John Oliver on Journalism and Comedy

John Oliver was on Fresh Air with Terry Gross this week, and it was a terrific interview. The first twenty minutes or so focused on the way Oliver uses satire to draw attention to complex, under-reported issues. Gross used Oliver’s amazing Net Neutrality clip as fodder, discussing how his call to action brought down the Federal Communication’s Commission website.

During that clip he takes a dig at Sting, to which Gross asks, what if Oliver and Sting find themselves at the same party some day? Oliver’s response became the headline for NPR’s coverage of the interview (“John Oliver Is No One’s Friend On His New HBO Show“), but what I found fascinating was how he shifts from talking about the role of comedians to discussing the role of journalists. Here is the roughly 60 seconds of audio:

Here is the transcript:

OLIVER: As a comedian, you should not be in rooms where the people you’re making fun of also are, because you’ll realize at the end of the day, they’re just people. You can’t risk having that kind of compassion infect your mission to attack. So no, yeah – so my solution to that is not to curb my jokes. It’s to not put myself in the same room as the consequences of those jokes.

GROSS: But that means with every year that you’re doing satirical comedy, there are fewer rooms you can enter.

OLIVER: Yeah, but that’s what you’re supposed to be. A comedian is supposed to be an outsider. You’re supposed to be outside, looking in. I don’t want to be at parties in D.C. with politicians. The comedians shouldn’t be there. If you feel comfortable in a room like that, there’s a big problem.

That’s what’s so concerning about when you see journalists so comfortable around politicians. That’s a red flag. There should be a kind of awkward tension whenever a journalist walks into a room that politicians are in, ’cause you should have done things that have annoyed them in the past. And the same as a comedian – you’re no one’s friend. You should be no one’s friend, other than other comedians.

And in case you haven’t seen it, here is Oliver’s Net Neutrality video.

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