John Oliver’s Work Demands a New Term for What He’s Doing

John Oliver returned, and man, did I miss that guy. I was remarking that it seems like he takes quite a long hiatus between shows, but then I had to remind myself of a couple of things. First of all, compared to a lot of other HBO shows, a couple months is nothing. Remember how long David Chase used to make us wait between seasons of the Sopranos? For. Ever. So there’s that.

But also, because John Oliver does work that no one else in late night is doing, which is to say he dives really deeply into his topics, I’m guessing that it probably takes a bit more of a toll and may require a little more downtime for him and his staff. Not sure, just guessing.

In any event, I would have maybe imagined that he’s been champing at the bit to get back and talk about everything that’s going on with the election and the Supreme Court vacancy, but as anyone who watches him knows, that’s not the sort of show he does. He’ll maybe touch on this sort of topical stuff in his opening monologue, but then turns to the more investigative type pieces he’s naturally drawn to do — Sunday’s was about ID laws and so-called voter fraud. And this is actually a good thing for him as a late-night presence, because by the time Sunday rolls around, the eight million other late-night shows have pretty much picked the bones clean on the news cycle.

Before he started this season, Oliver did the regular round of interviews he usually does, and pretty much every interview I heard asked him the same thing: Is what you’re doing a form of journalism?

And I know he’s tired of getting that question. But there’s a reason why it keeps coming up. It’s because: He’s doing actual journalism. Like Jon Stewart before him, John Oliver makes sure that he and his staff rigorously fact-check their stuff, way more than probably CNN does (and of course, Fox News and the word “fact” don’t even belong in the same sentence).

Oliver has said over and over that he’s strictly doing comedy, and that something can only be funny if it’s true, which is why he says he fact checks so much. Okay. But if that’s the case, and I believe it is, he either needs to cop to being a more reliable journalist than any organization this side of NPR, or — and maybe this is what’s really happening — we need a new definition of journalism. Or at least a new word. Humorlism? Reportedy?

Those are terrible. I don’t know. You try.