The John Oliver Phenomenon

By announcing his return to television with the new show “Info, sexe et mensonges,” (“News, Sex and Lies”) Marc Labrèche said he was inspired by John Oliver, the host of the American show “Last Week Tonight” on HBO. But who is John Oliver? He is nothing less than a phenomenon on the small screen and online, and was a hit this week when he laid into Donald Trump!

Every Sunday evening in just 30 minutes of monologue, John Oliver sheds light on topics that have been ignored by the mainstream media or finds original angles for taking on important news stories. And his audience keeps growing, despite the fact his show is broadcast on a pay channel.

All the segments of his show, as well as extra features, quickly appear on the LastWeekTonight channel on YouTube. And some go viral. If we often talk about the “John Oliver effect,” it’s because the comedian sometimes has a real impact on public opinion.

For example, two Sundays ago, two days before Super Tuesday, he launched an all-out attack on Donald Trump. All the worse for the latter. Oliver didn’t want to talk about the politician and give him publicity, but with the progress Trump is making, the situation was critical. In 20 minutes, he pulverized Trump’s lies and contradictions, and this segment has just passed 16 million views on YouTube.

Believing that the Republican candidate was benefiting primarily from the trademark that is his name, Oliver pulled a rabbit out of his hat and revealed that the original name of Trump’s ancestors was Drumpf.

Poking fun at the slogan “Make America Great Again,” he invited his audience to rename the politician online to strip him of his luster, by creating a site,, which allows users to alter occurrences of his name. The result? #MakeDonaldDrumpfagain was so popular that for 24 hours, the word “Drumpf” was the most searched term on Google after “Trump,” overtaking the names of the other candidates, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

And that’s the John Oliver effect. Among other things, the satirist created a false church to show that you can collect tax-exempt donations for what is a blatant scam. He also crashed the website of the Federal Communications Commission by inviting Internet users to complain about net neutrality.

An English Perspective on the American Dream

How has this British comedian, who looks like a bespectacled nerd, one who is often dumbfounded, managed to establish himself in the American television landscape?

Oliver famously made himself known by playing the role of a fake correspondent on the satirical show “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” whom he cites as one of his great inspirations. “America’s political satire has generally been better,” he said in a recent interview published in New York Magazine comparing British and American humor. “There is no one in England that is or has been as good as Jon Stewart.”

However, it is with his own show on HBO launched in 2014 that he has truly taken off – enough to appear on the list of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” list in 2015. But he refuses to consider himself a journalist, even if he often makes the news.

Armed with a fantastic team of researchers who can spend several weeks diving deep into a story, Oliver delivers his humorous editorials by putting his gags in the right places, broaching ultra-sensitive debates such as abortion or the death penalty, or doing a brilliant job of explaining very complicated and tedious news stories.

In this respect, his interview in Moscow with Edward Snowden, the exiled contractor who revealed the U.S. National Security Agency’s mass surveillance of Internet users, is a milestone moment. It’s very simple. Oliver insisted relentlessly that Snowden explain how exactly the NSA could get hold of a photo of the former’s penis on his iPhone, and we eventually learned how this surveillance works.

Fond of the American Dream

Born in England in 1977, Oliver uses his origins, and most of all, his accent, to make the American public laugh, and they love it, especially when he swears, which he does a lot. The obstacle course that he is going through to obtain U.S. citizenship has enabled him to recount the bureaucratic nightmare of this process.

But make no mistake about it, Oliver is not an expat who is there to attack the U.S. and observe it from on high. He appears to be deeply fond of the American dream that is being jeopardized by unscrupulous people.

“If you’ve lived with three decades of the white noise of a specific kind of bigotry, then a new noise is preferable,” he told New York Magazine in the same interview. “America still has that new-car smell for me.”

His dumbfounded expression is exactly what the public loves and what makes them listen to his intelligent critiques without ever feeling under attack. In this sense, Oliver is the ideal citizen personified, and this looks even better on TV.

The Views of Three Fans

Louis T., comedian and host on “Selon l’opinion comique” (“According to Comic Opinion”) columnist on

“He is a breath of fresh air to American satire, as much due to his choice of topics as the audacious decision to talk about them for a very long time. He attacks topics as serious as net neutrality, the death penalty or North Korea in segments that can last up to 20 minutes. An exception in a world used to making one or two jokes about a topic before moving on to another. […] Oliver and his team are among the first in the genre to make such good use of the Internet. Right from the first season, it wasn’t uncommon to see segments of the show viewed by two, three or even four million people on YouTube. That’s up to five times the show’s audience levels. He has understood that the Internet can be the best possible publicity, rather than just a competitor.”

Rafaële Germain, head writer of new show “Info, sexe et mensonges,” presented by Marc Labrèche:

“When I was approached to work on ‘Info, sexe et mensonges,’ I was even more enthusiastic when John Oliver’s name was mentioned. I’ve been wondering for a long time why we don’t have anything similar in Quebec. […] I saw John Oliver on Jon Stewart’s show; he had a small part but I liked him even more than Jon Stewart. When his show started, I was hooked immediately. It’s really meticulous. He relies on cast-iron research on controversial topics with a range of extraordinary possibilities for humor. […] John Oliver is such a master of his trade. He covers serious and sad stories without watering down his approach with a few gags which allow us to pull ourselves together. He could potentially say something inappropriate, but you never find yourself saying, ‘No, don’t go there…’ Laughter can raise awareness if it’s done with a lot of rigor and honesty:”

Jean-Philippe Wauthier, co-host of “Deux hommes en or, La soirée est (encore) jeune” (“Two Golden Men, the Night is (Still) Young)”:

“He wasn’t my favorite comedian on the ‘Daily Show with Jon Stewart,’ but with his own show, he has tapped into a gap in the market where he really takes the time to deconstruct the news. No one else does that. What I love is the fact that he does the job with discipline and he respects those who preceded him – without Stewart and [Stephen] Colbert, John Oliver would not exist. He has taken his place really well and that’s essential for society, as the culture of news humor is very important in the U.S.; a part of the population uses it as their news source. […] Taking the news seriously can sometimes be detrimental, as it doesn’t speak to anyone. You forget that you’re talking to everyone. René Lévesque understood this on ‘Point de mire’ (‘Focal Point’). John Oliver does an editorial and introduces facts that we’re not aware of and links that we hadn’t made; it’s not just an editorial, it’s an education! It’s a bit like the team on ‘Enquête’ (‘Investigation’) but with a joke.”

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