If you haven’t watched John Oliver’s new show Last Week Tonight on HBO, let me recommend a few bits.
There’s the one where he enlists Lisa Loeb to mock Portland hipsters and Obamacare at the same time. And this one, featuring the best Morrissey reference ever, on the European Court of Justice’s insane ruling that forces Google to take down links upon request. And this interview with a droll Stephen Hawking.
Oliver had been a correspondent on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart since 2006, but he got famous last summer when he filled in for the host, who was off directing a movie. His new show is basically a variation on Stewart’s approach: riffs on the headlines and appositive video clips revealing some absurdity or hypocrisy. Instead of reports from fake correspondents, he takes an in-depth look at a single subject in the middle segment of his show. He’ll go as long as thirteen minutes on one topic, which might qualify him as the most serious man in television, were it not for a weakness he shares with Stewart: an anti-market bias that’s just hysterical, and not in the good way.
In his first ten shows, Oliver has done at least three in-depth segments on supposed market failings that could be corrected through regulation—cable companies manipulating Internet speeds, the menace of dietary supplements, and defective ignition switches by General Motors. None of them were particularly funny, perhaps because calling for subservience to state regulators is at odds with the spirit of anarchy that inspires the best comedy. Oliver’s at his worst when he’s trying to uphold some rule or nascent social convention. He’ll take a great setup—the campfest known as the Eurovision Song Contest—and build it up by introducing Conchita Wurst, the bearded drag queen who won this year, and then: nothing.
“That’s awesome,” Oliver says. “Is it just me, or between Conchita and Michael Sam, did the whole world feel like it became a better place to live in the last twenty-four hours?” I’d have thought bearded drag queens would be funny for at least another year or two, but I guess it’s time to start pretending otherwise. We should probably go ahead and retire “travesty,” too, as it’s straight from the Latin for cross-dressing. But what are guys like Oliver and Stewart supposed to do now that the original farcical gesture has been made holy? Bowing isn’t funny.
Oliver’s bits on net neutrality, supplements, and ignition switches weren’t just unfunny; they were errant and way easier to refute than in-depth reports ought to be.
The only good thing about the report on net neutrality is that by comparing Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler to a dingo babysitter, he provoked Wheeler into proclaiming, “I am not a dingo.” But Oliver misses the basic point about the FCC’s new order allowing Internet service providers such as Comcast to charge content providers such as Netflix a premium in exchange for reliable, extra-fast connections to consumers. The FCC wasn’t weakening old rules; it was imposing new ones after a court had struck down old ones.
Oliver wants the FCC to declare the Internet to be basically a public utility, and regulate it as such. The real debate is between Democrats on the commission who want some regulation and Republicans who want little to none. The pro-market argument is that if ISPs can profit off Netflix, they’ll attract more competition, which will lower prices for consumers. The pro-regulation position, if I may condense it to emphasize an absurdity, is that “in a country where almost everybody wants net neutrality…ISPs aren't going to offer net neutrality voluntarily, so government regulation is necessary to make it happen.”
Oliver’s argument that the Food and Drug Administration ought to have more control over dietary supplements was weaker still. He started off with a few shots at TV’s Dr. Oz for recommending weight loss snake oil to his audience, which is fine. You could just as readily make fun of Whole Foods or organic co-ops, but Oliver wants to argue there’s some danger in people scarfing down roots and berries that haven’t been researched by the FDA. To find his menace, he had to go all the way back to the late eighties, when tryptophan supplements killed thirty-eight people. Only Oliver never tells his viewers that those deaths were traced to contaminated batches from a single Japanese manufacturer called Showa Denka. The FDA banned tryptophan imports in 1989. Multiple studies showed the problem was the contaminants, not tryptophan itself, which is simply an amino acid. So the FDA lifted its import ban—sixteen years later.
Oliver has also attacked GM viciously, saying that if the company was a person, it would deserve the death penalty for its responsibility in the deaths of thirteen people driving Chevrolet Cobalts and other vehicles with faulty ignitions. He blasts GM, and rightly so, for concealing information about the ignition problem for more than a decade, and for threatening to come after the family of an accident victim if they didn’t withdraw a lawsuit. And he scoffs at the fine imposed by the Department of Transportation, saying, “$35 million—that is a lot of money for a car company…in 1923.”
The specific defect that outrages Oliver isn’t some part that snaps or breaks or comes unbolted; it’s an ignition that can be turned off by a heavy keychain that is suddenly jolted. Oliver may think this points to the need for regulation, but actually the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration received a half-dozen reports of the problem as early as 2007 and did nothing, as regulators so often do.
A free marketer would point out that there is no moral principle requiring car manufacturers to produce perfectly safe vehicles, as Milton Friedman demonstrated in a famous lecture series. If you want a safer car, buy a Volvo or an SUV, he’d say. But Friedman also acknowledged that a car manufacturer that concealed defects ought to be held liable in court. Only in this case, that will be impossible for the victim’s families, thanks again to the federal government, which absolved GM of product liability in the company’s federally directed, quasi-legal bankruptcy restructuring of 2009.
Despite all his anti-market guff, I still find Oliver immensely watchable, and look forward to catching up on a few of his shows that I missed. I’d usually do that on a Sunday night, but the problem is that’s peak streaming time, when my HBOGO player is overcome by seizures of buffering and audio syncing problems. If only there was some way HBO could pay for the bandwidth it needs to guarantee reliable service…