Zack & Nick's Culture Cast

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Is John Oliver Overrated?

John Oliver, the British comedian/political satirist, is beloved on the internet.  And I don’t quite understand why.  Clips from his HBO show, Last Week Tonight, are constantly shared on social media platforms and folks just can’t stop talking about how great and insightful he is.

But, is he?

John Oliver on the set of Last Week Tonight.

John Oliver on the set of Last Week Tonight.

Oliver got his start in the U.S. on Comedy Central’s Daily Show under Jon Stewart’s tenure.  He appeared in multiple segments over the years as the “Senior British Correspondent”, and, in a very fortuitous move for his career, guest hosted the show for multiple weeks in 2013.  His hosting proved to be so popular with viewers and critics that there were rumblings that other networks started to pursue him for their own late night talk shows, specifically as a replacement for Craig Ferguson.  Others felt that he was the heir-apparent for the Daily Show when Stewart eventually retired.  All of that changed when Oliver accepted an offer to anchor his own show in the aforementioned Last Week Tonight.

Over this past summer, I was able to catch a good handful of episodes of Oliver’s show (usually following after VEEP).  And, I don’t quite get the appeal.  And I certainly don’t get his influence.

Part of my irritation with Oliver is in his delivery.  He is constantly smug and arrogant in his explanation and humor.  The type of person who thinks his joke is funnier than it actually is and starts to giggle while telling it.  He has a bit of a holier-than-thou attitude towards anything he thinks is beneath him.  For example, one episode this past summer had Oliver drinking a Bud Light Lime and eating a McDonald’s hamburger as some sort of punishment/trade-off deal if someone did something or other.  Now, I realize that beer and hamburgers are far from healthy, but he made such a production out of it, the supposed gag didn’t land.  It came off more as “I’m better than you”.

I think a lot of his smugness would play better if he was trying to play a character in the vein of Stephen Colbert in The Colbert Report.  As if Oliver would play the role of an upper class Brit who feels he is better than us lowly Americans while completely oblivious to his own shortcomings.  But he doesn’t, and his humor doesn’t work for me because of it.

But, delivery is one thing, and it is incredibly subjective.  So, that aside, I still don’t get his supposed influence.  According to Wikipedia (the source of all truth), Oliver has “been credited with helping influence U.S. legislation, regulations, court rulings, and other aspects of American culture”.  This perplexes me.

Many episodes of Last Week Tonight feature one subject in which Oliver humorously analyzes it to the point show how misguided or what inherent problems it has.   A very straight-forward approach which, I am sure, is part of the reason he’s gained many viewers.  But, there is really nothing new that he is covering that hasn’t been covered by a lot of other political journalists.  He really doesn’t bring any new perspective that hasn’t been hashed before.  In many ways, Oliver is the Dane Cook of political satirists.  He is entertaining, but just because you throw in a couple of F-bombs and pop culture references doesn’t make your material any less vanilla.

And that is where my confusion lies.  How has he transcended where others haven’t.  His segments are no more complex or enlightening than a high school political science report. But, perhaps that is the point?  Maybe because he dumb downs his material that everyday Joes can understand it and be pushed into doing something about it?

I don’t know.  Despite my negative-sounding critique, I don’t hate the guy.  He can be funny and entertaining at times.  I just don’t don’t understand the love he gets from the internet and how people claim he is some sort of revolutionary in the world of politics.  Perhaps I never will.



3 responses to “Is John Oliver Overrated?

  1. John Oliver Sucks October 19, 2015 at 2:41 am

    Another vote here! As you said it:
    He thinks swearing makes his joke funnier. Also seems more impressed with his own humor.
    Repetition of punchline 2 or 3 times. Finally, he repeats his “just like when…” parallel joke’s punchline just as many times.

  2. jcoll June 27, 2016 at 3:59 am

    he’s terrible

  3. Martha August 9, 2017 at 3:27 pm

    Good balanced review. I would like the show more if it was investigative journalism with a lighthearted bent, but he constantly insists it’s just a comedy show. Well, the comedy is lightweight, and is the same 2 jokes recycled week on week.

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