This past April, the host of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver landed the interview of many journalist’s dreams: A one-on-one, in-person conversation with NSA whistleblower (or traitor, depending on who you ask) Edward Snowden. The segment functions as explainer journalism at it’s funniest. But Oliver is no reporter. And if you call him a journalist, you’re insulting journalism, he told Fusion’s Jorge Ramos in a recent interview.
“I’m doing the job of a comedian. So, I make jokes about the news,” Oliver told Ramos. When Ramos pushed back, “You have more credibility than most journalists here in the United States and, I would say, in many other countries.” Oliver said: “That is more an insult to the current state of journalism than it is a compliment for the state of comedy.”
Still, making jokes about the news is serious business. Oliver told Ramos: “We have very aggressive fact checkers and very thorough researchers, so that we’re not wrong. Because if you make a joke about something that is factually inaccurate the joke collapses.”
It’s not surprising that Oliver, despite his protests, is so often referred to as a journalist. The Daily Show alum says his show shares DNA with Jon Stewart’s comedy news satire show, which has been pointed to as the main news source for young audiences for more than a decade. And over time, Last Week Tonight has dedicated more and more air time to discuss complicated topics. “We thought ten or twelve minutes would be pushing it… we thought that would be comedic suicide. Now, lots of them are actually getting closer to 20. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would say, why don’t you do 15 minutes of jokes about the privatization of America’s prison system.”
Oliver has the added distinction of speaking on American issues as an outsider, a position that connects him to fellow non-Americans — “As an immigrant, I do think you tend to have a bond,” he says — and allows him a unique perspective: “I still have an immigrant’s crush on this country. I’m frustrated by its acting badly because I’ve fallen in love with it so much.”
And, of course, there’s the accent: “I think there is a natural authority to the British accent, because we conquered so much of the world. So I think there is an echo of respect that people have, despite the fact we comprehensively lost almost all of our empire.”
But, he adds, it’s not always an advantage: “I have to often with automated machines do an American accent… it’s electronic imperialism.”