The coolest kid in the room is the one who makes absolutely no effort to be cool.
This is a fact we all learn sooner or later, although it always seems to be long after we’ve graduated high school—the period of adolescence when it would do the most good.
But no matter. Better to know a crucial fact of life late than never. And make no mistake: Grade school is not the only place in which coolness—and perceived coolness—plays a major role in shaping the American culture. For better or worse, it’s a factor that stays with us until the bitter end.
But that is what makes my opening observation such good news. It’s a shame we’ve gone to such lengths to keep it a secret.
When you’re young, you want nothing more than to blend in with the crowd. In practice, this often means suppressing or altering your personality—and with it, your true thoughts and feelings about how you see the world—lest everyone else think you’re a weirdo.
Sociologically-speaking, this is perfectly rational behavior, especially if being different means getting stuffed into a locker, or worse.
However, once you escape from that 12-year prison sentence and spend a bit of time in The Real World, you realize the people you truly admire are those who refuse to fit in: The folks who think differently and do not worry about how it might affect their social standing—either because they don’t care about their social standing, or simply because it never occurred to them to be anything other than their true selves.
In a land of self-consciousness and insecurity, the confident man is king.
All of which is prelude to a simple but important fact: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is the coolest show on TV.
John Oliver, of course, first became known to America as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, itself regarded as perhaps the hippest half-hour in all of basic cable, owing to its penchant for exposing hypocrisy in politics and the media and—it must be said—for towing a reliably liberal, millennial-friendly line on most issues.
Then in the summer of 2013, Stewart took a three-month sabbatical to direct Rosewater, during which time Oliver assumed the anchor chair and proved he was talk show host material.
Last Week Tonight premiered on HBO on April 27, 2014. Broadcast for a half-hour every Sunday night, it proved an immediate creative success. After nearly a year on the air, it has become indispensible—for reasons both obvious and unexpected.
To be sure, Last Week Tonight is appealing for many of the reasons The Daily Show is appealing. They both skewer political disingenuousness and stupidity wherever they occur. They both traffic in cheap puns and ironic cultural references. And they’re both fundamentally more honest and trustworthy than most actual TV news programs.
But Oliver’s shtick is no carbon copy of Stewart’s. Broadcast on HBO, it is not burdened by strict time limits, commercial interruptions or—crucially—censorship.
Also—and perhaps paradoxically—because Last Week Tonight airs only once a week, Oliver is able to go much further into depth than a show that runs every night.
Indeed, a typical episode of Last Week Tonight contains only a cursory recap of the past week’s news. Oliver will briskly tick off the highlights—joking all the way, of course—before proceeding to the main event: A lengthy, deeply-researched, fully fleshed-out monologue about a topic of his choosing.
There are no parameters for what the issue can be, and they have varied wildly from week to week. Some are of clear relevance to recent events (e.g. government surveillance, drone warfare and income inequality), while others seem to fall randomly out of the clear blue sky (e.g. exposés of nutritional supplements, FIFA and the Miss America Pageant).
The show’s genius—the quality, above all, that makes it essential viewing—is to introduce subjects that are either boring, complicated or obscure and force us to care about them—first by making them comprehensible, and then by making them funny.
To achieve this week in and week out is not difficult. It’s impossible.
But Oliver does it, and the service he renders is nothing short of heroic.
His premise—unspoken but unmistakable—is that most Americans’ priorities are completely out of whack, and that the issues we should care most about are the ones we most ardently ignore—often quite willfully, indeed.
In broaching matters that most of us would rather not broach, Oliver’s greatest weapon is empathy. He will often begin a segment with an apology, acknowledging up front that, deep down, none of us really wants to deal with, say, the minutiae of civil forfeiture laws or the compromised relationship between doctors and pharmaceutical companies. Why would we? The very sound of those words causes our eyes to roll up into the back of our heads.
Oliver’s response, in effect, is to say, “Bear with me.” Sometimes he will reel in his audience with a promise of a reward at the end of the segment (for instance, a YouTube video of a hamster eating a tiny burrito). Other times, he will plow right ahead, trusting us to follow along in the understanding that whatever’s coming is important and worthy of our attention. After all, why would a budding TV star risk his career on something that isn’t guaranteed to spark viewers’ interest?
In point of fact, that’s exactly what Oliver does. As for why, perhaps it’s that raising awareness of heretofore overlooked concerns is more important to him than his standing in the Nielsen ratings. Maybe he’s more interested in telling us what we should know rather than what we want to know.
And that is why Last Week Tonight is the coolest show on television.
For a textbook example, look no further than last Sunday’s episode, during which Oliver marked Tax Day with a defense of the IRS.
Yup: In the very week that hatred of the Internal Revenue Service by every man, woman and child in America reached critical mass, Oliver went out of his way to put in a good word for the government agency whose sole purpose is to get between you and your money.
After acknowledging—in typically thorough fashion—that the IRS has often proved itself horrendously inefficient at providing basic customer service and at correcting its own mistakes, Oliver proceeded to illustrate that to direct all of your contempt about taxes toward the IRS is to fundamentally misunderstand how our government works.
“Blaming the IRS because you hate paying your taxes is a bit like slapping your checkout clerk because the price of eggs has gone up,” Oliver explained. “It’s not her fault. She’s just trying to help you get out of the store.”
He’s right. To the extent that the U.S. tax code is confusing, unfair and ridiculous, it is entirely the responsibility of Congress, whose esteemed members wrote the damn thing in the first place.
The Internal Revenue Service has absolutely no say in how America’s tax structure works. All it does—all that it’s meant to do—is enforce the policies that Congress lays out, and to do so in the fairest possible way.
And yet—as Oliver went on to show—IRS offices are regularly targeted by the very taxpayers they mean to assist—often in the form of questionable substances affixed to senders’ returns. In a clip from a 2007 documentary, we see the director of an IRS processing center explain, with almost comical detachment, how employees will simply wipe the offending substance from the check and send it on its merry way.
In portraying America’s annual Tax Day mania from the IRS’s point of view, Oliver’s implicit message becomes clear: By making IRS workers the bad guys, we taxpayers are behaving like a bunch of whiny, self-righteous idiots.
The truth is that an IRS employee is like any other low-level office drone: He spends eight hours a day moving paper around before returning home, emptying a pint of Jameson and passing out on the couch. Projecting all of your frustration at him accomplishes nothing except proving that you are a colossal, inconsiderate jerk.
This was a point that absolutely needed to be made, yet one that hardly anyone wanted to hear. For as long as paying taxes has been everyone’s least favorite springtime activity, the Internal Revenue Service has been the perfect villain: An entity that we can all get together to detest.
Why ruin our fun with reality?
It’s a thankless job, indeed, to confront people with facts that make them feel guilty or foolish. Perhaps not as thankless as performing an audit on someone who wants to squish you like a bug, but close enough.
The person who does it will never be popular, because why would he be? They say a true friend is someone who will always tell you the truth, but when was the last time the truth made you feel better?
Truth-tellers are essential to a society that so stubbornly insists upon living in a fantasy world. However, because the very concept of unattractive facts is anathema to the American way of thinking, the bearers of bad news will only ever be those with enough nerve to resist the peer pressure of groupthink and the idea that distinguishing yourself from the crowd has no social benefits.
No surprise, then, that the coolest man on American television is an Englishman.