Typically, a tossed off joke about how slow an internet provider is wouldn’t make much of a ripple. But when “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver used that punchline on Sunday, he wasn’t just poking fun at AT&T; he was taking the company to task, fully knowing that AT&T’s merger with HBO means he was speaking out against his parent company. (Or as Oliver put it with a giddy sneer, “Business Daddy.”) Even more: he was taking AT&T to ask for supporting Representative Steve King until public scrutiny made them reconsider, scoffing that “of course AT&T didn’t catch on to King’s white nationalism, picking up on clear signals isn’t exactly their forte.”
Oliver pushing back against his parent company so publicly isn’t entirely new; he did an entire segment last year about the dangers of the merger before it became official, and has continued to pepper in pointed jokes since. But by directly calling out AT&T’s business practices, especially in relation to King’s long history of promoting racism, Oliver has made his disdain for his parent company’s practices as stark and clear as possible. Despite the brevity of the joke itself, it represented a far bolder move that he, and more like him, should repeat as often as necessary.
Some late night hosts have gotten much more direct about their grievances with the people up top. Besides Oliver pushing back against AT&T, there’s Stephen Colbert tackling the Leslie Moonves allegations head-on, and Seth Meyers needling NBC for questionable choices, like airing a racist, scaremongering ad during Sunday Night Football (as the network did this week), or Matt Lauer (as it did for years).
We’ve come to expect a certain level of bluntness from (most) late night hosts about politics and the news, but toeing the company line is such an ingrained value that seeing some actively defy it is a startling, welcome change of pace. Yes, as any late night host will insist, they’re running comedy shows above all else. But if they’re going to talk about politics, they might as well use their incredible platform to point out hypocrisy where they see it — even, especially, when it’s within their own workplace.
Because the thing is, men like Oliver, Meyers, and Colbert can afford to stick their necks out like this without too much fear of repercussions. All of them have the kind of job stability that (despite the proliferation of #content in cable and streaming) vanishingly few people in TV still ever get. Would Colbert have taken Moonves to task as hard as he did if “Late Night” wasn’t consistently winning the late night ratings? Maybe, maybe not. But the fact that he has that safety net means that he has more room than most to challenge the status quo of his own workplace, and to his credit, he took full advantage of it.
And on a strictly logistical note: Colbert’s, Oliver’s, and Meyers’ shows are relatively cheap compared to scripted series; they enjoy a consistent timeslot every week for the majority of the year; their clips bring the kind of viral attention that keeps their names and faces firmly in the headlines. No, their parent companies can’t have been thrilled with the public pushback, and good ratings are never a guarantee anymore. But these guys — popular, influential straight white comedians with established voices their companies have come to trust — are about as safe as anyone.
As this past year has proven over and over again, changing the entertainment industry’s DNA requires more than just sporadically excising abusive people borne of it. It will take overhauling entire systems, turning them inside out to shake out all the bad practices that have taken stubborn root. It requires airing out dirty laundry, no matter whose it might be. So while a joke about corporate nonsense might seem like a small place to start combatting it, it’s no small feat to get it on the air. The people who can might as well do it for everyone else who can’t.