The Twisted World of John Oliver

HBO mouthpiece attacks Jay Leno for jokes about Clinton in 1998.

The lack of civility on late-night talk shows has drawn criticism from former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno. That set off HBO’s John Oliver, who blasted Leno for jokes he made about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky way back in 1998. No media celebrities rushed to defend Leno, one of the few comics who can have some fun with politically correct nonsense.

In Washington DC in 2002, Leno recited the lyrics to Isaac Hayes’ theme from the 1971 move Shaft, about “the black private dick who’s a sex machine for all the chicks.” As Leno noted, that description brought a certain uneasiness in the crowd, so he updated the lyrics to: “who’s the African-American  investigator who has consensual sex with women of equal pay. Talkin’ bout Shaft.”

That brought down the house, and District of Columbia mayor Anthony Williams, and several in his party, were just about on the floor. Nobody in the heavily African-American audience thought Leno was being uncivil and the comic has always been popular across the board.

When Los Angeles was toying with recycled sewage for drinking water, Leno cracked that the LA Department of Water and Power “put the number two in H2O.” He frequently targeted the circus as “entertainment from the ninth century” with “diseased animals and hermaphrodite clowns throwing anthrax spores at the children.”

Born in 1950, Leno recalls magazines like True Men’s Adventure, with covers showing scantily clad Nazi women shooting off machine guns. “Big turning point in the war,” Leno said. “A bunch of rag-tag Marines against Hitler’s elite D-cup squad.” And Playgirl magazine was always trying to show the men in natural settings such as, “Here’s Bob, working on his dragster, nude.”

Back in the day, Leno lamented that “TV Guide is now considered reading in America.” And on the David Letterman show he wondered what the Sylvester Stallone movie Cobra might be about. “Perhaps a teenage boy coming of age in a small midwestern farm community?”

For many years Leno had fun with newspaper headlines such as “Boring Issue Debated at Length,” “Many Doctors Agree that Breathing Regularly is Good for You,” and “MSI Owner Denies Lying, Admits Not Telling Truth.” One person who had some trouble with the truth was President Bill Clinton, a heaven-sent bull’s-eye for comics.

The most powerful man in the world is being serviced by Monica Lewinsky as he chats on the phone with world leaders. “I did not have sex with that woman,” Clinton said, and “it all depends what the meaning of ‘is’ is,” and so forth.  For a recap see the recent “Scandalous” episodes on Fox.” 

Jay Leno would have been remiss if he had not weighed in, but by today’s standards his jokes were rather tame. What really bothered HBO’s John Oliver was that President Trump had also been calling out the late-night comics, and that Leno had targeted President Clinton, a Democrat.

“If that’s what he means by civility,” said Oliver, who bears some resemblance to the late Peter Sellers, “may I offer my new book: 'Oh, the Places You Can Go F--k Yourself, Jay Leno!’” That’s an example of what passes for humor these days, and confirms that Leno knew what he was talking about. One doubts that he will lose any sleep over the HBO mouthpiece.

Back in the day, most comics gave the Clintons a good going over and the two Bushes also got a roasting. With POTUS 44, on the other hand comics and late-night talk show hosts gagged themselves and passed up some great material.

As liberal journalist Sharyl Attkisson showed in Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation and Harassment in Obama’s Washington, the president thought Savannah was on the Gulf coast and that people in Austria spoke “Austrian.” Comics took a pass but all is not lost. The future president served up some fine humor in his 1995 Dreams From My Father, which official biographer David Garrow confirms is a novel, not a biography  or memoir, and the author a “composite character.”

Young Barry – the name the author uses in the book –  is reading Malcom X and an unidentified speaker says “Malcolm tells it like it is, no doubt about it.” This prompts another unidentified man to say. “Yeah, but I tell you what. You won’t see me moving to no African jungle anytime soon. Or some goddamned desert somewhere, sitting on a carpet with a bunch of Arabs. And you won’t see me stop eating no ribs. Gotta have them ribs. And pussy, too. Don’t Malcolm talk about no pussy? Now you know that ain’t gonna work.”    

Hearing the eloquent future president of the United States read these lines recalls Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle. In that 1987 film, black stage actors audition for a gang movie, reciting lines like “I ain’t be got no weppin” and “what it is, bro?” in a voice like Paul Robeson.  Viewers can judge whether that is funnier than the composite character’s recital of his own Dreams novel.

Viewers can also judge if John Oliver is funnier and more politically impartial than Jay Leno, and which one will have the longer legacy.

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Photo from Max Morse, Wikimedia Commons

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