Real comedy still happens on late night, we can prove it. If you like Conan comedy gold, Fallon friendliness, cutesy Corden, list-making Letterman, kneedy Kimmel, and all the rest, I hope you’ll enjoy this column too.
Sunday features only one major nightly talk show, so this post is about Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
John Oliver’s weekly news show on HBO, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, posts the central report from every episode on YouTube, a pretty unique choice for premium cable (or any television show, really). This seems like both a shrewd marking strategy and a genuine offering of totally free commentary. Obviously, putting content on YouTube is less immediately lucrative than solely going with a paid subscription outlet (HBO Go, Amazon, etc.) but Last Week Tonight wants to be a part of the public conversation.
The show handles serious, scary, and complex issues with tact and attention, and doesn’t shy away from controversial topics, ones that shows that rely on ads sometimes can’t touch. Last Week Tonight sometimes takes aim at institutions or subjects like the NCAA, American prisons and drug laws, FIFA, and the New International Division of Labor. At other times, there are interviews with people like Bill Nye, Stephen Hawking, and Edward Snowden. At still other times, the show addresses things like native advertising, payday loans, the use of drones, Supreme Court amicus briefs, eating sugar, and municipal violations. It really is the wire drain catchall in the dirty kitchen sink of our lives.
This week, Oliver begins by lampooning Geraldo Rivera and the rest of Fox News for repeatedly mistaking a man in a protest march in Baltimore for legendary artist Russell Simmons. The next story is about a Venezuelan woman who expressed her plea for a home by writing it on a mango and throwing that mango at President Nicolás Maduro. Amazingly, this tactic worked, and the President came on national TV to announce the woman had been provided a place to live. Subsequently, others have asked the President for things written on mangoes. “The mango is in”, Maduro says. But please, hand them, don’t throw them.
The final mini-story from this week is about the offensive Bud Light slogan, now removed from bottles, encouraging drinkers to remove the word “no” from their vocabulary. In typical Bud Light ads, drinkers get a Bud Light and are taken on a fantastic and over the top adventure. In Oliver’s version, the prospective drinkers can’t get past step one, drink a Bud Light, because the “Bud Light tastes like a beer that someone already threw up”, “It’s like a liquid John Mayer song”, and “If a nickel could urinate, it would taste like Bud Light”. The lambasting continues along these lines for quite a while.
The main story of this episode is standardized testing in America. Recent news stories about massive numbers of students in the Lower Hudson Valley and Seattle’s Nathan Hale High School boycotting standardized tests sparked Last Week Tonight‘s interest in this issue.
Its “testing season” across the country, and the segment begins by showing cringe inducing “hip and topical” school-made videos designed to get kids excited for test season.
Unfortunately, these songs seem to be the least damaging thing about standardized tests. For nearly twenty minutes, Oliver traces problems with the tests, including pressure on students that leads to physical illness and anxiety, teachers being unfairly punished by not meeting impossible score hurdles, the failure of the tests to accurately assess students’ abilities, and finally, the blatant greed of the companies that profit from all this testing.
“Something is wrong with our system when we just assume a certain number of kids will vomit”, Oliver says, “tests are supposed to be assessments of skills, not a rap battle on 8 Mile road.”
Searching for answers, Oliver explores how we got to this dilemma in the first place. In his estimation, this fixation is a response to late 90s reports about American kids placing poorly in world achievement scores for math and science. To correct this deficit, there was supposed to be accountability and consequences for failing districts and teachers. Oliver wryly points out that accountability is one of those great concepts that no one can actually figure out how to make work, like maxi dresses.
Putting a distressed face on testing’s failure to accurately report students’ skills, Oliver tells the story of a “shy Florida eighth grader [who] had a near perfect score in her advanced language arts class [but] was asked to leave it last year after her inexplicably low scores on the FCAT”. The girl had the courage to stand in front a school board meeting in late 2014 and tell them how that made her feel. Choking back tears, she defended herself, saying she is a good student every year and just can’t seem to get good test scores. Her story is given more credibility by a Florida school board member and university professor, who was informed he was a “poor reader” by the Florida test.
If this testimony doesn’t indicate there’s something deeply wrong with these tests, I don’t know what will.
John then asks the big question. If standardized test are bad for teachers and bad for students, who are they good for? The answer, of course, is test companies like Pearson. Since these tests are seemingly so vital to teachers’ performance assessments, students’ success in school, and fixing American education, one would hope the tests themselves are exhaustively crafted. Sadly, it isn’t so. In New York only a few years ago, over 30 Pearson test questions were declared invalid because they were confusing or had outright errors, including some odd English exam question about a talking pineapple racing a rabbit.
Oliver concludes by “testing the test”. If the original job of all this standardized testing was to narrow the achievement gap and help the US get higher international test scores, did it work? According to the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) 2014 report, the US is actually doing worse at the PISA international tests.
The solution, Oliver muses, is just what Obama and Bush asked for when pitching their education reforms; accountability and higher standards, but this time for the test givers. So far, this system seems to be one that enriches testing companies, unfairly punishes teachers, and makes kids vomit and cry.