The Real Reason Why John Oliver Succeeds

April 27th 2015

Kathleen Toohill

Jon Stewart has been one of the most important voices in American political commentary and satire for years, and in the last few months, John Oliver has assumed a similar role through his show Last Week Tonight.

Stewart’s February announcement that he was leaving The Daily Show generated loud public outcry and mourning. The debate over whether South African comedian Trevor Noah is a suitable replacement for the venerated Stewart—whether years-old tweets reveal that Noah is anti-Semitic, whether he's even funny, whether Stewart will maybe decide to stay just a few more years now that he’s had time to think about it—have obscured a much more nuanced and more relevant question: will the insights of two foreign-born political commentators and satirists change American discourse?

To begin to explore this question, let’s take a look at the one America already has.

The Americanization of John Oliver

A profile that appeared in The Guardian shortly before Oliver took over as interim host of The Daily Show in 2013 references Oliver's tendency to oscillate between “us” and “you” in his segments as a Daily Show correspondent. This tendency speaks to Oliver's juggling of dual identity, an experience to which many immigrants can relate, yet Oliver's position is unique: he is not simply learning and adapting to the customs and culture of his adopted country; he is also one of its most visible critics.

“His earliest Daily Show appearances played almost exclusively on his Britishness; most Americans, he points out, hear his distinctively Brummie accent as standard Posh English," The Guardian's Oliver Burkeman wrote of John Oliver in 2013. "He once interviewed Tea Party activists while purporting to be offended that they called Obama a tyrant, on the grounds that it was an insult to real British tyranny in pre-revolutionary America.”

In a comedy special from 2012, “The Decline of the American Empire,” Oliver adopted a tone that situated him firmly as an outsider—he used the third person when referring to Americans (he’s in Canada), and the entirety of the show featured him questioning and poking fun at American culture.

According to Burkeman's article, the difficulties Oliver encountered in securing his green card, which he finally received in 2009, may have exacerbated the tensions he experienced as a foreigner trying to make America his home.

“Until 2009, when he finally received his green card, Oliver's sense of outsiderhood in New York was not solely a joke: he was obliged to seek the renewal of his visa every year at the American embassy in London, and lived in fear of being turned down,” Burkemann wrote. Oliver told Burkemann that an American immigration officer once told him, “Give me one good reason I should let you back in to insult my country.”

“But I was too stunned to laugh,” Oliver told Burkemann. “My life had just flashed in front of my eyes…"

Perhaps it was a matter of time or of securing of the green card or a recognition that audiences of Last Week Tonight might not take kindly to the accusatory tone of weekly rants delivered in the second person, but Oliver seems to have largely dropped the "outsider" conceit common in his earlier material. In a Tonight Show web exclusive from February, John Oliver plays the game “Would you rather?" One question posed to him by a fan is, “Would you rather give up comedy or give up being English?” to which Oliver responds: “I’ve basically given up being English. I’ve been living here for 10 years. So, the only residual effect is the way I speak, and I refuse to speak any other way, because this is how words were designed to sound.”

While Oliver's answer to the “Would you rather” question may have been facetious (at least, most of his other answers were, and, lest we forget, he is a comedian), he does, as he said, appear to have shed much of his British-ness. Now, when addressing the audience on Last Week Tonight, he uses the collective first person. This technique, calculated or not, helps to create a sense of solidarity with American viewers. If not for his accent, Last Week Tonight viewers might forget all together that Oliver didn't always live in the United States.

Trevor Noah: the outsider’s perspective

In a smart and incisive clip from December 2014 (one that should have made the Internet rounds when Noah was named as Stewart’s successor, rather than a few not-particularly-brilliant tweets), Stewart asks first-time correspondent Trevor Noah how it feels to be in America:

The two chat about Ebola, which Noah points out that South Africa has not had a single case of, and then play Spot the Africa, where Stewart guess which pictures were taken in America and which were taken in Africa. After the stereotype-busting game, Stewart says, “You're not saying that things in Africa are better than they are in America, are you?"

"No, I'm not saying that,” Noah responds. “You guys are saying that." A clip rolls of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on CNN reporting that the United States incarcerates more Black people, as a percentage, than apartheid South Africa.

In mock admiration of the United States’ systematic racism, Noah proclaims, "We trained for decades, and you just waltzed in and won the gold medal!"

