The internet is abuzz over John Oliver’s recent interview with Edward Snowden, saying the segment from HBO’s Last Week with John Oliver was one of the toughest Snowden has ever faced, that the whistleblower faced a grilling when the initially softball interview took a “wholly serious turn” into hard-hitting territory. And no, that is not a reference to Oliver using dick pics to illustrate his point about government surveillance.
But no one should be surprised by a whip-smart comedian like Oliver digging deep into a complicated subject to find the nuances of the government surveillance story and put them on display — that’s what comedians do. Comedy, like journalism, is primarily about storytelling while forcing a confrontation with the truth. In comedy’s case, that truth is often a punchline or the breadcrumbs that lead up to one. In journalism, that truth is a “holy shit” moment of varying degrees and the evidence that backs it up. But there is no reason why there shouldn’t be an intersection there and witness comedians operating on the same level as serious journalists. This might not work in the reverse situation, though I’m sure plenty of serious journalists have a great sense of humor.
Obviously, Oliver has put his show on the map by using his skills as a storyteller to create some of the most informed and hilarious segments on his show, but the reason we laugh is because he’s exposing how truly absurd these stories are. Like his hugely popular segments on municipal violations, Philip Morris and Big Tobacco, and net neutrality. He isn’t making a joke — he’s giving us facts, facts that seem too insane or horrible to be true, except they are true. Maybe Oliver is inciting nervous laughter with his truthy punchlines, but would it be wrong to classify this as journalism, just sweetened a bit?
This has been the intention of comedy all along. To use Oliver’s previous gig at The Daily Show as an example, the interviews conducted by the correspondents have the same intentions as the Snowden sit-down. Jessica Williams wasn’t making a joke when she talked to a lawyer who represented fetuses. She was merely trying to get a lawyer to say, on television, that he represented something that isn’t really recognized as something that has the same civil rights as he does. It was ridiculous. It was absurd. But it was factual.
But that’s fake journalism and way too easy to compare. George Carlin was a brilliant comedian who could take a subject and parse it into little microscopic pieces in order to find the truth about it. Watch any video of him talking about language and context and you get the sense that he figured something out before everyone else. But he simply dug something out that was always there. He would have made a devastating journalist if he’d gone down that path.
It’s also not a surprise that stand-ups Louis C.K. and Amy Schumer were being considered by Comedy Central as the next host of The Daily Show. Schumer’s best material, notably her interviews on Inside Amy Schumer, are about little parts of life and people that are true even if we don’t want to admit it. She would have been a fantastic interviewer behind that desk, let alone someone who can read great jokes on a teleprompter. But she’s already kicking so much ass, it would have been wrong to lock her into such a gig. We’d never get another Hello M’Lady, and I need that so I can show it to guys who won’t leave me alone.
John Oliver was totally going to do a great interview with Edward Snowden. It’s not his job to be a journalist and give us the news, but it is his job as a comedian to shine light on the truth in pursuit of a reaction. Sometimes that reaction will be to laugh and sometimes it won’t — but he’s never going to cover up a story with bullshit.