John Oliver’s bit, “Miss America Pageant” from September 2014 is not only a form of fantastic comedy, but is also insightful, smart and educational. Like so many great pieces of work, Oliver’s monologue begins with a research question, which quickly turns into a thesis. “How the f*ck is this still happening?” Oliver asks one minute into his bit.
Oliver then goes onto explain the ridiculousness of the Miss America pageant exposing it as the manipulative and fraudulent organization that it is. His main argument is clear; Miss America is a ridiculous event.
Oliver though, like many other great storytellers, supplements his work with evidence. He cites news clips, footage from various pageants and other interviews related to the contest. Using various sources is how he not only creates the majority of his jokes, but also how he grounds his claims in reality. Oliver is not just riffing off of sensationalized claims, but he is riffing off of moments that actually happened.
He cites for instance the ridiculous question by Ian Ziering, who asks a contestant about how to solve ISIS in only 20 seconds. He cites a ridiculous statement by Donald Trump, the former head of Miss USA, who states that beauty is still a crucial part of these contests. But more than just referencing Ziering and Trump, he then goes onto poke fun at Ziering and Trump themselves. Oliver for instance, calls Trump, “clown mummified foreskin mixed with cotton candy,” moments after playing the Trump interview tape. Oh how he’s made fun of Trump since then, but yet how this joke is relevant today.
Oliver has various tangents in his bit. He keeps the energy high as his argument continues to develop. There are no dull moments and there are no repetitive moments. Everything that Oliver does is exciting, humorous and insightful.
Oliver also certainly makes you stop and think about his argument as a viewer. He makes you question the reason why we still have beauty pageants and why people still watch them. He exposes the fraudulent scholarship program that the organization operates, doing so minutes after exposing the absurdity of the question and answer part of the contest.
Having a strong research question, a clear argument, various examples and a unique way to tell a story, these are all things I can try and do better in my work no matter the medium.
But the one question that I always think about when I watch John Oliver is, does this bit make a difference? He always takes a stand and exposes a corrupt industry or force, but does it actually cause change? And does that actually matter?
Other questions to consider include: is Oliver a comedian or is he more of a journalist who expresses his opinions as jokes? Is comedy supposed to inspire action or just be funny? Does Oliver care if his work creates change or just that it catches with the audience?
Oliver’s show blurs the line between journalism and comedy. And while it is clear, insightful, humorous, and noteworthy, does his work actually make a difference in the world? And does it matter; his jokes about Donald Trump never get old.