When Satire Turns to Bullying

John Oliver
John Oliver

For ages, satirists and comedians have provided some of the most powerful forms of social commentary, from Aristophanes and Mark Twain to Richard Pryor and Woody Allen. But there is a fine line between humor that points out society’s foibles and gratuitous insults, name-calling and even bullying masquerading as critique.

Regrettably enough, we are seeing more and more of the latter, at a time when the rise of the internet, cable talk shows, and reality TV seems to have eroded our collective sense of decorum and, in turn, rewarded loud, outlandish and even cruel verbal jabs and behavior from attention seekers, whether they're average folks or celebrities.

This crude strain permeates many aspects of our culture, particularly in the national political discourse. And it's come to include a once-cherished pastime that kept Americans up well past their bedtimes for generations to watch playfully breezy interviews with celebrities, outlandish sketches, comedy acts and the like. I’m talking about late-night TV.

John Oliver, the host of HBO’s weekly ``Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’’, is among the worst offenders. After what he himself once described as a failed career as an entertainer in England, he came to the United States and rose to stardom, in part by amassing a following with his trademark attacks on the American left’s more popular boogeymen, including business executives, Wall Street moguls, conservative politicians and even people of religious faith.

To be sure, Oliver’s show is billed as satirical news program. But rather than employing the kind of trenchant wit and analysis of, say, a Bill Maher, ``Last Week Tonight with John Oliver'' is too often marked by demagoguery that seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator, while fueling the nation’s cultural wars.

Like a Bill O’Reilly of the left, Oliver is opinionated but directs large doses of sophomoric insults, taunts and warped claims at those who disagree with his decidedly progressive world view – and even engages in rabblerousing.

Just a few weeks ago, for example, he had to issue a plea for calm and restraint after he urged his audience to target top officials at an obscure federal agency, the Federal Communications Commission, over a policy with which he disagreed. His plea was too little too late. Ajit Pai, the first person of Indian descent to run the agency, became the target of death threats, racial attacks, and a litany of other abuses hurled by progressives in the so-called Netroots movement who shared Oliver's objections to Pai's policy.

"There were some racist comments on there,” Oliver lectured his audience after he himself urged them to flood the FCC website with protest statements in a campaign he dubbed `Go FCC Yourself.’ ``Let me just say, if any of those came from anyone who watches this show, stop it! Do not f------ do that!’’

More recently, Oliver became the subject of a defamation suit filed by the CEO and founder of Murray Energy Corp, Robert Murray, after he used his program to make fun of Murray’s age, physical appearance and, according to Murray, falsely suggested that Murray had put profits over the safety of his workers. At one point, Oliver held a fake check that read “Eat sh*t Bob!” and included the phrase “kiss my a--” in the memo. The HBO host also referred to Mr. Murray as a “geriatric Dr. Evil,” according to the Washington Times.

Murray, who is in declining health and depends on an oxygen tank, has said through his company that after the Oliver show, the company’s website was attacked by hackers who attempted to crash it. Murray Energy also said it received “numerous harassing telephone calls,” including from callers who simply said: “Eat Sh*t, Bob.”

The case he brought against Oliver is currently being heard at a district court in Northern Virginia.

To Oliver and his ilk, the facts don't seem to matter, even though his show employs veteran journalists who ought to know better. For Oliver, it's all about ratings, even if that means engaging in cheap shots and ruining reputations.

As is widely known, Oliver was recruited by cable television channel Comedy Central in 2006 to the cast of The Daily Show, a 30-minute satirical news program hosted by comedian Jon Stewart. The move marked a major turning point in Oliver’s career. But in many substantive respects, Oliver and Stewart approach their work in a way that underscores the differences in their worldview and how to advance it in the larger culture.

In a 2014 profile of Oliver, Rolling Stone offered a keen observation of the differences between both men, particularly on debates involving polarizing social and political issues.

"Though Oliver sees himself as 'as much of a disciple as it's possible to be' of Stewart, there is an essential distinction between them," according to the profile. "Stewart is, at his core, filled with hope. He seems pretty sure that if both political parties could embrace civility, if Fox News turned less nutty, if the media as a whole got more serious, America and the wider world could move forward. To Oliver, though, our global predicaments are all-but-immutable black comedy, which feels about right for an age of ISIS, Ebola, extreme climate change and Vladimir Putin. Week after week, Oliver stands athwart history, yelling, 'Are you f------ kidding me?"'

In short, Oliver has a much more cynical view of America, a man who penchant for fueling class resentment was apparently forged in the cauldron of a Europe where social mobility is far more static than here in the United States.

His coarse cynicism knows few bounds. In 2014, he threatened to target more than 50 members of Congress if they did not back measures he supported to protect chicken farmers. What exactly did he threaten to do: having their Wikipedia pages edited to read "chicken f-----."

“Unless they want that `chicken f-----’ label to follow them for the rest of their lives, they might want to think extra carefully about which way they're going to vote,” he said. “Because ‘chicken f-----" accusations do not come off a Wikipedia page easily. Or if they do, they tend to go right back up.”

This, sadly, is what passes for witty commentary these days.

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