John Oliver vs world leaders: From Rodrigo Duterte to Xi Jinping, heads of state who got the Last Week Tonight treatment

Aishwarya Kulkarni

June 27, 2018 15:12:26 IST

If there is anyone who can start a Twitter war with a leader from another country over a lost cat, it is probably the comedian John Oliver. He can also stretch the altercation far enough to result in two things: One, make the cat and its owner viral on social media — not that the cat owner needed the fame in the first place, because he happened to be Ramzan Kadyrov, the ruler of Chechnya; Second, continue a trend of mocking and taking down all those things which are seemingly untouchable for some journalists and talk show hosts.

It is not the first time that the comedian has enraged an entire region. Oliver’s last segment (released on 17 June) on Chinese President Xi Jinping has led to hasty efforts by the country’s social media network to increase censorship. Weibo users in China now find an error message upon searching words like “John Oliver” or “Last Week Tonight”. In the video, the comedian mocked Xi’s alleged unease about his comparison with Winnie the Pooh, Disney's much adored honey-loving bear . The video also has a segment starring kids singing a song titled ‘This is the China Xi doesn’t want you to see’, which parodies the Chinese version that promotes the "Belt and Road" initiative, and which Oliver dubs as a ‘cuddly propaganda song about Xi Jinping and his achievements’. As of 27 June, it has been reported that the HBO website is inaccessible to Chinese internet users since Saturday, according to GreatFire.org, an internet censorship monitoring service.

John Oliver criticised Xi Jinping's policies on Last Week Tonight. Youtube/LastWeekTonight

John Oliver criticised Xi Jinping's policies on Last Week Tonight. HBO

Last year in March, Oliver’s interview with the Dalai Lama did not go down well with the Chinese foreign minister, who retaliated by calling the Tibetan spiritual leader a ‘deceptive actor.’ Make no mistake into thinking that only China or its leader are too sensitive about their portrayal on Oliver’s show.

Oliver’s scathing criticisms and acerbic tone has angered leaders in many other countries. In 2014, the comedian commented on the royal family of Thailand, lampooning the Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn and the government for forcing people to embrace the coup instead of worrying about it. Thailand was not amused. Claims about an official document listing Oliver as a threat for ‘undermining the royal institution’ were made days after the episode aired.

On two separate episodes Oliver ranted about Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s similarity with Donald Trump over shifting policies and Duterte’s penchant for kissing his female supporters, which irked many Duterte backers.

Another leader who could not resist the opportunity to publicly settle his score with Oliver was Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, who tweeted his opinion about the comedian on Twitter. In about four tweets, Correa dismissed Oliver stating "talk shows hosts are more unfriendly than a diuretic" and implied that a "British comedian" was an "oxymoron."

But none of the reactions or retaliations have done any particular damage to the show or John Oliver. Ever since its pilot episode aired in 2014, Last Week Tonight has managed to make several people angry including — but not limited to — lobbies, corporations, institutions and of course, world leaders and governments with its irreverent style of comedy.

In some way, Oliver has continued the tradition of the political-commentary-peppered-with-satire genre in the footsteps his mentor Jon Stewart. But HBO’s liberal content policy and a generous budget have ensured that Oliver is armed with a strong team of lawyers, thorough fact-checkers and researchers to belt out the kind of elaborate stories that the show has carried. Using invective language, staging outlandish campaigns and counter-propaganda videos, and launching websites and fundraisers in the garb of jokes has not only provided a sense of closure to audiences but has also pushed the show further to have a cult status online. The show has won multiple prestigious awards in its short reign on television.

Perhaps, it is this sense of closure that sets Oliver apart from his peers such as Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert and the cohort of predominantly white talk show hosts. Oliver not only introduces an issue comprehensively, he also provides some form of solution to the viewers. Whether it is in the form of a joke or an actual call to action, Oliver manages to assuage the viewer’s worries by the end of each episode.

Departing from the general American variety-format shows which usually have inward looking and insulated reflections on global politics, Oliver has also managed to expand the American focus beyond the Middle East or Mexico. It won’t be a hyperbole to say that Oliver can be credited with providing sustained attention on political events in countries, which otherwise the American media or the population wouldn’t think too much about.

Since the very beginning, Oliver and his team have also not shied away from increasing the scope of their show by covering other countries without their usually attached stereotypes. By doing so, Last Week Tonight has filled an unusual space on the digital platform of YouTube as well. Viewers who have their freedom of speech curtailed due to authoritarian leaders, have the satisfaction of watching John Oliver mercilessly and hilariously take down their heads of state and other influential persons in authority. The show fulfills a particularly important role in such countries, where the media or comedians have major constraints in speaking out with similar freedom.

Although, not everyone may be a fan, one cannot disregard the efforts of a show which treats even the dullest of issues such as federal budgets, foreign elections and government surveillance with a degree of hilarity usually reserved for comic sketches. It is exactly these reasons along with John Oliver’s sharp criticism and watch-dog like political commentary that has made Last Week Tonight stand where it does. Oliver may vehemently protest, but what he does despite the jokes, is essentially journalism. And from the show’s reception, it seems it is the kind of investigative journalism viewers want more. Even if it makes powerful people very angry.

Updated Date: Jun 28, 2018 11:52 AM