John Oliver Brings Cross-Cultural Strengths to Political Comedy

Last Week Tonight witht John Oliver (Image credit- HBO Max)

With his discernible English accent, John Oliver once asked the crowd to shout out D.C. Public Schools on Twitter and thanked Oprah for his win at the Emmys.

“I met Oprah once,” Oliver joked. “It was like meeting the queen, only much better, much better.”

His show, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” whose ninth season begins this month, has won multiple Emmys for Best Variety Talk Series.

Comedian holds microphone and speaks to a crowd
John Oliver speaks at the 7th Annual Crunchies Awards on February 10, 2014 in San Francisco. Photo credit: Steve Jennings for TechCrunch (CC BY 2.0).

The show offers satirical comedy that comments on the past week’s news, politics and current events in the United States. Aside from winning the best talk series, the show has also received awards for Outstanding Picture Editing for Variety Programming, Outstanding Interactive Program and Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series.

The show’s host is culturally mobile. Oliver was born in Erdington, England. He now lives in New York City. He is married to Kate Norley, an Iraq War Veteran who served as a U.S. Army Medic. Oliver struggled to receive his green card to gain U.S. residence, often joking about it in his comedy pieces. In 2009, Oliver received his green card and subsequently became a U.S. citizen in December 2019.

Oliver acknowledges how his cultural mobility will affect his son in a positive way.

“I hadn’t left much of a career behind in England,” Oliver said in an interview with The New York Times in February 2017. “I pretty quickly had flipped the switch in my head. This is my home. But, Brexit was awful because it reminded me of a certain blatant ugliness in the country that I was raised in. I’d just had a baby, so I liked the idea that he’d have a British passport as well — which is a European passport, meaning he can live and work anywhere in Europe.”

I hadn’t left much of a career behind in England. I pretty much had flipped the switch in my head.

Oliver’s career started in the United States but he got his education in England. He studied at Christ’s College in Cambridge during the 1990s. Oliver was a member of the theatrical club run by the students at the university.

John Oliver, host of HBO's 'Last Week Tonight'
John Oliver (Image credit: HBO)

After moving to the U.S., Oliver appeared in several notable comedy shows. Oliver’s HBO show “Last Week Tonight” gave him the ability to have full creative freedom over his comedy. Through this freedom, Oliver has created a successful political show, made stronger due to his cultural background.

Stemming from an episode on Oliver’s show dealing with the U.S.’s policy on net neutrality, the term “The John Oliver Effect” was coined. Oliver brought major national attention to the otherwise unrecognized issue of net neutrality.

“There’s been times when things he did on his show actually had an effect on the real world such as affecting legislation within U.S. Congress and causing the Federal Communications Commission [website] to crash over net neutrality,” said Stuart Smith, who studied political science and journalism at Colorado State University and hosted a political show on Collegian TV.

Although Oliver does not claim the title of journalist, the Peabody Awards honored him for engaging in investigative reports. These investigations include an exploration of the Miss America Organization’s allocation of scholarship money.

The 2016 election, although divisive for immigrants, allowed Oliver to reach unprecedented popularity. His February 2016 segment about Donald Trump as a presidential candidate got 85 million views on Facebook and YouTube within a month. Reportedly, at the time it became the most watched piece of HBO content ever, according to a network spokesperson.

“People were kind of looking at this critical eye for politics,” Smith said. “People like John Oliver and Stephen Colbert saw a rise during this period because audiences were looking for something cynical about politics.”

For Hollywood insiders as well as viewers, Oliver’s culturally mobile perception is a strength to the industry of political comedy in the United States.

“He’s absolutely a very astute observer in the American scene,” said David Freed, a former Hollywood screenwriter who is now a professor at Colorado State University.

Oliver has a U.S. wife and a son now but worried after Trump’s travel ban that his green card at the time would not be enough for him to stay in the United States. He disclosed that this made him concerned but would not stop him from criticizing U.S. culture and politics on his show, according to his interview with Stephen Colbert in February 2017.

“He’s lived in America for a while now and it’s also an outsider’s perspective,” Smith said. “Pretty much every show before ‘Last Week Tonight’ came out has had an American host commenting on American politics and it’s refreshing to see a non-American commenting on America and bringing in a new perspective to the conversation.”


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