I keep finding a street cat scavenging for food in our paper recycling bin. It’s happened a few times now, leaving me to conclude that this particular puss is just not made for these complicated times. (Irony alert: The local council’s advertising campaign on how to use the communal bins is spearheaded by a cartoon ginger cat.)
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Maybe this cat is a Sudoku fiend and is just looking for its latest fix in a discarded newspaper. What, that’s not what you were thinking? OK, so you’re probably wondering what a confused cat is doing in this TV column. Well, the truth is, Hapless Cat is helping me rethink a few things I thought were sacred.
Case in point: My eldest kid casually informed me the other day that HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” is her main (OK, only) source of news.
That’s right: My 17-year-old daughter is reliant upon a 30-minute comedy for all of her information about the wild, wild Western world.
And here, I must credit Hapless Cat for helping me not see this as the end of civilization as we know it. (The end of civilization as we know it will actually come if America embraces “Love Island” the way Britain has.)
You see, thanks to that mangy moggy, I’m suddenly more conscious of the fact that we need to move with the times in order to survive (culturally, in my daughter’s case; literally, in Hapless Cat’s).
Last year, I wrote at length about the end of my long-term relationship with Oliver and his show, which was then in its fifth year. I had grown tired of its obsession with the Trump administration (by my reckoning, over a quarter of season five focused on White House-related events).
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But it was also increasingly gimmick-driven, splurging its considerable budget on extraneous items like Russell Crowe’s jockstrap, Rudy Giuliani domain names and “Catheter Cowboy” ads on Fox News in a bid to catch the president’s eye. (There was, to be fair, one great gimmick: the kids’ book “A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo,” which imagined the real-life rabbit of Vice President Mike Pence in a same-sex relationship with a rabbit called Wesley.)
Communal viewing time
So I must thank my daughter for rekindling my interest in the show and letting me appreciate Oliver’s stinging satire anew. It’s not just that “Last Week Tonight” has allowed me to get some communal viewing time with one of my kids (although that’s important – and it’s always rewarding to hear your offspring laugh out loud at gags about bumbling Boris Johnson). It’s also that the show is educating her about things that never would have entered her life via social media feeds. In recent months, that has included such topical topics as deaths on Mount Everest, the Green New Deal, Brexit and the Equal Rights Amendment. It’s these deep dives that she loves most.
Obviously, the show isn’t as fresh as when it started back in 2014, but it manages to make my kid roar with laughter (think Robert De Niro in “Cape Fear” minus the cigar) while keeping her informed about the world – and I’ll take that any day of the week.
I’m not going to say my daughter thinks John Oliver is the Walter Cronkite of her generation – but only because she doesn’t have a clue who that is. In fact, if I asked her to name a famous journalist, I’d be amazed if she could name anyone other than maybe Lois Lane. But let’s be honest: She’s not tuning in to “Last Week Tonight” for its journalistic scoops, but because she finds Oliver a very funny guy. (Then again, this is the same kid who is currently loving “Euphoria,” so, between you and me, I’m not sure how seriously we should be taking her views.)
I have decided that humor is the key to making my kids savvier about the world. The likes of “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” and “Real Time with Bill Maher” are the not-so-secret weapons I’m using to inform them about the shitshow we are bequeathing them. I’m hoping that if they can laugh about it, they won’t resent us so much or ask why we didn’t do more to try to stop it.
Bill Maher says people often tell him they get their news from “Real Time” – something that seems to fill him with equal parts pride and concern. But it’s an understandable filter people are choosing: Give me the bad news, but at least stick a punch line on the end of it. I’m not sure it would work everywhere (oncology departments, for example), but it’s helping a lot of folk get through the Days of Donald, if nothing else.
Another show I’ve encouraged my kids to watch (the younger one is 15) is a topical British comedy called “The Ranganation.” It features a simple premise that I can’t believe hasn’t been used elsewhere: The host, comedian Romesh Ranganathan, talks about the week’s news with a couple of performers and a focus group that comprises 25 members of the British public. Each member of the focus group represents a type – from “Technophobe” and “Gen Z” to “Small Town Girl” and “Comic Book Guy” – and over six weeks they discuss newsy and trivial events that occasionally move beyond Brexit and Trump. (Did you know, for example, that about 20 percent of people in a recent Twitter poll said they never washed their legs in the shower?)
You get to know (and like) the returning members of the public as the host spars with them. Adding to the humor is Ranganathan’s own mom, who is also part of the focus group. Her disparaging one-liners about her son suggest that Sri Lanka does a very good line in “Jewish mothers” too. I’ll be amazed if the format doesn’t get sold to the U.S. soon.
The other way I’m trying to get the kids slightly more attuned to current affairs is podcasts. (According to an Edison Research survey in March, 40 percent of 12- to 24-year-olds listen to podcasts, although I’m struggling to believe that.)
Comedy Central is leading the way with audio versions of its topical TV series – including “The Jim Jefferies Show Podcast” and “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah: Ears Edition.” While it’s true you miss the visual gags, the humor still works surprisingly well (I actually prefer listening to Jefferies’ coarse humor rather than watching the no-doubt vulgar images accompanying it). The bonus for adults is that you get to catch up while you’re stuck in traffic, walking the dog, etc. The bonus for kids is that you get to hear some great curse words and find out what the hell a Hickenlooper is.
Anyway, you’ll have to excuse me now: I need to go and put some tuna in the paper recycling bin.