Last Week Tonight’s subject matter is highly dynamic. Oliver’s investigations have covered everything from the Argentinian debt crisis to the Miss America pageant, and his acute criticism of institutional corruption has produced undeniable results: the FCC’s website crashed multiple times after Oliver’s segment on Net Neutrality; the Society of Women Engineers received $25,000 in donations in two days after Oliver directed viewers towards them; Attorney General Eric Holder announced this year that he will enact major limitations to civil forfeiture laws after Oliver dedicated an entire episode to the subject.
The former Daily Show correspondent has even had Twitter arguments with world leaders. The tweet below only captures the beginning of what ultimately ended up being a 560-character response, from Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, broken up over four tweets.
En la espera, algunas reflexiones. Asunto John Oliver: demasiado ruido para tan pocas nueces. Esos “talk shows” gringos son más…
— Rafael Correa (@MashiRafael) February 12, 2015
Golder believes that the impact of the Effect should be credited to Oliver’s skills as journalist. “I think one of the reasons [Stewart, Colbert, and Oliver have] been very good is due to the quality of the research that they do. One of the things comedians are good at is looking at the world around them and identifying things that are sort of in plain sight that everybody else overlooks. It’s specifically that skill, that ability to look at the world around you and say ‘hey, this thing is weird, what’s going on there, let’s unpack that further.”
Golder told me that comedians like Oliver have always appealed to him because of a specific role that comedians share with sociologists. “They do it in very different ways, comedians and social scientists, but they still want to take an outsiders eye to the world around them, and I think that’s one of the reason why Oliver is interesting. He’s English; he’s kind of the outsider to our culture, and I think that helps him avoid getting pegged as being from one specific viewpoint or another.”
If we were to speculate Last Week Tonight’s future based on the paths of Colbert and Stewart, then a recession in Oliver’s influence is inevitable. When such inevitability will happen, and what will trigger it remains to be seen, but Golder says that the recent rise of the “going viral” concept has made predicting what will become popular and remain popular extremely difficult.
However, Golder also said that Oliver has one thing going for his popularity.
“John Oliver has had a long build. Its not just two years of his HBO show; it’s also a decade of Daily Show appearances and a career doing stand-up. It’s a little tough to say that he sort of happened over night.” For now, that progress can only grow. With the recent ending of The Colbert Report and Jon Stewart’s impending departure from The Daily Show, Oliver’s future is looking bright.
It seems, upon doing a little digging, that several sources compared Oliver’s accomplishments more favorably than his peers. However, that may be unfair, as both Colbert and Stewart are undoubtedly involved in laying the groundwork for Oliver’s current success.
Colbert’s impact has largely been felt in the entertainment and popular culture world with the addition of the word “truthiness” to the english lexicon being his first (and ultimately longest-lasting) accomplishment, and the phenomenon known as “The Colbert Bump” influencing everything from book sales, to elections and charity donations.
Stewart’s impact has also largely been in the playground of his media peers. When former CNN President Jonathon Klein cancelled the “head-butting debate show” Crossfire in 2004, he cited Stewart’s appearance on the show as part of the reason for his decision; and while Stewart played no direct part in Fox News personality Glenn Beck’s fall from grace, the constant mockery of Beck on The Daily Show no-doubt had an significant effect.
So no, John Oliver probably isn’t becoming a god, but he’s also not just another viral sensation. His sharp criticisms, crisp jokes, and compassionate timing keep hitting home, week after week. Years passed before Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were able to effect changes the way Oliver has.
Also in that time, it is worth noting, audiences have gone from passive viewers to active participants. It’s quite possible that, in tracking Oliver’s cultural impact, we are observing, first-hand, the results of our own social evolution.