John Oliver vs. Lorne Michaels

Who has the best farm team, Lorne Michaels or Jon Stewart?

The latter is retired, but he spawned Stephen Colbert and John Oliver.

Who has Lorne hatched for us lately?


But Lorne controls the media, he’s the King of New York!

But there’s a new emperor in town.

Welcome to 2015 where there’s so much noise even excellence can’t rise above. John Oliver is doing a show so good, so now, that all you can do is watch and marvel. It’s a weird combination of irreverence and truth, of the seemingly off the cuff and the researched. Whereas SNL is the same tired formula.

But every week we’ve got to hear who’s on SNL, as if we care.

Then again, the hosts and musical acts use it as a promotional vehicle, everybody’s selling, everybody’s looking for notice. It’s like the Girl Scouts are knocking on your door looking for money every damn Saturday.

And what do we know about SNL? We’re going to get broad pokes at politics and public tropes. Lorne is right, it’s tough times for SNL because there are few national reference points. Therefore, I ask, why do the same show?

But that’s America. Everybody repeats himself until someone steals the thunder.

Kind of like musical acts, insisting on making albums, promoting them not only on SNL, but in scorched earth media campaigns, believing if you just yell loud enough people will care.

But they don’t.

But what I can’t fathom is why John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” is not bigger. SNL launched in 1975 and it was part of the national discussion within a month. John Oliver’s been on HBO for over a year and he still does not have mainstream traction. What is going on?

Well, it’s a different universe. When SNL launched, there were three networks.

Now there are a zillion outlets.

Meaning, that in 1975, pre-cable, John Oliver wouldn’t have even gotten a show. Jon Stewart either. It was all about playing it safe, the edges were cut off. Which is why the original SNL was so revolutionary. It was a clubhouse where limits could be tested, the hijinks spoke to a generation. SNL is speaking to Nielsen and advertisers today, young people don’t watch and oldsters DVR it and barely screen it. As for me, I stopped even looking up the clips on YouTube, they’re not funny.

But John Oliver is.

John Oliver reinvented the paradigm. Lorne is about skewering that which we all know about. But the problem is most of us don’t know much. Which is why Oliver educates us. He’s got a running gag poking fun at our ignorance, where he puts a country up on the map and then ultimately says that’s not where it’s located. We’re Americans, we can barely find Kansas. That’s right, John Oliver is insulting his own audience. You can’t do that on SNL, it’s a big tent trying to include everyone. But by being so cool, and such a nerd, Oliver appears an original and we just want to get closer.

Oliver just doesn’t play Volkswagen for laughs, he shows clips of continued idiocy. “Last Week Tonight” is a well-researched show. Facts are almost as important as delivery/writing. That ain’t SNL.

But the media never writes about Oliver, at least in comparison to SNL.

In the old days, you could start outside and triumph seemingly overnight, when word spread. Today, word spreads so slowly that you start outside and stay there. And I defy you to watch last week’s Oliver episode and find flaws. He’s at the top of his game, he’s delivering something we haven’t seen previously, yet he’s plying his wares in the wilderness.

Well, not completely. There are the HBO viewers/subscribers. And also those on YouTube.

How can musicians get it so wrong and a comedian get it so right? How can labels have their heads up their rear ends but HBO be so au courant?

That’s right, HBO is selling subscriptions, but you can see John Oliver for free on YouTube, every episode. Because HBO knows your enemy is not piracy, but obscurity. There’s plenty of money if someone knows who you are. But that’s a huge hill to climb, you’ve got to give it away to entice people, since you’re competing against so much other content, and you’ve got to be better than everybody else.

A tall order, I know.

But what I do know is this…

1. Age and experience count. We want ’em ever younger and malleable in music, but John Oliver is old and experienced with a viewpoint and that’s why he’s so great. Max Martin has paid his dues, most of the people he works with have not.

2. There’s excellent and everything else. If you’re not better than everybody else, don’t even start. The ascent will be so gradual as to frustrate you. Not everybody can be an entertainment icon. If you’re just good, get better or give up.

3. No one’s got any time. They don’t even have time to find John Oliver, and he’s PHENOMENAL! Don’t ask for anybody’s time. Just be so great that word of mouth spreads. If there’s no word of mouth, go back to the drawing board.

4. The road is long, and heavy, even if you’re being carried by your brother. Jon Stewart gave John Oliver a head start, but Oliver is still struggling. Oh, Oliver is delivering for his fans, but he hasn’t become a national icon, and he should be. Used to be, one hit and you’d made it. George Carlin with his “Seven Dirty Words.” Oliver has a bunch of catchphrases, but they haven’t spread beyond acolytes of the show.

5. Old forms die. If you’re invested in them, watch out. You’re here to be replaced, people want something new. Abandon the past and enter the future. Don’t compromise your vision.

6. Artists need no interference. HBO lets you go. If you can’t test limits, you’re not gonna do your best work. The A&R man might be able to tell you what’s not a hit, but he can’t tell you how to break the mold and be completely different, and he doesn’t want to invest the money, time and effort to help you do so. In other words, you’re alone. But the conundrum is you can’t complete the effort alone, you need help. So, you start it and then sign up with a label. If John Oliver can’t be bigger than SNL with all the help of HBO, you’re not gonna do it independently.

7. Is this the new reality? Is almost nothing ubiquitous? We thrive when we’ve got common meat we can tear apart and discuss. That’s what we love about Donald Trump, we all know who he is and politics are important. But in music, we’ve got Taylor Swift and maybe Kanye. And neither of their records are known by everybody. And then there’s everybody else. Should you just be happy being everybody else? Society doesn’t like this, society likes cohesion. But, if the best TV comedian in the business isn’t garnering the most mindshare, what hope is there for you?

I don’t know.

“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Migrants and Refugees”

“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver – Volkswagen Car”

P.S. If you view this VW clip you’ll see Oliver poking fun at Lenny Kravitz for being the has-been he is and selling out to Volkswagen. That’s right, while you were out beating the bushes for sponsorship money, screaming that you just can’t get rich without it, these corporations have literally been killing people with impunity. Yes, VW diesel pollution killed people. Isn’t it best to be on the side of the public, mostly obeying the law, as opposed to these lawless multinationals? Art used to stand separate, speak truth to power…and you wonder why music is culturally bankrupt.

P.P.S. Oliver is more innovative and more consistently great than Jimmy Fallon. But the media has anointed Fallon. We don’t need another host behind a desk talking to inane guests… There are no guests on Oliver’s show. He’s blown up the paradigm. And someone’s gonna come along and do the same in music.

Comments are closed