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The Week Late-Night Comics Fought Back

Jason O. Gilbert
Technology Editor
June 5, 2014

Tech policy is not generally the domain of the wise-ass funny men who host America’s late-night comedy shows. 

This past week, however, two late-night hosts have taken on the intricacies of technological wonkery –– and thrived. Comedians John Oliver and Stephen Colbert each targeted what they view as questionable tech behavior. Each scored major press coverage and larger-than-usual viewership and, perhaps, influenced the national conversation around two important tech debates that may otherwise have been ignored by the populace at large.

Though late-night hosts have taken aim at the tech industry before, and while at least one, Jimmy Fallon, seems to be producing clips aimed at a Web-savvy audience, this has been a banner week for satire, mockery, and outright comedic indignation directed at our technological overlords. Comics who are most accustomed to poking fun at hapless Fox News hosts and clueless congressmen have found their advocacy hats –– and the look suits them.

Take, for instance, John Oliver, the charming Brit who hosts Last Week with John Oliver on HBO. Though his show, which is in its first year, has been notably focused on international politics, Oliver kicked off the week with a surprise viral hit, and one of his fledgling program’s most successful segments yet: an extended riff on the traditionally dull topic of net neutrality.

This is particularly impressive because net neutrality is a vital subject that the mainstream press can’t seem to find a way to make un-boring. Net neutrality is (deep breaths, this won’t take long, and it’s important) the principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast and Time Warner must serve you all Web content at the same speed, regardless of who is providing that content. A recent proposal by the FCC would for the first time enable so-called “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” for content, so that ISPs could choose which sites they wanted to serve, well, faster or slower. 

Critics of the proposal warn that this could mean slower Netflix and YouTube speeds, unless those companies paid up for access to the fast lanes. And it could mean slower load times for Internet startups who couldn’t afford to pay the toll. 

The issue is often painted as a dire threat to the Internet as we know it; it nevertheless gets much less attention than, say, Bradley Cooper’s short shorts. That changed with Oliver’s segment from this past Sunday, in which he rails against the FCC’s net neutrality proposal: A YouTube clip shot to the top of popular Internet link board reddit and has racked up over 2 million views in about four days. 

Think about that: A 13-minute video of a British comedian arguing against a Federal Communications Commission tech policy proposal has garnered over 2 million views in four days. And he didn’t even fall on his face or get hit in the crotch. 

The clip was so successful that Oliver’s passionate call for viewers to leave comments on the FCC.gov ended up crashing that website. Outlets ranging as wide as CBS News, Mashable, NPR, and Newsweek all covered the segment, its 20,000-plus resultant comments, and the havoc it wreaked on the FCC’s servers.

The tech site CNET covers the John Oliver-net neutrality fallout. Look at the other top stories!

Following this tech-policy comedy bonanza, Stephen Colbert dedicated a portion of Wednesday night’s Colbert Report to the ongoing feud between Amazon.com and the book publisher Hachette. Amazon is in a dispute with Hachette over book prices and has publicly vowed to punish the publisher by slowing delivery of its books and charging higher prices until the dispute is settled. 

In a raucous segment, Colbert, whose books are published by Hachette, announced that he was boycotting and declaring war on Amazon. (My colleague Rob Walker recently explored this subject on Yahoo Tech.) Colbert then brought on a fellow Hachette author, Sherman Alexie, who urged viewers to support their local bookstores and recommended a first-time novel called California and a Portland bookstore, Powell’s Books.

California immediately became the top-selling book at Powell’s, according to The New York Times; the segment was covered by Fast Company, Ars Technica, and Deadline.

Colbert also pointed fans to his website, where they could download stickers that read, “I Didn’t Buy It On Amazon.”

If late-night hosts continue to flex their comedic muscles in this way, they could become the most influential, and most unlikely, shapers of public opinion on tech issues whose debates usually play out on message boards and in comments sections, not in prime-time television or on the front page of YouTube.com. This is effective, enjoyable, intelligent rabble-rousing and, no matter your side, feels far more satisfying than calling out the stupidity of a cable news talking head.

We are probably not entering an era where Jimmy Kimmel devotes an entire show to the TCP/IP protocol suite. But this week has proved that our midnight humorists can be powerful forces in heady, theoretical, technical fights. No joke!

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