Professor Leticia Bode Discusses John Oliver & “Last Week Tonight”

By Angela Hart

On Thursday, August 27, 2015, Georgetown University Communication, Culture, and Technology Professor Leticia Bode sat down with me to discuss “Last Week Tonight” and the groundbreaking, fascinating, and satirical elements of the program.  

What is The John Oliver Effect and what impact has it had?

“The John Oliver Effect hasn’t been officially defined; most people talk about The John Oliver Effect actually referring to the FCC effect. So, after John Oliver aired his net neutrality episode, he encouraged everybody to go to the FCC website and offer a comment, which all public agencies have to accept public comments on different proposals; so, he encouraged people to go to the website and give a comment to the FCC – and it crashed the FCC’s website – because it was so overwhelming. So that’s the main thing people talk about in terms of The John Oliver Effect. There have been other, more speculative, things going back to the FCC thing. One of my colleagues at Loyola and another colleague at American are working on a study right now that actually is looking at those comments; and, especially, looking at comments before John Oliver’s kind of call-to-action and after the call-to-action and seeing how those differ. And one weird thing that they have found so far is that women seem to experience The John Oliver Effect stronger than men do. So you’re way more likely to see female comments after the call-to-action thing or before it. Other possible examples of The John Oliver Effect – recently, he did the exposé on Televangelists and there’s some movement maybe by the IRS to investigate fraudulent churches, now, so that could possibly be a John Oliver Effect. There was a fairly significant drop in donations to the women’s engineering fund after the Miss America segment that he did. So that’s one thing that we’re trying to look at with our studies trying to see what are the effects of these calls-to-actions: are they kind of particularly meaningful in a different way than you might not have expected from normal late night TV.”

One thing that’s really interesting to me is that he’s doing investigative journalism. He’s no longer just doing the fake news program or they’re reiterating news that has already happened, commenting or joking about it, he’s actually going and finding stories. He’s done the Miss American Pageant and he went and interviewed Snowden. Do you have any ideas about his investigative journalism – how they differ – or what you see that’s interesting about it?

 “I would say that he is doing what had been done on shows like Colbert and Jon Stewart and he is doing it in a much more serious way. If you think about Jon Stewart and his kind of traditional daily show paradigm, if you will, he was doing exactly what you’re saying here. He’s commenting on the news, he’s making fun of the news a lot of times, he’s making fun of the news media. A lot of the correspondent pieces that happened on The Daily Show have been much more investigative; so we’re going to go to the Republican Convention and see what’s going on there, or we’re going to talk about, you know, more nuance, more kind of specific topics. And, John Oliver, not coincidentally, was one such correspondent on The Daily Show. Right, so that he kind of has this background and now he gets his own show and he has a whole staff of people that can do this for him. And so I think that’s just the way he wanted to run his show. In terms of what it’s doing for what people see on late night television, I think it’s absolutely fascinating to have this kind of genre where you’re combining really in-depth reporting. So like the church investigation that he did/went on, literally, for nine months. He was investigating this, right? So to have the resources to be able to do that and then to be able to pull it off with humor and with keeping people’s attention, and all those sorts of things, and get somebody to actually do something about it, that’s really hard to pull off. So I would argue that what he’s doing is even harder than what Jon Stewart did even though I would argue that Jon Stewart kind of invented a whole new genre. So I think John Oliver should get a lot of credit for what he’s doing right now and to me the question is if he can sustain it, if he kind of starts to run out of topics that he can kind of get this passionate about.”

Do you think one of the issues for that would be The Daily Show on four nights a week versus he’s on once on Sunday?

“I think that probably helps, right?”

More time to prepare and get things done in advance.

“Right. So Jon Stewart is reacting to the day’s news and that’s kind of the purpose of The Daily Show whereas Oliver is doing something different with that. And the others on once a week like Amy Schumer’s on once a week versus new shows that are on once a week. But, obviously, they’re not doing the same type of (I even hesitate to call it) comedy. Because I think it is reporting first and comedy second.”

I completely agree with that because Jon Stewart was kind of hiding behind not the façade of saying, “I’m a comedian first,” but now Oliver, he’s not a comedian first in anyway, so I think it’s really interesting you point that out. He is challenging the journalistic norms with political satires and this is something that seems to be a reiterating theme throughout his shows. He’ll address the fact viewers are accustomed to certain formats where he’ll all of a sudden say “I’m King of Pranks, I Got You So Good,” or “Hey, this isn’t real.” He did the same thing with Abraham Lincoln saying, “Abraham Lincoln once pardoned a man accused of bestiality, that man was John Wilkes Booth.” And then he follows it up saying, “I Got You So Good! That was a lie!” So what do you think about things like that?

