In a sea of political insanity, these two television hosts may be our only hope
On Sunday night, HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver devoted an entire episode to a subject the host had long been dreading: Donald Trump. But two days before Super Tuesday, Oliver felt he could no longer ignore the hack businessman– reality star turned loose-cannon GOP presidential candidate, who emerged victorious in seven states across the East Coast and the South.
So Oliver brilliantly does the work the media has so far refused to do. Because though Trump, with his racist hatemongering and childish combative manner, may be bad for America, as CBS CEO Les Moonves told the Hollywood Reporter, he is “damn good for” the network. And though the GOP would like to see him spontaneously combust, news organizations are in no rush to see him go. But Oliver wants to put a pin in it: He asks Trump supporters what they like about their candidate: “He tells it like it is”; “I think he’s telling the truth”; “He’s funding his own campaign”; “He’s an incredible businessman.” He promptly dismantles each and every myth, separating Donald J. Trump, the “shitty lifestyle brand,” from Donald J. Drumpf (his family’s original name), the “litigious serial liar with a string of broken business ventures (hotels, casinos, and, most recently, Trump University), and the support of a former Klan leader (David Duke) who he can’t decide whether or not to condemn. Would you think he would make a good president or is the spell somewhat broken?” He closes the show with a new campaign (complete with merch, a hashtag, and even a Drumpfinator Google Chrome extension, which is quite handy): “Make Donald Drumpf Again.”
We’ve had Jon Stewart’s Daily Show guide us through the morass of the wonky idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies and general madness of a presidential election since the Supreme Court selected George W. Bush as our president. But he retired his post at a moment we need him the most, with debates that play out like reality-show catfights, a GOP frontrunner with no coherent platform who is singlehandedly imploding his party by going rogue, while hosting rallies that turn violent and evict Muslims and people of color, earning endorsements from white supremacists like David Duke. A time when a right-wing Supreme Court Justice’s unexpected death during a weird secret-society hunting trip becomes an opportunity for a GOP-led Senate to wage another nasty war against the president by refusing to consider any of his judicial nominees.
I don’t know about you, but all of this has left me feeling unmoored and downright terrified. So a sense of relief washed over me when two TDS alums’ shows premiered: Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, which debuted on TBS on February 8, and season three of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver on February 14. These two aren’t just pithy, acerbic political satirists. As they did on TDS, Oliver and Bee use their searing wit to, among other things, explain policy, face-off with some of the most dangerous right-wing lawmakers, turn a human-interest story into something far more socially urgent, and in general enlighten their audience in a genuinely entertaining way. This is no small thing, I assure you.
The only caveat, however, is that each has only 30 minutes a week to do it—Oliver’s show runs on Sunday nights at 11, and gets a full uninterrupted half-hour. Bee’s is on at 10:30 on Monday nights, on network TV, with commercials, which means it really runs only 22 minutes.
Which barely gives either enough time to scratch the surface. And yet, miraculously they do.
Recently, Bee went to Jordan to talk with Syrian refugees about their feelings of dislocation and ISIS. In it, she demonstrated, through a comically rudimentary computer game, how difficult it would be for a terrorist masking as a refugee to infiltrate the U.S. In a segment called “How Is This Still a Thing,” Oliver offered a brutally honest cinematic history of whitewashing—white actors cast in roles meant for people of color—pegged to #OscarsSoWhite, a Hollywood tradition as old as time itself that, of course, continues to this day.
Today, the now-eight-member Supreme Court will hear Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt—it is the most important abortion case in decades (which DAME’s Robin Marty has written about extensively), because it has the potential to end women’s right to a safe and legal abortion. At issue is a TRAP law (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider) called HB2, an omnibus law passed in 2013 that is responsible for the closure of most of the abortion clinics in Texas. Both Oliver and Bee took on HB2, and brilliantly so, each complementing the other’s segment. Oliver’s appeared first, on February 22, and served as an explainer on the absurdity and sadism of TRAP legislation, the objective of which is to gnaw away at Roe v. Wade by imposing ridiculous requirements of abortion clinics like having eight-foot-wide hallways, large enough to accommodate two gurneys (it’s an outpatient procedure); requiring doctors to disseminate misinformation (i.e., abortions cause breast cancer). Another law attempts to keep clinics from being within 2,000 feet of a school. Et cetera.
Bee approached the story from another angle on Monday, confronting Rep. Dan Flynn (R-TX), the author of the HB2 bill, exposing his ignorance on the abortion procedure he’s rendering inaccessible to most Texans (he believes it is an invasive surgical procedure) through, of all things, building regulations, and impressing upon him that as many as 240,000 Texan women have had to perform their own abortions when clinics close. He is aggressively polite, Texas style, but refuses to believe the uncomfortable facts delivered to him by this lady. “I think you are the wrongiest,” Bee tells him. “I think you’re the wrongiest wrongiest,” Flynn retorts, believing he’s in on the joke. “I speak with the authority of one who has a uterus. I guess that’s why I think you’re the wrongiest wrongheadiest wrong person.”
Will these two change the minds of the American public? Deprogram Drumpf-heads? Maybe, if they’re watching. But what they are doing is offering a lifeline to viewers inhabiting a world that has gone completely insane, if only for 50 minutes a week. And, really, I am more than happy to take it.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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