British (Social) Takeover: The John Oliver Effect

Nick D'Ascenzo
December 2, 2015

From interviews with the likes of Edward Snowden and Stephen Hawking, while tackling some of our world’s most complex social and political issues, John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, is continuing in the path of his mentor Jon Stewart in blurring the lines between comedy and journalism.

In Stewart’s 16-year run as host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, a lot of his success was supported by the dawn of the Internet and digital journalism. However, in this new era of media consumption, Oliver is seeing his success through social mediaespecially YouTube.

And Oliver’s segments aren’t just getting clicks: some of them are causing actual change. In honor of Last Week Tonight completing its successful second season this past week, here are three segments from the previous season that have had a real-life impact.

  1. Chickens (4.8 million YouTube views)

In May, Last Week Tonight blasted poultry processors like Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms over unjust treatment of their farmers. Each year, a tiny provision in the House Appropriations bill defunds the Department of Agriculture’s effort to finalize rules meant to protect the farmer, led by those in Congress who are lobbied by the biggest poultry processors.

However, two months after this segment aired, the House Appropriations Committee approved the fiscal year 2016 Agriculture bill, which did not include the aforementioned provision for the first time in years.

  1. U.S. Territories (4.6 million YouTube views)

In March, Last Week Tonight aired a segment that addressed the lack of rights and representation of those living in U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands. Insular Cases, which are a series of opinions by the U.S. Supreme Court about the status of U.S. territories, hold that full constitutional rights do not automatically extend to all places under U.S. control. Many of these territories have huge U.S. military presences, yet those living in the territories do not have some of our most principle rights, including the right to vote for President.

Judge Marsha S. Berzon, a Ninth Circuit judge who was appointed by Bill Clinton, cited the Last Week casino Tonight segment while ruling on a case brought by the people of Guam on tax refunds. She cited that Insular Cases have been “the subject of extensive judicial, academic and popular criticism,” accompanied by a YouTube link of the Last Week Tonight segment.

  1. Canadian Election (6.1 million YouTube views)

Just in October, Last Week Tonight aired a segment detailing the upcoming Canadian election. Oliver lampooned all of the candidates participating to an extent, but saved the worst for last for incumbent Stephen Harper, who had held office for the previous 10 years. He even went as far as giving a straight-forward message to his Canadian viewers with the aid of comedian (and Canadian) Mike Myers: “Don’t vote for Stephen Harper.”

For much of the 78-day election, polling statistics were fairly equal between the competing parties. However, Justin Trudeau, who represented the Liberal Party and was Harper’s primary opponent, won in a stunning landslide with over 40 percent of the popular vote on Election Day.

Although Oliver scoffs at the notion that he’s a journalist, the definition of journalism contradicts his assertion. Oliver even admits that he and his team spend countless hours researching stories to make sure they get it right.

In 18 minutes, he did what we”ve been trying for 30 years to do and that is just reach a general, broader audience. The story that he told, I cannot tell you how hard that is to tell to someone that is not really familiar with it,” , who was featured in the segment on chickens. “If you”ve got a problem and you want it fixed, call John Oliver,” he says. “That”s my theory now.”

However, his impact isn’t felt on Sunday nights. It’s felt on Monday mornings and the subsequent days as the Internet buzzes about Oliver’s latest manifest. That’s because what he and HBO are doing is unprecedented for any late-night talk show: Instead of uploading short clips that provide nothing more than a quick laugh, the morning after the show airs, lengthy and typically controversial clips from the previous night’s show (usually upwards of 20 minutes) are posted to YouTube for his fans and click-hungry content sites to feed on and share.

It’s the sharing that’s driving the change; he’s making it so that law makers, judges and politicians can’t ignore the problems he’s talking about.

Oliver has taken a style of comedy/journalism/whatever you want to call it, turned it on its head, and launched it into a perfect storm for the Internet and social media. And in a recent and oddly symbolic turn of events, it isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.

Are you a fan of John Oliver? Tell us your favorite Last Week Tonight moment in the comments below!