“I think he is (and this is probably putting words into his mouth) but it feels like he is encouraging people to be more cynical – not cynical – to be more skeptical of the news that they’re receiving. So I think we’ve kind of seen this major transformation in news whereas if you go back to like the heyday of television news like the Walter Cronkite era, news was a public service and a public service provided by the government. The reason that they leased the air waves to the networks was so that they could provide a public service and one of the ways they did that was by providing news. And, that was good news. It was objective news, it was fairly well-resourced news, and people came to trust that news; and, that was totally appropriate to trust that news. If you kind of move forward into more of the cable new era and sort of the era we’re in now, especially with the proliferation of news and people calling themselves news – and there’s not really any regulation on that – so I could go and call myself a news anchor tomorrow and start a YouTube Channel and say whatever the hell I wanted to. I think people need to be more skeptical of what they’re receiving from those venues, now. And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t trust what you hear on, you know, NBC Nightly News or something like that. But there’s so much stuff claiming to be news on the Internet, on cable television, on all these kind of different people claiming that they know what they’re talking about on social media, when they clearly do not. So it’s almost like a media literacy sort of thing he’s trying to say like, ‘Just because I’m sitting behind a desk, and acting like I know what I’m talking about, doesn’t mean that you should take everything I say as, you know, God’s Honest Truth – you need to be skeptical, and you need to be thinking, and you need to be critical of the things that you are consuming in all these areas.”

My favorite joke on the show is when the maps shown are not correct. He also introduces people incorrectly, such as the Secretary of Transportation as Evelyn Sargent, before saying, “Hey, this is a made-up person! She doesn’t exist. We just created her for the purpose of our introduction here.” People don’t follow-up with those inserts on regular news programs, they kind of take them at face value. Is this him saying, "If someone says something, follow-up with it?" Why do you think he includes these inserts? 

“I think that’s part of it, yeah. Check on things before, especially before, you re-tweet them or you take them as fact. Or, at least, be a little bit careful about what you’re taking as truth.”

Are there other pieces that you’ve found particularly effective with John Oliver aside from Miss America or the FCC?

“I think the Snowden interview garnered a lot of attention partly because I’m not sure anybody really believed it. I’m not sure he even believed it was going to happen…It had to be a very intense situation. But, again, that doesn’t just happen. You don’t just happen upon well, first of all, one of the most wanted people in the world. Second of all, you don’t happen upon that interview strategy, which was super-effective, right? Like, how can I make this complicated story important and accessible to people? And, how can I make this different than every other sound bite that Snowden has ever given before? And, so that, I think, you know, takes a lot of work and a lot of effort to figure out how are we going to turn this into a story that people are going to talk about and learn from, right? And, in that particular situation, (snapchat) #dickpicks was the answer so that answered that question.”

 People cared about their sexting lives being infiltrated or their privacy broken in that way. 

“Right and you can kind of think through like how you get to that point. What are the pieces of people’s privacy that are salient to them, right? And, one of those things is naked pictures of yourself or someone you care about, right? And, that’s the sort of thing that gets attention in the headlines whereas the big hack of Apple…That resonates with people. So if you can frame privacy in those terms, then all of a sudden people are much more interested. So getting Snowden to talk about all his really complicated programs and NSA (which people don’t really even understand what that is) let alone what they’re doing, and talk about it in those sorts of terms, when he probably doesn’t want to talk about it in those terms is to me really artful and, well, it’s sort of impressive."

Do you think the context of leading him up to that, having him talk like that, was more beneficial for viewers because he does tend to contextualize the satire he is using?

“Yes, absolutely...I actually went into the Snowden interview with John Oliver being super unimpressed with ‘Why are we still talking about Snowden? He’s been in all of these interviews and like we know everything that he’s going to say’ and then it was completely different than any other interview that Snowden has ever given. So I give him props for that, that’s hard.”

John Oliver is clearly British. How has that affected his television persona? Is he able to get away with more, having a foreign slant? The last episode he talked about North Korea and South Korea, and he included a piece about Russia, introducing more foreign news that people might not necessarily get with other programs. Do you think his own nationality affects him at all?

“That’s a good question! I almost feel like he has to be even more careful in criticizing U.S. politicians because he’s coming at it from the outside whereas Jon Stewart is, you know, one of them...I think he (Stewart) comes at it from a different angle. I’m not sure but that would be an interesting content analysis to see if there’s more international information working on John Oliver than Jon Stewart or whoever. I’m not convinced that it’s true, just antidotally, but I don’t know.”

In the past, one of the things I’ve studied was The Daily Show, and how Stewart talked about Republicans. I’m curious if you think Last Week Tonight has a liberal slant at all? Or has a certain bi-partisan or partisan viewpoint in some way?

