Comedian and host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver, offered some advice for comedians — and journalists — during a recent episode of NPR’s Fresh Air.
When asked about the danger of bumping into people he mocks, Oliver told host Terry Gross:
As a comedian, you should not be in rooms where the people you’re making fun of also are. Because, you’ll realize at the end of the day they’re just people. You can’t risk having that kind of compassion infect your mission to attack. So no, so my solution to that is not to curb my jokes, it’s to not put myself in the same room as the consequences of those jokes.
… A comedian is supposed to be an outsider. He’s supposed to be outside looking in. I don’t want to be at parties in DC with politicians. Comedians shouldn’t be there. If you feel comfortable in a room like that, there’s a big problem . That’s what’s so concerning when you see journalists so comfortable around politicians. That’s a red flag. There should be a kind of awkward tension whenever a journalist walk[s] into a room that politicians are in. Because you should have done things that have annoyed them in the past. And the same as a comedian. You’re no one’s friend. You should be no one’s friend other than other comedians. [Emphasis mine]
Of course, comedians who do political satire, like Oliver, are much more like commentators than reporters. Oliver doesn’t have to rely on scoops or exclusives (this, I suspect, is why Bob Novak made the distinction between sources and targets), so it’s easy for him to deliver such an ethics lecture.
Still, I like Oliver’s philosophy, and (mostly) follow this advice. At least, this is what I aspire to — for better or worse. The upside is that it can be liberating to avoid chummy relationships with the people you cover — and to throw elbows rather indiscriminately; the downside is that it’s rather lonely and isolating…