To answer this question, you might go straight to the source. Since launching his HBO series Last Week Tonight in 2014, John Oliver has repeatedly shot down suggestions that his work is a form of journalism. “No, I’m not a journalist at all,” he told CBS News. “Obviously, I’m a comedian.”
The real answer may fall into more of a gray area. An episode on February 19, 2022 demonstrates both sides of the journalism vs. comedy debate. In that broadcast, Oliver takes on the highly charged issue of Critical Race Theory, examining its origins and the conservative backlash against CRT being taught in schools. The segment provides context around the issue and includes comments from both advocates and opponents. That may sound a lot like journalism – but in the same episode, Oliver recites a poem about the Republican senator from Texas, Ted Cruz – a CRT critic – that includes the lines, “I do not like him playing ball, I do not like his face at all. I wish he’d lose his cushy job, that man Ted Cruz is a @#*!% nob.” To reveal that political bias, even as a joke, would never fly at a mainstream news outlet.
Oliver described his process to NPR in 2016, saying every show begins with verified facts. “You can’t build jokes on sand. You can’t be wrong about something, otherwise that joke just disintegrates,” he said. “You try and be as rigorous as you can in terms of fact-checking because your responsibility is to make sure your joke is structurally sound.” That fact-checking sometimes includes gathering public documents and calling for comment, a process Oliver shrugged off to The Daily Beast. “That is some low-scale reporting,” he said in an interview. “That is only one step above a prank phone call.”
That may be true, but it’s a process that certainly resembles traditional news reporting – at least until he starts piling on the jokes. At that point, Oliver’s segments veer into opinion territory, including all these key signposts:
Trevor Noah, who recently ended his run as host of The Daily Show, said at a panel that he and his team of writers are always faithful to facts first. “I’ll say, ‘What is the news, what are the facts, what’s the truth?’ and then we will put the jokes on top. It’s the icing on the cake.”
Even so, with facts as the basis for every joke, the Ad Fontes Media Bias Chart identified a left-leaning bias and rated The Daily Show with Trevor Noah a 31 out of 64 on the reliability scale.
As long as viewers have their antennae up for when news bleeds into entertainment, a dose of comedy might have a significant advantage in informing the public. A 2021 study in the Journal of Communication recruited young adults to watch a variety of news clips, some ending with jokes and some not. Participants were more likely to remember what they learned about politics and policy if the information was told with humor. “Our findings show that humor stimulates activity in brain regions associated with social engagement, improves memory for political facts, and increases the tendency to share political information with others,” said lead author Jason Coronel.
If, as Kovach and Rosenstiel say in The Elements of Journalism, journalism’s first obligation is to the truth, and its first loyalty is to citizens, this is where the late-night hosts set their work apart. “It’s not journalism,” John Oliver says of his broadcast. “It’s comedy first, and it’s comedy second.” That said, there is a place for it in a healthy news diet, as long as it’s not the only course.