Thursday, June 18, 2015

Oliver With a Twist

So, to continue where I left off with my previous post, A Net Gain for Oliver, back in February I was contacted by a French journalist, Fabienne Faur, a lifestyle writer for Agence France-Presse, which describes itself as follows:

Agence France-Presse is the world's oldest newswire with journalists in 165 countries. We publish worldwide in English, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese and Arabic. AFP delivers the news to thousands of media outlets worldwide from newspapers to magazines, radio and TV stations and online services. It reaches an audience of more than one billion people daily.

He explained that he was working on a story about John Oliver as an Englishman who has been successful in the United States as a comedian and host of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, and wanted my views on Oliver, on how why Americans seem to love the English sense of humor, on what Oliver is doing on his show, how it relates to what journalists are or are not doing, and to the work of other comedians and entertainers in the US.

Here now is my response:

There is a long history of successful English comics in the United States. Among the names that come to mind are the film genius of Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel playing against his American straight man Oliver Hardy, the brilliant character comedy of Peter Sellers, and the amazing ensemble known as Monty Python, and more recently Sacha Baron Cohen, to name a few.

There are several different things Americans love about English humor. First, we love the accent. You can say just about anything in an English accent, and it automatically puts a smile on an American's face. And there is something about the British accent that makes silly talk sound much funnier to us than it does back in England. For example, the Monty Python program featured a great deal of topical humor and national references that were completely lost on American audiences, but what we found funny was the way they talked, their mannerisms and expressions, and the fact that we had no idea what they were talking about made it even funnier, and also is the reason why their comedy did not become dated here the way that it did over in England. So John Oliver just has to open his mouth and already he sounds funny to us. Add to that the cultural differences, particularly the English reserve, tendency towards formality, restraint, and politeness, and those differences come across as comedic to an American audience. And English humor often incorporates violations or challenges to their politeness, restraint, and formality, which Americans can readily identify with. Additionally, American culture is decidedly anti-elitist, and we equate English accents with elitism, that's why our movie villains typically have English accents, so we love it when an English actor is the butt of a joke, utilizes self-deprecating humor, or generates humor by acting in a foolish manner.

Of course, there are some differences when a Cockney accent is in play, which often is associated with putting down the upper class or otherwise acting the fool. And there is a lower class connection as well, when you consider Benny Hill, for example, which relates to the American view of Europeans in general. Based on the Puritan roots of American culture, we see ourselves as more innocent and moral, whereas Europeans are viewed as more seductive, sexually active, risqué. This works well for Oliver in that his program on HBO is able to include language and nudity that other channels, such as Comedy Central, do not allow.

Another advantage that English comedians have is their education. Humor correlates quite strongly with intelligence, and while there is a powerful strain of anti-intellectualism in American culture, associated with our anti-elitism, we can appreciate intellectual humor and educated references, and the English excel at that kind of comedy in the same way that we excel in humor based on popular culture. Liberals especially appreciate intelligent comedy, and John Oliver's appeal is very much to the liberal side of the political spectrum. You could say that, in contrast to Jon Stewart who criticizes journalists and politicians, Oliver's approach is to educate his audience, albeit in a highly entertaining fashion. And again, his English accent serves him well, automatically conferring on him a degree of authority that an American doing the same kind of program would have to earn over time.

There is no question that Oliver is following Jon Stewart's lead, and Stewart was not the first to do parody and satire of television news, but Stewart did open up new territory and take things to the next level, in providing critical commentary on television news, and the absurdities of newscasters and politicians. Both Stewart and Oliver are doing the job that the press ought to be doing, acting as a fourth estate and holding politicians, corporations, and the new media themselves accountable for their actions and statements, pointing out their contradictions and hypocrisies, and in their own way upholding the Enlightenment ideal of rational discourse. Stewart created the opening, and Oliver has made a significant contribution by expanding it even further.

What I find to be one of the most interesting things about what he does is the way he identifies himself, and especially his use of the first person plural pronouns, us and we. Sometimes he talks about "us" as including himself as an American, and sometimes he presents himself as English. The way that he moves back and forth between the two is something I haven't seen before, but it makes sense because if he were to criticize American society without including himself, that might come across as elitist, and alienate his audience. Of course, there's also the reality that Britain has become, in some ways, a part of greater America, along with Canada and Australia, at least as far as our shared media environment is concerned.

The quote that M. Faur picked out was just a couple of sentences from all that, which is par for the course, of course, of course.  


So anyway, recall that the FCC ruling in favor on net neutrality was delivered on February 26th, and John Oliver was credited as having a major impact on the issue, so while that was not the original focus of the piece, who took on greater importance in the aftermath of that decision. And depending on the outlet that picked up the story, they placed greater or lesser emphasis on that connection. For example, in the Panamanian paper, El Siglo, the Spanish language version of the article ran under the headline, El "efecto" John Oliver, pone a reír y pensar a EEUU. The story is dated March 2nd, and my quote reads as follows:

"Hay un efecto 'John Oliver' que impacta en la vida real", tituló recientemente la revista Time. "Jon Stewart había llevado muy lejos la crítica de la información en la televisión y a los hombres políticos", comenta Lance Strate, profesor de comunicación de la Fordham University en Nueva York. "Oliver lo amplificó aún más".

