In poking fun at the Miss America pageant on the most recent episode of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” John Oliver reached for the comedic equivalent of low-hanging fruit. Then he veered into something wholly unexpected – investigative journalism.
His subsequent report questioning the pageant’s scholarship program was the latest example of how Oliver has quickly moved beyond his roots at “The Daily Show” to produce something distinctive, and usually hilarious.
Oliver, who subbed for Jon Stewart as host of “The Daily Show” last summer and began his own HBO weekly show in April, often devotes about half of his 30 minutes to a single topic below the headlines. He’s discussed gender pay inequality, anti-gay laws in Uganda, net neutrality and the politics of the World Cup.
Remember, this is a comedy show.
His 15-minute Miss America segment began with jokes about how dated a beauty pageant seems, and his incredulity at some of the questions contestants are asked. He took some shots at Donald Trump, who owns a competing pageant. Then he zeroed in on the Miss America organization’s claim of making $45 million in scholarship money available to young women each year.
“Forty-five million,” Oliver said. “That is an unbelievable amount of money. As in, I literally did not believe that.”
His staff researched documents, finding a federal disclosure form that said the pageant spent $482,000 in scholarships in 2012. They researched tax forms on statewide pageants, finding several scholarship offers that couldn’t possibly be awarded at the same time were added together to help reach the final figure. In other words, people shouldn’t confuse money that may be available with money spent.
That’s journalism, minus any apparent attempt to let pageant officials offer their side. The organization subsequently issued a statement not specifically addressing Oliver’s charge that Miss America was being misleading, but said that “as with any scholarship, the full amount awarded may not always be used as recipients plans change or evolve.”
Oliver has journalists who worked at the New York Times Magazine and ProPublica on his writing staff.
Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, calls Oliver’s work “investigative comedy.” Thompson has played the net neutrality segment for his students.
Research indicates that young people are much more likely than their elders to take a deeper dive into news stories that interest them, searching for more information online, said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute. What Oliver is doing responds to that desire, he said.
“There is a natural link between committing journalism and committing comedy,” Rosenstiel said. “They’re both in the uncovering and unmasking business, but with different approaches.”
Oliver, who wasn’t made available by HBO for an interview, has made no secret of his debt to “The Daily Show,” and viewers of “Last Week Tonight” will find many similar elements. This week he paired a little-noticed development – President Obama acting to continue the economic embargo against Cuba for another year – with a video clip of pre-president Obama saying in 2004 that the embargo had outlived its usefulness.
But in a weekly show, Oliver needs to go beyond daily developments. He hasn’t hesitated to get into issues that others might consider eye-glazing. He even makes that part of the comedy.
In describing the concept of net neutrality, Oliver said, “the only two words that promise more boredom in the English language are ‘featuring Sting.’“ The segment, besides a look at the arcanity of federal communications regulation, included a break-dancing Abraham Lincoln impersonator.
Before the World Cup, he took an exhaustive look at corruption charges against the tournament’s operating body. Oliver had a cheap and pointed laugh line, showing video of FIFA board president Sepp Blatter falling during a public appearance. “That’s one time you can say, ‘I’m glad that old man fell off the stage,'” he said.
With Oliver’s adept mixture of comedy and tangents in his longer segments, Thompson said, “you never feel like you’re watching something 13 minutes long. It’s always moving.”
Oliver’s mentor Stewart broke ground, and filled a journalism-like role, with his show’s research and use of video archives, Rosenstiel said. Oliver’s long-form pieces may be where he makes his mark.
“It is really an interesting convergence,” he said.