Last Week Tonight’s takedown of Donald Trump proves John Oliver is king of satire
Ivan Radford | On 01, Mar 2016
Donald Trump is a joke. Everyone in the UK knows this. But today, Tuesday 1st March (aka. Super Tuesday), he goes into the wave of US Republican primaries as the frontrunner – a victory that would effectively see him become the party’s default candidate for the 2016 presidential elections. For a joke, that’s a seriously worrying thought.
Which is why HBO’s series Last Week Tonight last night devoted an entire 20 minutes to taking down Donald Trump. As host John Oliver puts it, he’s like America’s back mole, which “may have seemed harmless a year ago, but now that it has gotten frighteningly big, it’s no longer wise to ignore it”.
If you’re already giggling, that’s because John Oliver is very good at this satire game – in fact, he might just be the best in the world right now.
Satire is something that hasn’t been in plentiful supply on recent British TV soil. Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It (and In the Loop) were superbly caustic critiques of modern politics, while the BBC’s W1A and Twenty Twelve were enjoyably gentle mockeries of the Beeb and the Olympic committee’s own disorganisation, but current events haven’t always been that well served. In the age of Twitter, where jokes break immediately, the familiar Have I Got News for You feels far from cutting-edge, and while The News Quiz and The Now Show on Radio 4 do a good job, it still feels like there’s a gap in the TV schedule waiting to be filled.
Compare it to America, where recently, they had not only Jon Stewart on The Daily Show but also Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report, and there’s a definite imbalance. It’s John Oliver, though, after emerging from under Stewart’s wing to get his own programme, who really highlights the deficit on our screens.
Oliver was born in Birmingham before getting the gig on the US show – after a job writing for Iannucci on UK radio, no less – and has since gone from strength to strength. His chirpy, outspoken British persona has won him fans on both sides of the Atlantic, but his smiling presence hides an edgy, insightful, provocative voice.
The nearest we have is arguably Charlie Brooker, whose acerbic 2015 Wipe on the BBC was an excellent example of his depressingly hilariously ability to skewer the hilariously depressing state of our modern world. But Brooker is perhaps closer to Stewart or Colbert, with a tendency to satirise media presentation of subjects as much as the subjects themselves. This skit from 2010 recalls Chris Morris and Iannucci’s The Day Today in that sense:
Oliver, though, stands apart from both of his US TV counterparts (both of whom, of course, have since moved on to other projects) because he doesn’t just wryly comment about the media’s take on a topic: Last Week Tonight is somewhere between real news and comedy, a blend that makes for a thrilling watch.
Oliver dismisses his own show as a “petting zoo with a desk” (their past guests have included puppies and sloths), but he regularly puts aside time in each episode to address issues such as the death penalty and net neutrality head-on: he and his team research the relevant topic like reporters, then they engage with it seriously and, more often than not, get angry about it.
The result is a takedown of Trump that has already been going viral – partly because it’s so funny and partly because it’s so thorough.
“‘I’m rich, I tell the truth’ has the same logic as ‘I’m a vegan, therefore I know karate’!” Oliver declares, halfway through his rant, which highlights a number of “troubling” inconsistencies in Donald’s views and supposedly factual statements – not least the man’s apparent refusal to condemn a former Ku Klux Klan leader, who supports his campaign to run the country.
Oliver also reminds us of Donald’s failed businesses over the years, from Trump Steaks and Trump Magazines to Trump’s travel agency that unfortunately had a URL that read more like “Got Rump.com” than “Go Trump.com”.
His self-valuation of several billion dollars, notes Oliver, is based on his own feelings, and, in Trump’s own words, “that can change rapidly from day to day”.
It’s that kind of attention to detail – and treating what many would dismiss with a quick quip as a debate worth having – that has seen Oliver time and time again do what the media has failed to do. His interview with Edward Snowden on security and censorship (via the medium of dick pics) is the best piece of journalism on the entire subject:
But Oliver’s satire, crucially, doesn’t stop there: he calls for people to act as well as be amused, an activist streak that makes his comedy more provocative than most. In the case of Trump, he’s launched a campaign to reinstate Donald’s original family name, “Drumpf”, using a Chrome extension (to autoreplace his name online), a ton of merchandise and a hashtag: #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain.
It helps that Oliver’s show is on HBO – in the UK, you can get it on Sky Atlantic or see clips on YouTube – which means that there are fewer commercial pressures on what he produces. Indeed, in the UK, Channel 4 experimented with a new satirical format a while ago called 10 O’Clock Live, hosted by David Mitchell, Jimmy Carr, Lauren Laverne and Brooker, but it proved more a noble failure than an outright success. In the age of streaming services, where broadcast restrictions are less prevalent – Frankie Boyle has hosted two political specials so far on BBC iPlayer – is now the time for Britain to get the satirical comedy show it deserves? Either way, it’s clearer than ever that one Brit will prove a tough act to follow. Whether Trump makes it to the White House or not, Oliver’s takedown of the would-be president cements him as the leader of TV satire today.
Don’t have Sky? You can watch Last Week Tonight on NOW, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription. Episodes 1 to 3 (the Donald Trump episode) of Season 3 are currently available to stream.