In an interview following the conclusion of “Last Week Tonight’s” first season, John Oliver spoke to New York Times media columnist David Carr, who engaged the host — widely considered a lock for a prestigious Peabody Award for “Last Week’s” maiden voyage — in a by-now familiar debate:
So, I asked Mr. Oliver: Is he engaging in a kind of new journalism? He muttered an oath, the kind he can say on HBO for comic emphasis, but we don’t say here, adding, “No!”
“We are making jokes about the news and sometimes we need to research things deeply to understand them, but it’s always in service of a joke. If you make jokes about animals, that does not make you a zoologist. We certainly hold ourselves to a high standard and fact-check everything, but the correct term for what we do is ‘comedy.’ ”
Time’s James Poniewozik issued a polite rebuttal, allowing that while “journalism” is “a stupid word, used to lend an air of professional respectability to jobs that we should just describe directly: writing, reporting, analysis, criticism, opinion and so on,” it also unquestionably applies to the show put together by Oliver and his staff. As the Daily Baest’s Asawin Suebsaeng pointed out in September, the research, of both the primary-source and document-gathering variety, that goes into one of “Last Week’s” lengthy explainers goes well beyond the scope of Oliver’s preferred nomenclature — although the notion that “comedy” and “journalism” are diametrically opposed could use some questioning as well.
Even Mort Sahl, widely considered the godfather of American political comedy, once quipped, “I’m not so much interested in politics as I am in overthrowing the government.” But the history of comedians flat-out denying their work has any political, or journalistic, content is more recent, and it has less to do with modesty than with the toxic associations that cling to the latter terms. A background in comedy may have been a obstacle for “The Love Boat’s” Fred Grandy and “Saturday Night Live’s” Al Franken on their paths to the U.S. Senate, but it was a surmountable one. But comedians who are perceived to have turned “political” risk hearing the dread refrain, “You used to be funny.”
When Oliver, or his erstwhile boss Jon Stewart, deny that what they do is journalism — a slippery catchall that includes investigative reporting, opinion columns and cultural criticism — they’re showing due deference to the women and men who risk their lives reporting from war zones and challenging the U.S. government, but they’re also pandering to a false division between “entertainment” and “news.” This can’t be journalism, they tacitly argue: It’s fun! But entertainment, whether it means drawing the audience into a gripping mystery or crafting graphics that get their attention in the first place, has always been a part of journalism — at least the kind people actually read. Not everything Oliver does on his show is journalism: Some of it, like pairing footage of dogs in judges’ robes to audio of Supreme Court arguments, is just freaking hilarious. But whether it’s breaking news or not, packaging the complex subjects of net neutrality or the influence of the lobbying group ALEC on state legislatures into accessible — and, yes, entertaining — forms is something “real” journalists do all the time. If Jon Oliver really wants to do journalists a favor, he should emphatically agree that he’s one of them, and help remind the post-print generation that journalism and enjoyment aren’t mutually exclusive.