Off Campus, Column, Arts

John Oliver Returns: An Examination In Leisure

John Oliver is back. His news/comedy show aired on Sunday night, and those of us with access to HBO Go accounts through an acquaintance who lives in Chicago got to watch it at our leisure on Monday.

Oliver falls into the tradition of Jon Stewart and to an extent the Weekend Update SNL sketch. The HBO platform has allowed him to expand the news/comedy form. He can curse. He can spend half his show on the prison system, FIFA, sugar, and the parade of other topics he examined over the summer. I love Last Week Tonight. My summer at home would have been a little bleaker without Oliver’s incredulity. But as it turned out, dipping back into Oliver was the tip of the icicle that’s reaching adequate sword length in the alley behind the barred windows of my apartment.

YouTube, as Marian Wyman noted around this very space on Monday, can be a powerful thing—for good. She meant, I’ll wager, more in terms of societal good, but it’s more than just that. It can deter your honest intention of starting assigned reading, as you click on one Oliver video, which leads you to another, which leads you to a clip of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert doing a bit at the Emmys—that one where Harrison Ford is seen head snapping back in laughter. Love the guys that guy plays.

That Emmy video was before HD, which is hard on the eyes, but once you go down the rabbit hole of non-HD videos, things actually get really interesting, because why upload a non-HD video unless the actual content isn’t in some way absurd? And so I went on a YouTube deep dive into Colbert and found a clip where The National and Justin Vernon sing “Vanderly, Cry Baby Cry,” which, you know, is everything I’ve ever hoped and dreamed. I’d link them (I really would) is finding these videos, the journey, wasn’t the entire point of this column.

\I think it’s in those terrible videos that YouTube (or really wherever you go to watch people do stuff on camera) is best. Music is best captured live in concert miraculously in perfect frame by a cell phone. Bon Iver is best doing “Re: Stacks” with The Staves or doing a cover of The Outfield’s “Lose Your Love.” Colbert is best when the footage is grainy but his voice rings clear and his eyes still twinkle. Arguably, my finest moment on this good Earth occurred in a senior follies can-can with five other dudes on a bright stage in front of all my past peers and their parents which will thankfully live forever on YouTube.

Sometimes, we don’t need John Oliver in his finely curated HBO set to make sense of absurdity. Media can reflect, amplify, and refract life. Sometimes you need to watch How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Sometimes you need to watch Boyhood. Sometimes you need to go out and actually see for yourself that we now reside in a snow globe.  And every so often, I think, we should take in life at it rawest. I think it’s good to look at life without a lens sometimes. And yes, I’m talking about experiencing life in s—ty YouTube videos and not going outside. There’s a state of emergency after all.

When life is unprocessed and messy, it can actually turn out well. The big truths you can find in the polished stuff (tv, movies, hip new content), such as power corrupts and it’s hard growing up. But the little truths, the ones that I think actually make a difference in our lives, can really only be found in little moments captured with a cell phone before everything was fit for three minute clips embedded in short blurbs.

Featured Image Courtesy of HBO

February 12, 2015