The Struggles John Oliver Faces In Deciding How To Cover Donald Trump (If At All)
It's an especially difficult time to be a political comedy writer. What jokes are left to make when you're covering an administration that is simultaneously a joke but also poses threats to people's basic rights? These are some of the questions surrounding season four of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Or more specifically, these are the questions being considered by the writing staff themselves.
There's a lot to consider when creating comedy during a presidency where even WhiteHouse.Gov is undergoing scary changes, including but not limited to Donald Trump removing climate change and civil rights as well as LGBT rights from the website. At this point, the process of satirizing Trump goes beyond the question of finding the freshest take, because it also runs the risk of normalizing a regime that might be conceptually absurd, but is threatening people's safety and livelihood.
During roundtable interviews at HBO on Monday, Oliver spoke about the new season — like why it's so short — and how he's hoping to lighten up on Trump coverage, despite the looming pressure to focus on the administration at hand.
When questioned about his vision for the season, and how to not make it all about Trump. Oliver readily admits that while it will be a challenge, he'd like to avoid tired jokes. "We’ll work it out," he says. "I could lie to your face again. But of course, we’re very anxious to not make it all Trump all the time. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit with an administration like this."
Donald Trump has made yet another horrifying thing we looked at in the past relevant again. This time it's torture. https://t.co/nKN9e8EruT— Last Week Tonight (@LastWeekTonight) January 26, 2017
Avoiding low-hanging fruit is on brand for the British comedian, whose weekly platform has enabled him to forgo some of the more predictable clowning of his daily counterparts in order to educate the masses about pressing issues through humor. In this way, Oliver acknowledges the human rights risks posed by, say, Trump's plan to build a Mexican border wall, without undermining the terrifying reality and while still dosing his presentation with humor.
"By the time we’re on, the obvious stuff has been taken anyway" Oliver says, which is true. His observations of how fast jokes circulate feels particularly relevant considering the fact that Sean Spicer has already responded to Melissa McCarthy's impression of him in a cartoonish and brilliantly executed sketch on SNL just days ago.
At this rate, by the time Last Week Tonight's new season airs on HBO on Sunday, Feb. 12 at 11 p.m EST, all the cabinet members will be thoroughly mocked, leaving room for Oliver to focus his comedic gaze elsewhere.
Naturally, when questioned, Oliver didn't spoil or reveal his possible arsenal of topics that decidedly aren't Trump. He did, however, address the urge for comparisons between the current Brexit situation and a Trump presidency. "It’s crazy to say which is worse," he says. "It’s like choosing between horse shit and donkey shit. They’re aesthetically the same, but fundamentally different."
In all fairness, Oliver already shared his vibrant (and deeply disapproving) rant about Brexit on Last Week Tonight back in June. So, it's not too difficult to piece together his complex yet parallel feelings about both the U.S. election and Brexit by way of his screeds.
Many of us are (at least I am) eager to see what this new season will hold, in lieu of a focus on Trump. I have faith that Oliver will take on the comedic challenges of this administration by finding a balance between deep dives into underrated topics, and well fact-checked nods to our current predicament.
Additional reporting by Kelsea Stahler