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Alternative views of the world around us, through tinted glasses. Break down contradictions in the human condition, or plumb the depths of popular culture. By The Way is what you may have missed in the mainstream.
BY THE WAY
October 1, 2014 ARCHANA NATHAN
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"I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey. And for a short period of time the mental tension and fear eases." This is a translation of what Zubair Rehman, a 13-year-old boy from Pakistan, said after his grandmother died in a drone strike. This particular segment borrowed from CNN featuring Zubair was part of the latest episode of 'Last Week Tonight', a popular American talk show hosted by John Oliver.

The episode, the twentieth in the series, took up the issue of drone strikes and simply pointed out the following: how drones are a 'slightly more serious’ matter outside the United States of America because instead of being used for shooting wedding videos like they are understood as in America, they are used in strikes that kill innocent civilians in parts of Asia like Waziristan, Yemen and Pakistan. And, also about how there were eight times the number of drone strikes carried out by the Bush regime under the Obama administration and that they were likely to continue. Over the course of the episode, Oliver also pointed out the glaring logical loopholes in the manner in which the strikes were conceptualised and executed. The most significant of them all being - how the Americans barely knew who they were actually targeting through those strikes but they continued to carry them out anyway.

Once the episode was released, social media, easily the largest base that consumes the material put forth by Oliver, discussed how the episode succinctly, yet comprehensively analysed an issue that had an exigency that needed to be recognised. There was something else about the analysis carried out by Oliver that jolted the viewer and left an indelible sort of impression, a more powerful kind, I argue. I would attribute it to the format and vocabulary of the show. Oliver begins by cracking a few jokes that manage to grab the attention of his audience. Then, he systematically dissects the issue in front of him punctuating his arguments periodically with hilarious snippets and caricatures that ultimately work towards sharpening his overall thesis. Next, the vocabulary that comedy and satire as a medium offer, in my opinion, is what makes Oliver's analysis more poignant and cogent: the stuff a journalist's dreams are made of. Well, hopefully, at least.

Moliere, the French playwright, once said "The duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them." One could argue with Moliere, perhaps, and ask him why comedy ought to do anything at all, let alone sustain a moral duty to 'correct' men. Comedy could shoulder other burdens, a neutral and oft cited one today being : to simply entertain, a blanket term that in comparison seemingly exonerates comedy of any sort of precise function and instead swathes it by inducting the genre into its all encompassing universe where the ability to distract and divert the mind temporarily would suffice. However, whether he willed it or not Oliver seems to have begun to nurture Moliere's aphorism.

Oliver began his career as a stand-up comedian and later joined The Daily Show with Jon Stewart as the Senior British Correspondent. It was ‘The Daily Show..’ that popularised the comedy-news format and drew an unparalleled audience. And Oliver, being an erstwhile member of the crew is hence the prodigy of sorts. Of course, Stewart’s show has sparked many such shows modeled on the same format. One significant difference between Stewart and Oliver, as I see it, is the time allotted to humour. Of course, the two shows differ fundamentally on their length but Stewart offered more humour than Oliver has done so far but Oliver offers more research based journalism than Stewart did.

There is no doubt that Oliver is funny and enjoys a popularity that is growing by the click of a button.The debut episode was watched and shared by approximately 1.1 million viewers worldwide and his popularity has only grown in the subsequent twenty episodes.

There is something else that has happened with Oliver. His show is now touted as a 'more serious' news show than many actually serious news programmes. Barely twenty episodes old, he, according to discussions abuzz on social media and reports in the media, is becoming one of the best journalists we have today. This is not such a far fetched thing to spiel because apart from the fact that he is pricelessly funny, Oliver's examination of a particular news story is often detailed, rational, hence unsensational and also offers a poignance that has become rare. If I have identified it correctly, it is satire in Oliver’s speech that manages to underscore the core rationality of his news analysis.

However, there is something about the seriousness of a comedy show that is incongruous and unsettling. As Huffington Post's David Bauder significantly reminds us in his piece on Oliver, "Remember, this is a comedy show."

It is strange that one feels the need to be intimated regularly that it is a comedy show at the end of the day. But is it hence, not journalism? Bauder's piece in the Huffington Post carried the headline: "John Oliver is doing some really good investigative journalism”. It shouldn’t be shocking that a talk show speaking the language of comedy can be taken seriously too. Especially because Oliver offers a rare form of news analysis: of a ‘more’ serious kind. HBO, the company that produces Oliver’s show has given him the freedom to criticize prime corporations, a privilege not many media houses can afford today. From Narendra Modi’s visit to America to the Miss American Pageant, the twenty episodes so far offer an indication that the canvas in front of Oliver is global. Further, episodes like the one on Net Neutrality, for instance, have also managed to cause a flutter of excitement and talk of change: a prime journalistic duty, some would argue.

After John Oliver discussed net neutrality in America, the issue of discrimination-free access to internet content was egged on.“The FCC's online public-comment system stumbled under heavy traffic Monday after comedian John Oliver capped a 13-minute segment about Net neutrality -- the concept that all Internet content should be delivered without preference or discrimination -- with a rallying cry to the Internet's trolls to visit the FCC's website and "focus your indiscriminate rage in a useful direction,” said a news story on c-net.com. Additionally, there have been recent news reports that are now talking about the government intervening to protect net neutrality as well.

The internet’s relationship to stand-up comedy and satire in general is also a factor that needs to be considered here. An issue that is joked about is already an issue that is brought to the attention of the audience listening to the joke. This is even more so when on the internet. Viral videos are a phenomenon that not only manage to simply entertain consumers sitting across the globe but are also responsible for informing their audience about day-to-day tidings, in fact as noticed in the recent times, more effectively. In fact, although it is premature to say, John Oliver, going by the growing response to his material, could emerge as a true global journalist if he continues to track crucial happenings from across the world in a manner that appeals to the mind and the heart at the same time. If not ‘correct’ men, he could very well alter Moliere’s dictum temporarily by merely informing men. Well, that’s half job done, actually.

September 22, 2014 Radhika Santhanam
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