deeply trouble the 39-year-old, who believes the work of "real journalists" is far too important to conflate with what he does.

"I'm pretty clear in my head what the show is for: It's a comedy show and we do it about things that seem really interesting," he tells The Straits Times. Oliver was speaking to reporters in New York recently about the new season of his series, which airs on Saturdays on Cinemax.

But he is being modest when he describes it as just a comedy show. After all, not every comedian can crash a government website with his jokes.

In 2014, he devoted one of his impassioned monologues to the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and its plans to abandon Net neutrality - the notion that Internet service providers should provide access to all content equally, without favouring or blocking some sources.

  • Power of Oliver's jokes

  • • A 2014 segment on Last Week Tonight With John Oliver took on the debt-collection industry, where agencies buy and sell old consumer debts in bulk, then use scare tactics to make people pay up. To show how poorly this is regulated, the series set up its own debt-collection agency and paid US$60,000 (S$85,000) to buy almost US$15 million worth of old medical debts owed by about 9,000 Texans. Oliver then announced he would forgive the debt. Realistically, it would never have been collected for its full US$15 million face value and likely no more than the US$60,000 they were sold for, because old debts lose value each time they are resold. But Oliver wanted to make a point and did.

    • In 2015, another scathing segment probed the Miss America pageant's claim that it gives away US$45 million a year in scholarships for women. Examining tax records, the show found nothing close to that amount and the pageant was pressured into admitting it had only awarded US$6 million in scholarships in 2014. Oliver urged viewers to donate to other scholarship-awarding bodies such as the Society of Women Engineers, which then received US$25,000 after the show aired - 15 per cent more than it usually collects in a year.

    • Without forewarning his employer HBO, Oliver travelled to Moscow in 2015 to do a hard-hitting interview with the elusive exiled whistle-blower Edward Snowden - a scoop by any standards. He pressed Snowden on the value of his leak of American surveillance and whether he had read everything in the documents, arguing that not doing so had led to sensitive information being leaked by mistake.

    • The English comic met his wife on the job. He was covering the 2008 Republican National Convention for The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, where he was a writer and on-air correspondent from 2006 to 2013. He entered a restricted area and was chased by security guards, but former United States army combat medic Kate Norley, who was there in a group of veterans-rights activists, offered to help him and his crew by hiding them. The two married in 2011 and announced the birth of their son Hudson in 2015.

    • By his own admission, Oliver was not a successful comedian in his native Britain, although he did a stint on the popular satirical news panel show, Mock The Week, in 2005 and 2006. Oliver also jokes about how he used to bomb while doing stand-up at the Edinburgh Festival, although he tells The Straits Times it remains his "favourite place comedically" and he would love to perform there again some day.

He urged viewers to voice their opposition online and they did, leaving 45,000 comments on the FCC website and freezing its commenting system. Observers say Oliver's 13-minute segment transformed the debate on the issue, giving a major boost to the campaign to keep the Internet open.

This and other instances of him shifting policy debates have spawned discussion of a so-called "John Oliver effect".

But the Englishman - who won Outstanding Variety Talk Series and two other Emmys last year, adding to the three he has for his writing on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (1999 to 2015) - insists he is just a funny guy.

The distinction is important because he says real journalism is in crisis.

"We did a 20-minute piece on journalism last year because I wanted people to understand how much the things they see on TV come from boots-on-the-ground local news reporting. And if you remove that, you're in real trouble," says the comic, who has an English degree from Cambridge University.

Last Week Tonight does have journalists and fact-checkers on its staff, but it still relies on primary reporting by the news media. "Our show can't exist without the work of journalists - we need people to have done reporting so we can talk about it."

Noting United States President Donald Trump's open hostility towards the news media, he says: "That's why I'm so defensive of the job journalists have to do and worried about stuff that is being articulated by the White House now."

But even if one accepts that he is merely a satirist, that job is not getting any easier, either.

Other comedians who make jokes about US politics say its absurdist turn last year, which culminated in the election of a former reality star to the White House, makes it harder than ever to lampoon. As the creators of the animated series South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, put it recently, "satire has become reality".

Oliver agrees.

"What Trump was saying during the campaign was so inherently ludicrous that you have to try and find a way to attach substance to it. That's not normally the process with comedy - normally you take something serious and then you make it silly."

Now that the headline-hogging Mr Trump is president, another challenge is to resist the urge to make everything about him.

"I would like to make sure that we don't get sucked down the easy road of making everything about Trump. Even last year, we were very careful not to do that."

When he does take him on, he is not going to worry about whether the president will retaliate - something another comedy talk-show host, Bill Maher, has said he is afraid of himself.

Asked if he feels lucky to do his job without fear of the repercussions facing comedians in more authoritarian countries, Oliver says: "I really do, which is why I want to use it to its full capacity.

"People ask, 'Are you not concerned about what might happen to your show or to you by criticising the administration or a company?'. But I'm vehemently against the concept of that question because if you have no reason to be scared about consequences, you do not get to feel scared.

"I think about Bassem Youssef, who had a similar kind of show in Egypt. He and his family were threatened and the show was shut down. He was justified in feeling concerned about personal consequences to jokes he made. I definitely do not get to feel that."

Working for the American paycable channel HBO means Oliver is even more unfettered.

"I feel completely protected by the fact that I am privileged enough to live in a country with a First Amendment right (to free speech). Because I work for a company which not only is in this country, but doesn't even have advertisers, which means I don't have that freedom of speech curtailed by companies."

He says HBO has given him creative carte blanche, which frees him to go after some of the most powerful individuals and companies in the world.

Otherwise, "there's no way you could do as aggressive stories as we've done about General Motors or Herbalife, one of the biggest companies in the world - that does not fly on commercial television", he says, adding that no one has ever threatened to sue the show because it vets its facts to ensure they are "legally sound".

"That's why I feel even more of a duty to swing as hard as I can. Because I get all the toys, so I don't think you get to be lazy about that."

Oliver - who during the interview chats knowledgeably to the group of international reporters about politics in their own countries, including France and Brazil - also takes pains to bring an international perspective to the show.

This is to counter the tendency of American audiences to be slightly insular in their political outlook, something exacerbated by how long and all-consuming their 18-month-long presidential campaign is, he observes.

For example, "last year, we were trying to explain to people why Brexit was a much bigger deal than they thought because this was going to be potentially the first domino in this swing of nationalism in Europe".

"And you don't need to have a history PhD to understand that nothing happens in Europe in isolation and that when Europe swings to the right, bad things happen," says Oliver, who has a son, aged two, with wife Kate Norley, a 44-year-old American former army medic.

He acknowledges, however, that he may often be preaching to the choir as most of his viewers likely share his liberal outlook.

But Last Week Tonight occasionally reaches the other side of the political spectrum.

"We've done a lot of stories that conservatives have enjoyed. We did a piece on civil forfeiture which was very popular among conservative blogs because we agree on that," he says, referring to a law that lets the police seize people's cash and property if they suspect they have been or will be used in a crime.

"We really try and make our stories not party political. So I would hope even people who are diametrically opposed to how I might be politically might still find interesting things in the show.

"And that they wouldn't be able to say the facts are wrong, but could absolutely disagree with my conclusions."

• Last Week Tonight With John Oliver airs on Saturdays at 11.45pm on Cinemax (StarHub TV Channel 611).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2017, with the headline 'Blurring the line beween humour and journalism'. Print Edition | Subscribe