You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, but John Oliver, the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, is a violent man. In the last year, he’s destroyed a “lying, hypocritical GOP idiot.” He’s eviscerated Congress over the issue of America’s infrastructure. Apparently desiring more viscera—this time from ideas rather than people—he went on to eviscerate voter-ID laws. If you take these headlines—and the articles they advertise—at face value, Oliver’s brand of late-night satire is a force to be reckoned with, and a potent political weapon.
Yet, Oliver’s victims remain surprisingly whole. The aforementioned “lying, hypocritical GOP idiot” is now the governor of Kentucky. Congress—approval ratings notwithstanding—continues to function with the same set of people Oliver reportedly eviscerated a few months ago. And, as many people participating in the current Presidential primaries can tell you, voter-ID laws haven’t gone away. Which probably explains why Donald Trump (despite being destroyed, taken down, demolished, systematically picked apart, annihilated, and...murderslayed?) remains the GOP’s presidential frontrunner. Simply put, the bombastic headlines used to describe Oliver’s late-night antics overstate the real-life impact such takedowns can have. At best, such headlines are exaggerations, but at worst, they perpetuate the myth that late-night comedy is an effective tool for broad political change.
the hosts of these shows seem more than aware of their limitations. “My years of evisceration have embettered nothing,” the former Daily Show host Jon Stewart laments at the end in a clip highlighting that virtually every problem The Daily Show covered in his 16 years as host remains just as bad—if not worse—than ever before.
Similarly self-gratifying rants can be had on talk radio for the other side of the spectrum. Nobody gets tired of shooting fish in a barrel, do they? :)
So if these things don't achieve anything in the long run why are we so drawn to them? What's the temptation to keep doing this left, right and center if by now the people who are famous for it know how little it achieves? I suppose Ellul would say it has value as propaganda but he warned that when you're a partisan you never see your team as dedicated to generating propaganda. No, your team is just sharing "the facts". It's the other side that traffics in propaganda.