At the same time, A French language outlet, RTL, had the headline as, Neutralité du net: John Oliver salué après la décision américaine, and my quote looked like this:

"Jon Stewart avait porté très haut la critique de l'information à la télévision et des hommes politiques", dit Lance Strate, professeur de communication de la Fordham University à New York, "Oliver l'a encore amplifiée". Les deux humoristes "font le travail que la presse devrait faire, en dénonçant les contradictions et l'hypocrisie des politiques, du monde des affaires et des nouveaux médias", dit-il.

But you probably want the English language version, which appeared first, I believe, in Business Insider, the headline reading, John Oliver, the British comedian spurring America to action. So let's take a look, shall we? Here goes:
Washington (AFP) - John Oliver may have been ruled out of the running to replace Jon Stewart but the British comedian's role in helping sway the debate over "net neutrality" has cemented his status as The Daily Show host's spiritual heir.

Oliver was the first name on most people's lips last month when Stewart sent his legions of fans into mourning after announcing he was stepping down from the satirical Comedy Central show after nearly two decades as host.

The prospect of the 37-year-old Birmingham native sliding into Stewart's chair receded, however, when HBO swiftly announced it was renewing his own show, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, for two more years.

Yet Oliver's role in galvanizing American opinion over the once-arcane concept of access to the Internet was in the best traditions of Stewart, a master of using biting humor to unravel complex questions of the day.

So far, we're on pretty familiar ground. Now the story shifts to the FCC ruling on net neutrality:

Oliver's 13-minute segment on "net neutrality" last year, in which he exhorted viewers to deluge the US Federal Communications Commission forum with objections, is widely credited with crashing the FCC's comments page.

Within 24 hours of Oliver's rallying cry, more than 45,000 comments on net neutrality had been posted on the FCC forum, according to the Washington Post.

Fast forward to last Thursday, and the FCC acquiesced, approving landmark rules to prevent broadband providers from separating online traffic into two unequal lanes, which would allow them to charge fees for better access.

Many people gave credit to Oliver.

"The democratic support for this decision relied heavily on citing the millions of citizen comments submitted via the FCC's website, and those comments were overwhelmingly inspired, directly and indirectly, by Oliver's advocacy," Aram Sinnreich, a professor of journalism at Rutgers University, told AFP.

Oliver, whose show just kicked off its second season, gained massive popularity in 2013 when he stood in for Stewart to guest host The Daily Show while the Comedy Central comedian took a leave of absence to make a movie.

"I'll do anything for him, whether it's hosting this show or disposing of a body," Oliver said.

At this point, we have a new section entitled, "The 'John Oliver effect'":

HBO came to Oliver with the 30-minute show, which has only grown in success since.

Stationed at a desk, wearing a standard suit and tie plus dark-rimmed glasses, Oliver has pilloried, in a series of clear, well-documented and wonderfully funny arguments, vitamins, the militarization of American police, FIFA soccer corruption and the bikini-clad women of Sports Illustrated magazine.

Time magazine recently ran an article titled: "How the 'John Oliver Effect' Is Having a Real-Life Impact."

It credits Oliver, in part or whole, with a list of accomplishments including increased donations to an association of women engineers, a proposed bill in the US state of Washington to allow online video comments on new legislation, and Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement that he will enact major limitations on a controversial confiscation law.

Okay, what about my little quote, you are no doubt wondering by now. Well, get ready, here it comes:

"Stewart created the opening, and Oliver has made a significant contribution by expanding it even further," said Lance Strate, a communication and media studies professor at Fordham University in New York.

"Both Stewart and Oliver are doing the job that the press ought to be doing, acting as a fourth estate and holding politicians, corporations and the new media themselves accountable for their actions and statements," he said.

And that's it for me, but here's the rest of the story:

Furthermore, said Paul Booth, a professor of media and cinema studies at DePaul University in Chicago, "many Americans do love the English sense of humor."

"Oliver definitely embodies some of the best traits of British humor—he's sly, witty, charming, able to poke fun at himself, a bit awkward," he said.

Cambridge-educated, Oliver began his career in Britain before hopping the pond to audition in 2006 for The Daily Show, becoming its "British correspondent."

Married to an American, Oliver claims to love reality TV and hate massages.

"The idea is horrifying to me that a stranger would physically force you to relax," he recently told Vanity Fair magazine.

In summarizing his take on humor, he said: "If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring. Apple could put the entire text of Mein Kampf inside the iTunes user agreement, and you'd just go agree, agree, agree—what?—agree, agree."

The English language version of the story also appeared in Lebanon, in The Daily Star, and in quite a few other places that I wasn't able to keep track of. So it was pretty cool to wind up with a multilingual quote on the subject, for which I can only say merci beaucoup, muchas gracias, and thank you very much!

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