“I think Last Week Tonight tries to be (I don’t want to say non-partisan) but maybe like super-partisan, going beyond partisan politics, so when things that he’s focused on are mostly above that grade. So talking about a different sort of politics, a different level of politics, including international politics, including sports politics, including entertainment politics, that kind of broadens how people think about – and maybe the answer is that they’re maybe not even thinking about his politics at all. Maybe the show is just like thinking these are important issues that people should know about; but, the only thing I can think of off-hand, which is, you know, off-hand that might be construed as partisan in recent episodes would be going after churches, which is only partisan because of the evangelical takeover of the Republican Party.”

One of the reasons why I kind of flagged it in the first place is because I think some of his stories may be a little bit more liberal in nature, talking about transgender rights, talking about things of that nature it seems to be more liberal-based.

“That’s definitely more progressive. No, that’s a good point. He definitely, but, again, like the way he’s taking on those stories is not from a partisan lens.”

One Republican reference I found was in regards to Antonin Scalia, “A Pizzeria Chef statue that came to life but never developed human emotions or empathy.” Would you categorize that as being more liberal-based or just incorporating it as humor? 

“I have a hard time saying one way or another. I think Scalia invites that sort of thing. I mean if you look at his dissent – he chooses colorful language – and colorful language makes it easy to get people’s attention.”

What are your thoughts on the “And Now” segment of the show?

“So this is an interesting side-effect of me not having HBO and watching only through their YouTube Channel is that they don’t put their ‘And Now’ segments on the YouTube Channel so I have nothing to say about that.”

I think they have some of them on YouTube, don’t they? Unless they’re just doing short video clips.

“I haven’t reacted to seeing them. It’s possible but I just haven’t seen them.”

That’s interesting, though, that you can still watch Last Week Tonight without actually needing a subscription.

“Yep.”

They put the entirety of that long investigative piece online, and then they’ll have the little segments as well so they are available to the public, so you don’t know if it’s just HBO watching. Clearly, it’s not, though, if you can access it.

 “Yes, I am not an HBO audience member, so I don’t know.”

We’ve kind of talked about this indirectly, up until this point, but what would you say when you compare Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver?

“I think Stewart is like the father of this genre. I think everyone pretty much agrees that Stewart did something different with it than Kilborn did and, particularly, making it marketable. So I have all sorts of respect for what he has done, especially for as long as he has done it, which is a really long time; and, to keep it sufficiently fresh where you still have people tuning in, that’s a difficult thing to do. And, I think, there are various studies, now, showing where there have been positive effects of what he’s done with The Daily Show, so that is how I would characterize Jon Stewart.”

“Stephen Colbert, I just love him. This is totally like not academic analysis, at all. He is such an amazing actor to keep on that character for so many years and never like, with three exceptions, never break character…and to be able to ‘pivot on a dime’ when somebody answers the way you’re not expecting them to, whatever, and turn it into a joke or turn it into a new question. That, to me, is a really difficult thing to do and something that you have to be really well-versed in lots of different things in order for that to work. I am a little terrified to see what’s going to happen with him on CBS; but, hopefully, it’ll be fine.”

“And John Oliver, I think, is… he brings a level of kind of detail-orientedness to the genre, which I think is fundamentally different in some of the ways we’ve already talked about, right. So it’s more investigative, it’s more about creating a story, instead of responding to a story. It’s trying to talk about issues that people don’t know about, which is usually the opposite of what the media does; and, find a way to make those sorts of things relevant. I mean people had no idea about, you know, the correction of FIFA until he kind of blew it out of the water.”

Oliver's program is on HBO so he can get away with swearing and he doesn’t have the commercials. How do you think that has affected his program and its success or not in terms of being compared to The Daily Show or The Colbert Report? 

“I don’t know whether it’s affected his success. I think, as you’ve said, it’s given him so much freedom with the direction that he can take things, and he is upfront about that, too. He can insult whoever he wants because he doesn’t have to worry about advertising dollars. And that is an interesting sort of thing, unfortunately, we just don’t have enough numbers to be able to say one way or the other because his is really the only show that is in that situation.”

Do you foresee any changes in the future of Last Week Tonight in terms of airing more often or more investigative stories that you can predict or just anything, in general, meaning, now, with the election coming up? Do you think that might trickle in?

“I think that’s a good question. We’ve been talking about how they’re above partisanship and if they cover the election, specifically, then I think that would be out of character for them. I think there are certainly topics that come up as a result of the election.”

Do you think he would have to try and beat no non-descriptive or partisan?

“I’m just having a really hard time trying to picture how he would cover the election in that way. What is like ‘a big investigative story’ about the election? Maybe something in campaign finance or something along those lines; but, I have a hard time thinking what just a campaign story would look like from John Oliver.”

Follow Professor Leticia Bode on Twitter @leticiabode

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Angela Hart

Angela Hart is currently earning her master’s degree at Georgetown University in Communication, Culture, and Technology. Originally from Massachusetts, she graduated from Bentley University with a bachelor’s degree in Communications with minors in English and Law. She is involved with film studies, new media and politics, journalistic practices, and satires.