3 Ways John Oliver is Evolving Political Comedy Audience Participation

Posted in 2014 The Gnovis Blog

Guest Author: Thomas Hernandez
gnovis Classroom Series: This semester, we will be publishing a series of guest blogs completed in various CCT classes.  This blog was originally written for CCT 505 (new window), the program’s first semester introductory course for first year students.
John Oliver
Since Time Magazine’s now infamous 2009 poll showed that John Stewart was the “most trusted man in America,” political communication researchers have focused on the connection between humor and credibility in political comedy shows. As one theory goes, audiences are more engaged and informed when laughter is used in political programming. (Vraga et al, 2014) This is due to the fact that audience members employ “knowledge heuristics” to fill in their gaps in understanding when information is presented by a trusted source (Kahnemen, Slovic, and Tversky, 1982). However, increased credibility may not only be important for informing audiences; it may also lead audience to greater civic participation through comedic action heuristics. Shows like the Daily Show, The Colbert Report and, most recently, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver have long provided audiences with templates for engagement. These programs ask for action relating to political or social topics, including topics that an audience may know little about. In two famous examples, these shows encouraged audience members to donate to a fictitious super PAC as a critique campaign finance laws and attend large rallies in Washington to mock the then ubiquitous tea party rallies. As co-executive producer for the Daily Show Josh Lieb explained in an article, comedy news shows often select content that “makes us angry in a whole new way” in order to encourage audiences to act. Recognizing the power in soliciting audience participation, the Last Week Tonight show may go a step further than its predecessors when encouraging audience participation in three important ways:

  1. More Regular Actions

John Oliver’s Last Week Today now introduces a near weekly call to action, offering audiences a small activity that they can participate in with regular frequency. The activities range from donating money to social causes to writing letters and sharing messages via social media. In one recent example, Oliver requested his viewers to write a satirical letter to the Association for Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU), asking them to end lobbying against the Gainful Employment Act.

  1. Greater Breadth of Targets

John Oliver’s show also tackles a large range of social and political issues in their audience participation suggestions. In the most recent episode of the show, Oliver suggested that the audience donate money to organizations that provide college scholarships to women as a counter to the Miss America Foundation’s claim that they are the largest provider of scholarships to women in the world. While infamous actions led by Stewart and Colbert focused on political issues, Oliver includes social, cultural, and sports topics more readily.

  1. Going Beyond Rhetoric

Finally, the show’s actions often go beyond rhetorical points, inviting the audience to participate and possibly put their own brand of humor on a direct action. Audience members are asked to participate in satirical actions, taking a jab at the target of the week while doing something they believe to be meaningful. An example of this occurred in May when Oliver invited his audience members to post embarrassing photos of themselves to speak out in favor of net neutrality. However, while these calls to action have long been a staple of a variety of political comedy shows, the Tonight Show Today’s format invites direct action that looks more like the form of political or civic participation that were used by grassroots and civil organizations. Shows like Last Week Tonight provide informational templates that may lead to attitude formation about social or political topics. As these shows experiment by including more traditional engagement activities, future research could study if increased credibility could lead to increased action. Is this type of engagement meaningful? Does it lead to significant changes in the institutions they target? Is this just another form of “slacktivism” or “armchair activism”? These questions may be increasingly important as late night comedy shows make collective social and political action activities a more regular part of their programming. Emily Vraga, Courtney Johnson, Jasun Carr, Leticia Bode, and Mitchell Bard. “Filmed in Front of a Live Studio Audience: Laughter and Aggression in Political Entertainment Programming..” Journal of Broadcast and Electronic Media 58.1 (2014): 131-150. Kahneman, Daniel, and Amos Tversky. “Variants of uncertainty.” Cognition 11.2 (1982): 143-157.

Thomas is a first year Georgetown CCT graduate student, and works as a program officer at the National Democratic Institute, an international democracy and human rights assistance organization. Professionally and academically, he concentrates on how information technologies are changing the relationship between society and governments.