What is the recipe that has made John Oliver’s news comedy show Last Week Tonight so popular in just two years? The British-born comedian cut his teeth under the tutelage of Jon Stewart — meaning, in this case, that he cut them all off by the roots and spit them out in a blood-soaked cluster onto the floor of a Comedy Central men’s room — and moved on to create something even more ambitiously conventional, even more radically centrist, than the toothless Daily Show. In the process, he has hit upon a winning formula which can be summarized in the five simple points below. Following these steps, you, too, can easily transform a news story into John Oliver material, for hours and hours of fun!
1) First, choose a subject that is topical and worrying, but one that won’t make anyone in the political and media establishment uncomfortable. As a general rule, anything that wouldn’t jeopardize one’s standing in the Democratic party in-crowd — assuming you are a member in good standing of said in-crowd — is kosher: climate change, LGBT rights, mandatory minimum sentencing, pay day loans.
2) Unacceptable topics include those that might, say, call into question the fundamental legitimacy of America’s foreign policy objectives or our two-party rule. On the no-no list are US war crimes (unless at least a few decades old), Israeli occupation of Gaza, similarities between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, viable third-party alternatives, and Noam Chomsky, to name a few examples. In short, avoid anything that might contribute to an actual change in the parameters of public discourse.
3) Let’s take this article in The Guardian yesterday, on the rising levels of global air pollution, as our starting point. Important topic, yes, and couldn’t possibly offend anyone. To start with, we need to come up with a funny opening one-liner to introduce the topic. Try one of these:
Air pollution — or, as the Chinese call it, oxygen seasoning.
Air pollution — LA’s most beautiful natural phenomenon.
Air pollution — that thing you’re actually experiencing when you think love is in the air.
Air pollution — oh fuck it, all of these suck. I’ll just go with the first one.
4) Now, just proceed to report what you’ve read reported elsewhere, making sure to punctuate your homily by inserting a vaguely relevant joke after every two or three sentences. Jokes need to include jabs at celebrities and mock-angry shouting. Here we go:
Air pollution — or as the Chinese call it, oxygen seasoning. Outdoor air pollution has grown 8% globally in the past five years, with billions of people around the world exposed to dangerous air. Fast-growing cities in the Middle East, south-east Asia, and the western Pacific are particularly severely impacted, with many showing pollution levels at five to 10 times above recommended levels. In other words, these cities relate to air pollution guidelines from health authorities the same way Paula Deen relates to lard. Stop it, Paula! You’ll give us all diabetes! Now, the town of Muonio in Finland, just above the Arctic circle, has the world’s purest recorded urban air. And according to the World Health Organization, the cleanest cities are generally like this: located far from industrial centers, wealthy, and small in size. So if Michael Bloomberg were a city instead of the ex-mayor of one, he’d be very clean indeed. Maybe we should all move out of New York and live inside Mike Bloomberg. If there’s any room left — I mean, the guy’s quite full of himself. The most polluted city in the world, on the other hand, is Onitsha, a fast-growing port and transit city in south-eastern Nigeria that recorded levels of nearly 600 micrograms per cubic meter of PM10s. That’s around 30 times the WHO recommended levels. When reached for comment, the mayor of Onitsha told reporters that there is nothing to [cough, cough, choke, wheeze!]. Here’s the scary thing, though: air pollutants like sulphates, nitrates, and black carbon penetrate deep into the lungs and into the cardiovascular system, posing serious risks to human health, says the UN. But there’s some good news: many cities are also addressing air pollution. In fact, Onitsha addresses it every day with a cordial ‘nice to see you again, air pollution’! Etc. etc.
5) End your piece on a serious note: yes, we’ve made a few jokes today about air pollution but it’s really nothing to laugh about. Proceed to identify the worst culprits, gift them an all-expenses-paid trip to Onitsha, and tell your viewers to send them balloons filled with carbon particles. Or whatever.
I’d like to conclude by pointing out that, despite the humorous nature of this blog post, the lack of real political satire in the US is a serious matter. What passes for rebellious and edgy commentary in the mainstream media is mostly hot air, emanating from the strictest gatekeepers of public discourse. And now, I’d like all my millions of followers to send John Oliver a copy of Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent and a balloon filled with hot air.
[Read the follow-up to this article, Satire and Free Speech.]