Inspired by John Oliver, Recalling Malcolm X: Comedy's Explosive Potential for the Left

When HBO announced that John Oliver would host his own prime-time weekly TV news show, there was little reason to believe it would differ much from the political satire pioneered by John Stewart and Stephen Colbert in the early 2000s. Spiced with a British accent, Oliver's program was expected to combine sanguine satire with a mildly liberal bent.

But unlike Stewart and Colbert, Oliver has chosen to do something unusual with his program: call viewers to take action. Often the ask is only implicit, evident in the tone of his authentic outrage in monologues on the death penalty, drones, or wealth inequality. But Oliver has also experimented with more overt calls to action. After a deservedly critical, improbably hilarious segment on corporate lobbying attempts to reverse net neutrality in April, Oliver called for viewers to flood the Federal Communication Commission with public support for an equal net. The next morning, the FCC's website overloaded and crashed.

This fall, Oliver issued two more calls-to-action. Last month, he closed a bruising segment on successful efforts by for-profit colleges to weaken student loan regulations by suggesting that viewers send a prepared form letter to the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities. And this week, Oliver called out food manufacturing lobbyists' for attempts to weaken FDA regulations on sugar disclosure, before telling viewers to tweet at the manufacturers under the hashtag #showusyourpeanuts.

Oliver's targets have not been accidental. He has chosen to focus on the excesses of America's major corporate players, with pieces on General Motors, PayDay lenders, prison privatization, and the student loan industry. If Oliver is not considered a man of the left, it's only because we're not used to liberals being funny.

Of course, both Stewart and Colbert lean center-left. But what primarily seems funny to them is politics itself, with its hypocrisies, oversized egos, and 'gotcha' moments. For Oliver, its real humor is the tragicomic efficiency with which powerful corporations can get away with pretty much anything they want. That's what Oliver wants you to fix.

Oliver is up against what political theorist Ben Berger calls 'the paradox of civic engagement': that democracy requires more attention than we typically give it. In Attention Deficit Democracy, Berger proposes remedying this by appealing to "widespread tastes," which can both seize citizen attention and motivate action. Berger sees Stewart as somebody who excels at the first, but has never tried the second.

Oliver is making the leap. It's a marvel innovation for our contemporary American moment. Stewart and Colbert have succeeded in tapping into millennial frustration as spectacularly as they have failed at constructively directing it. We have one sub-culture of sarcastic apathy, and another of self-righteous Beltway certainty, populated by the sorts of droning empty suits who make George W. Bush look like someone you would want to have a beer with.

What our political moment calls for is more human voices that speak to both the preposterousness and possibilities of American politics. Oliver seems to be just that sort of voice.

In his remarkable use of comedy to make politics appealing, Oliver recalls an unlikely political figure: Malcolm X. While his militant views included intolerably racist elements, X built his mass following not with guns, but humor. In mosques and churches, at universities and street gatherings, X rallied for black liberation through simple humor, often structured like a stand-up comedy routine. Classic X speeches tend to belabor one simple premise, lashing at the point over and again with his incisive humor. Consider the comedic structure of his scorching 1963 speech, "Message to the Grassroots":

"There's no such thing as a nonviolent revolution. The only kind of revolution that's nonviolent is the Negro revolution. The only revolution based on loving your enemy is the Negro revolution. The only revolution in which the goal is a desegregated lunch counter, a desegregated theater, a desegregated park, and a desegregated public toilet. You can sit down next to white folks on the toilet. [Laughter]. That's no revolution."

X's political humor resonated for many blacks in Jim Crow America. In another routine, "The Field Negro and the House Negro," X draws on common character tropes in black culture to lampoon his integrationist opponents:

"During slavery you had two Negroes. You had the house Negro and the field Negro. The house Negro dressed like his master. He ate food that his master left on the table. So when his master said, 'We have good food,' the house Negro would say, 'Yes, we have plenty of good food.' 'We' have plenty of good food [Laughter]. When the master said, 'We have a fine home here,' the house Negro said, 'Yes, we have a fine home here.' When the master would be sick, the house Negro would say, 'What's the matter boss, we sick?' Now, you have a twentieth-century-type of House Negro. He speaks the same phraseology, the same language. When you say, 'your army,' he says, 'our army.' 'Our president,' 'our government,' 'our Senate,' 'our congressmen.' And he hasn't even got a seat in that 'our.'"

Of course, John Oliver is unlikely to espouse armed resistance to corporate excess condemns, and Malcolm X never used Sesame Street characters to parody racial oppression. X and Oliver clearly approach political satire with different ends, and different senses of urgency. Still, Oliver shares X's understanding of the power of humor to engage and mobilize otherwise attention deficient citizens. In today's political culture of ironic apathy, in which the only thing on which Americans can agree is their alienation from the babbling bores of our talking-point obsessed political class, Oliver's use of satire to rally the American left is nothing short of radical.

Grayson E. Sussman Squires contributed research to this article.