In the clip, Stewart and Noah work extremely well together. Noah comes across as the cultured, globally minded foreigner—he accuses and admonishes, while Stewart sheepishly admits fault on behalf of his country. But without Stewart to act as “buffer,” or scapegoat, for the rest of the country, how will audiences respond to persistent criticism, delivered in the accusatory second person, in their homes each night?

In an episode of “The Daily Show Podcast Without Jon Stewart” from January 30, Noah says of the relationship between Africa and the United States, "We are constantly aware of you. America is a like a fat guy on a seesaw. Your movements shake the world...You guys are the biggest consumers of things, and you're also the biggest exporters of culture, so we are very aware of that."

This very lack of global awareness on the part of many Americans—most Africans know much more about what's happening in America than most Americans know about what's happening in Africa—provides Noah with a unique perspective that Stewart lacks. Noah grew up with firsthand knowledge of the United States, not as a resident, but as an observer of the political, social, and cultural impact that the United States has on the rest of the world.

Stewart and Noah have riffed on this dynamic in all three of Noah's appearances on The Daily Show. In an appearance in March, Noah addressed America’s plan to “buy” top chess players in order to win a title.

“Does American really need to be the best at everything?" Noah asked. "You already dominate in economics, military power, obesity…”

In response, Stewart is defensive, blustering, irrational. In short, he embodies the worst of stereotypes about Americans. When Noah takes the helm of The Daily Show, it will be interesting to see if he puts the audience in Stewart's vacated role as Stereotypical American. To avoid coming across as too accusatory and alienating viewers, Noah may need to demonstrate that he is seeking, if not to be a part of, then at least to understand the American consciousness. American audiences may be better able to relate to Noah if it appears that he has a stake in the complicated and often emotionally fraught issues that he will dissect onscreen.

Said Noah in the podcast, "I'm not an expert in America. I never professed to be. I know nothing about your politics, really. I know about your social problems and I know about stuff that really is, I feel, universal, but I'm not an expert in that field and I like that, because I come in with a perspective where I know your world, and yet, I'm not a part of it."

The value of the accent in American political and social commentary.

Noah’s status as a South African, and a Black man, will mean that viewers relate to him differently than they've related to Stewart. In March, Jenée Desmond-Harris wrote a piece for Vox titled, “Will Daily Show viewers pay as much attention when a black host talks about race?” Desmond-Harris interviewed Whitney Dow, the creator of the Whiteness Project, who says of Noah: “What Noah will do will have great value, and from the clips I've seen of him he's a funny, smart guy. But he's [a] guy who's not from America, and he doesn't look like the white Americans who watch him. ... So they'll be thinking, ‘He's certainly pointing stuff out, but he is not me.’”

For Noah, a bigger challenge than “white fragility” (the term coined by Dr. Robin DiAngelo to describe the aversion that white Americans often have towards discussions of race and white privilege) might be “American fragility.” Many Americans persist in their belief of American exceptionalism, a topic I covered last month for ATTN:, and this belief can manifest itself in a denial that the United States has any flaws, or that any other country—for instance, South Africa—has a grasp on an issue that supersedes America’s. If this results in fewer viewers for Noah's Daily Show, that would be unfortunate.

Last Week Tonight has proven to be hugely successful. Oliver scored an interview with Edward Snowden and has racked up millions of views on most of his YouTube videos. Although Oliver's success in no way guarantees Noah's, one should not assume that the United States had "reached its quota" of foreign-born political satirists with Oliver. Oliver himself has noted that his country of origin, like the United States, is one of the largest empires in human history, while Noah was born in a country that was colonized and oppressed by Britain. Oliver may not be American, but his country’s history is more similarly aligned with Stewart’s than with Noah’s.

Ryan McCarthy of The Washington Post wrote in February that Jon Stewart’s brand of comedy journalism, which was ground-breaking and ahead of its time in the Bush era, has faded from relevance with the proliferation of blogs that parse the news in real time. But maybe the incorporation of an outsider's perspective, someone who is now, or will soon be, enveloped by the particularities of life in America, is still new and fresh enough to incentivize Daily Show tune-in.

Perhaps Noah, like Oliver, will fade out or drop completely his use of “you” and adopt “we” when he begins his hosting duties. Or maybe Noah will continue to use the second person to refer to America and Americans, thus reinforcing his status as an outsider and reminding Americans that a world exists outside of the United States. Americans would surely benefit from listening to, laughing with, and thinking critically about the things that an intelligent and perceptive South African comedian has to say about American politics and society.

Let’s hope that the majority of the country doesn’t discount a voice of reason solely because it has an accent.