Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on public shaming pros and cons

John Oliver (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
John Oliver (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images) /

John Oliver interviewed Monica Lewinsky as part of his segment on the good and the bad of public shaming.

Few things can be as powerful as a public shaming. And as Last Week Tonight with John Oliver discussed, how and when that power should be used can be a tricky moral debate to navigate.

The advent of social media has certainly brought public shaming into the spotlight more and more. It’s easy for a story to be shared and go viral, bringing on countless anonymous opinions that are often taken to the extreme. The speed at which stories move around the internet also means that judgments and consequences are delivered even before all the facts are known and the collateral damage is considered.

There are also instances where public shaming does good. It can identify harmful behavior and actions that may otherwise go uninterrupted. Sometimes the facts are known and it is clear that some level of shame or guilt should be undertaken by whomever is responsible for causing pain.

This is the general framework in which John Oliver presented his latest piece on Last Week Tonight. It was especially interesting to hear Oliver’s perspective as a comedian who can often specialize in bringing attention to little-known individuals, institutions, or organizations.

It is clear that Oliver and his team at Last Week Tonight have a moral compass that they use when deciding who to criticize on the show. Whether you agree with that criteria or not is fine, but it’s good to know that Oliver is at least attempting to practice what he preaches.

As the “Worst Aunt Ever” story demonstrated, it can be very easy for a life to be destroyed from a viral story based on public shaming. Many people who reacted to the story likely hear it second- or third-hand which made it even less probable that they knew the facts.

Oliver explains that he tries to focus on public figures who have caused harm and seem unlikely to change their behavior. It’s why he has no problem going after Tucker Carlson but hesitates on just how far to mock Olivia Jade for her role in the celebrity college admissions scandal.

The best part of Oliver’s piece, especially for Last Night On, was his response to Jay Leno. The former Tonight Show host called for a less political and more civil approach to late night. Leno’s comments were applauded by President Donald Trump, leading to response from Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel.

But it was John Oliver who was the only late night host to publicly respond to Jay Leno. As I wrote before, Leno’s comments seemed outdated and demonstrated his disconnect from current late night audiences. There has to be a reason that The Late Show with Stephen Colbert tops the ratings while still delivering “one-sided” coverage of the president.

Oliver takes this even further by showing Leno’s hypocrisy. He certainly wasn’t the only comedian fixated on the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky story. But Oliver’s clips demonstrate how relentless Leno was in using Lewinsky as a punchline. To then call for a return to civility certainly feels like a contradiction.

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John Oliver’s interview with Monica Lewinsky is an insightful look at the consequences and aftermath of public shaming. Lewinsky somehow managed to survive an experience in a way few could be expected to do. Whether or not her appearance on Last Week Tonight and the segment on public shaming will change online behavior is debatable. But like with most things John Oliver covers, it should at least move the conversation forward.