Reuters: John Oliver, the insider-outsider perspective, and jokes that punch up

Reuters: John Oliver, the insider-outsider perspective, and jokes that punch up

I’m at Reuters again this week, writing about John Oliver’s new show Last Week Tonight, about how to make humour out of dark and dull topics, and about why a man with a thick Birmingham accent is so good at American political satire:

Oliver’s addition to the news-comedy landscape demonstrates the value of a half-American’s perspective on American politics and culture. He was born and grew up in Britain, moved to the United States as an adult, and has a strong Birmingham accent. He has been living here for almost a decade, is now married to an American, and has become a citizen. He is at once an outsider and an insider, a powerful position from which to critique and mock the United States.

At times, Oliver is explicit about his outsider status, particularly when he is addressing those subjects that are especially hard to joke about. In a May segment about the death penalty, Oliver noted that, as a Briton, “I come to this as a bit of an outsider. Britain does not have the capital punishment, so in a way, I really don’t know what I’m talking about.”

“But,” he continued, “in another way, I really do know what I’m talking about.” He then proceeded to give a brief overview of the lurid and grotesque history of British execution methods — “we boiled people, and in the grand tradition of British cuisine, if anything, we over-boiled them” — and joked about how British people respond when asked if they want to reinstate the death penalty, which was abolished there in 1965. It was, quite literally, gallows humor. It also demonstrated Oliver’s ability to joke about grim topics and situations that no one wants to talk about, in a way that does not detract from their gravity or strip the people involved of their humanity.

You can read the whole thing here.

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