Funt: Talk is cheap, foul language is worthless
You don't need to be a genius to recognize that John Oliver is doing some remarkably effective journalism on his weekly HBO series, laced with humor yet addressing with surprising insight many pressing social and political issues. And you need not be a prude to dislike the way Oliver continually degrades his own efforts with unnecessary foul language.
Like his mentor, Jon Stewart, during the heyday of Comedy Central's "Daily Show," Oliver seems unable to discard the crutch of using four-letter words, even though his material would still soar without it. Stewart, of course, was coyer, peppering his scripts with words intended to be bleeped — making the exercise more of an inside joke about censorship on basic cable.
HBO, however, home to Oliver's "Last Week Tonight," prides itself on being censor-free. When the service began some four decades ago language was a meaningful marketing point, separating pay-TV from licensed broadcasters and ad-supported cable competitors. Today, that distinction is outdated, as is the notion that bad language makes jokes funnier or political points more profound.
Oliver reached a new low following the terrorist attack in Paris with this:
"First, as of now, we know this attack was carried out by gigantic f——g a——s. Unconscionable, flaming a——s, possibly working with other f——g a——s, definitely working in service of an ideology of pure a——ery. Second, and this goes almost without saying, f—k these a——s. F—k them, if I may say, sideways."
Everyone in media — from editors who designed front pages with dramatic photos and boxcar headlines, to the writers at "Saturday Night Live" who devoted their cold open to a simple tribute in English and French by Cecily Strong — sought to acknowledge the gravity of the events. Regrettably, Oliver's sophomoric choice was to double-down on his number of dirty words per sentence.
On The New Yorker's website, "roving cultural correspondent" Sarah Larson gushed about the HBO rant under the headline "Vive John Oliver." She says his profane outburst provided her with "the first cathartic emotional response" since the news in Paris broke.
Time Magazine's website posted video from HBO with the headline, "Watch John Oliver Say What We're All thinking About the Paris Attackers." Nonsense.
I have serious doubts about whether the print editions of Time or The New Yorker would be so enthusiastic about a tactless string of profanities. Their websites, however, are aimed largely at the same younger demographic that has made excerpts from Oliver's program a huge hit on YouTube, with clips regularly attracting between two and six million views. The tirade about Paris got over four million views in less than 48 hours.
But the dynamic driving Oliver's act, and that of Bill Maher on his long-running HBO series, isn't entirely about titillating younger viewers. Coarse language is favored by affluent, urban, educated progressives, many of whom, like Maher, are approaching or into their sixties. You're likely to hear more F-words in conversation with this group than at a gathering of longshoremen.
Those progressives provide the core audience for Oliver, Maher and Trevor Noah on Comedy Central. Raised on Lenny Bruce, and then George Carlin and Richard Pryor, they became comfortable with coarse expressions and refused to let them go, long after they were necessary to rationalize the cost of a pay-TV subscription.
Jerry Seinfeld, a poster guy for working clean, once told an interviewer: "If you have a bit, and it's got swear words in it, and it gets a huge laugh, it may or may not be funny. But if you have a bit that has no swear words, and it gets a huge laugh, it's definitely funny."
John Oliver is plenty funny without the four-letter words, and his essays — about such things as the plight of prison inmates who find the system is heavily stacked against them when they return to society — are powerful because of solid reporting.
Politically incorrect comedy, of the type done by, say, Sarah Silverman, is often entertaining because there's shock value in the topics themselves.
There's no shock when serious punditry is laced with expletives. It's just a sad commentary.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker.