Why Is John Oliver So Good?

1. He tells a story.

America is built on narrative. Although BuzzFeed has made inroads, it’s got no soul and no true fans, because the way you make people bond to you is by going deep, by hooking them and drawing them in like an angler lands a fish. You can’t be too aggressive, you can’t be one note, you’ve got to gain people’s confidence and tell them a yarn. Which is why some of our favorite songs are story songs, which is why we hunger to learn about our celebrities. We want to know what makes them tick, we want to hear it from their mouths.

2. He’s not afraid to go long.

If I hear one more pundit say we live in a short attention span economy! The truth is even though we’re beaten over the head with facts and people wanting our attention we truly want to go deep. The same way a one night stand is not as satisfying as a relationship, we want more. When someone tells you to make it shorter think if you can make it better. If you can’t, then length is not an issue.

3. He’s not worried about looks.

Turns out he’s got a huge nose. Not only bad teeth. Our imperfections humanize us and make us lovable. It’s your personality that shines. Yes, we live in a looks-based society, but looks will just get you in the door, they won’t seal the deal. The truth is you’ve got to let your freak flag fly, you’ve got to be yourself, which is hard in a society that is constantly reinforcing you’re inadequate.

4. He has an edge.

As does most of the programming on HBO. Where the public pays the bills, not intermediaries. Turns out people know the score, they’re not so easily offended, it’s the media that trumps up these conflagrations to garner eyeballs. We want people who have opinions. Not everybody is gonna like them but not everybody is gonna like anybody. Your goal is to entice and then bond with those who care. Money has corrupted politics, but so has the likability factor. Everybody’s so busy pussy-footing and apologizing for faux errors that they’re afraid to be real. And what we’re in search of is real.

5. He’s not afraid to be outraged.

That’s a condition in modern society, we all feel it individually yet we often times feel powerless. We’re outraged over incompetence, outraged over stupidity. But whenever we complain we’re labeled just that, complainers. We’re told everybody’s trying their best. Hogwash. When John Oliver gets that zeal in his eye and starts to bitch I start to smile, I say RIGHT ON!

6. He’s paid his dues.

He was nobody before he was somebody. Because young ‘uns are impressionable, because they buy stuff on impulse, advertisers want to reach them so media features them. Turns out you’ve got to live a lot to have something to say, and you’ve got to practice your craft to be any good at it. Sure, you can have Max Martin write your hit, but what is the story then? I’m a two-dimensional good-looking nitwit with a hit on the chart who everybody makes fun of online? Try writing a song. Try singing for a living. Find out if you’re any good, and if you are, know that it’s a long road before you’ll reach mass consciousness.

7. Sacred cows.

No one is left unscathed on Oliver’s program. In politically correct America there are so many you can’t poke fun at, so many who are off limits. When the truth is some of our most famous and powerful people are heinous. Who’s going to stick up for us? Turns out comedians and not many others.

8. Passion.

We’re drawn to it. We know Oliver cares. About both his subject matter and his delivery. We want to watch people go for the brass ring. That’s part of the appeal of professional sports, watching others do better at what we can only play at.

9. Willing to tackle non-sexy subjects.

Does anybody really care about the fate of Afghan translators? Wouldn’t they rather hear about legal dope or how the Senate is up for grabs? But watching Oliver dissect the issue of political asylum in the U.S. for Afghan translators not only is one hooked by the story, one is outraged by our inefficient and duplicitous government. We promise something and then we make it impossible to achieve. Furthermore, the issue of political asylum is bigger than FNU Mohammad, who is featured in this clip. That’s right, the personal is political, what looks small is actually big. That which happens to you happens to us all in some fashion. We are truly in it together and have to help each other out.

10. Not afraid to have guests on who aren’t selling something.

We want to hear people who have something to say, not only something to sell. It drives us crazy, the pundits and celebrities always referring to their work or their record as if the only reason they’re appearing is because they’re in launch week. And that’s the only reason they are. Otherwise the programs don’t want them. What about someone who just has something to say? Imagine getting a musician to do an interview off album cycle, wouldn’t that be a laugh.


I’ve written about John Oliver before. But every time I watch his program I marvel, I can’t shut it off, when it’s done and I switch to the competition I’m bored and start surfing the web and ultimately turn the set off. What we’re searching for in today’s society is excellence and honesty and John Oliver delivers this. It’s very hard to get someone to pay attention these days, to get someone hooked and coming back. And that’s why the above rules are so important, John Oliver has figured it out, you need to too.



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