The last time the Federal Communications Commission received more than a million public comments on any issue was when Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunctioned during the 2004 Super Bowl. But with the net neutrality comments deadline fast approaching on September 15th, net neutrality is on track to bust that record–thanks in part to an early June routine by late-night comedian John Oliver. Twenty-four hours later, 45,000 comments likely crashed the FCC commenting system and, according to a recent Sunlight Foundation analysis, Oliver’s words "dingo" or "fuckery" were found in at least 1,500 comments. One of the original writers of that monologue, the-ever-so-humble Kevin Avery spoke to Colorlines about finding the funny in net neutrality and how the open Internet helped him as an up-and-coming comedian.
Were you the lead writer of this monologue?
Was it your idea?
So why are we talking again?
How it works is a team of nine writers will pitch ideas throughout the morning, John will go over what he likes, and people are assigned things. That was a piece I volunteered for with another writer.
How did the idea for this piece come up?
I’ll say this: This isn’t an activist type of show. Someone on staff essentially pitched the idea and it was like, "Oh, that’s a thing we should talk about." It was literally that simple.
As one of the initial writers of that brilliant monologue, correct me if you feel differently but net neutrality can be really boring. So I was wondering how a group of comedy writers sat around and were like, "You know what let’s talk about net neutrality."
Well that’s so funny. That’s literally how the conversation got started on this. We wanted to talk about how this was so boring but it’s kind of a big deal. And in comedy writing, Chris Rock taught me to first look for the obvious joke but then zero in on the thing that’s not so obvious. With net neutrality, which is of course crazy and awful, these companies have found a way to pull this off, to do something evil, shitty or whatever, by hiding it in something boring that people don’t pay attention to.
So you get Oliver’s famous line, "Mein Kampf could be written into your Apple iTunes agreement…" and you’d be like, whatever?
Right. That was a big angle on that piece. And it started with, "This is such a boring topic" and us making fun of how boring it was–and here we’re gonna talk about it anyway.
That 13-minute monologue is just chock full of research. How much research did you you do?
Well we have a research department. Our job is to go through all the footage and see what we want to use. By that point we know what we want or the point we’re trying to make. A piece like that usually takes about a day or day and a half to write the first draft. It’s definitely hard work. But we do it because we love writing comedy. And then, you know, you want to see John bring it all to life.
With this piece you got two reactions: laughter on the one hand but then on the other the FCC’s comments section crashed shortly after the Oliver show aired. How’d you guys react to that?
We thought it was absurd. Who knew? We were still a new show at that point, and anytime you do something like that it means people are watching and enjoying it and responding to the comedy. We didn’t set out to crash the FCC’s [comments section]. I don’t think anyone even thought about that.
But you did have an "ask," a kind of call to arms for Internet trolls at the end of the monologue though. You all didn’t have to put that in.
We thought that would be funny and fun for people to watch John. His intention and our intention is to make people laugh. We want to be accurate about things and we work very hard to try to do that but our goal is to make people laugh. So that’s where we were coming from.
Have you ever given serious thought to how the open Internet helped or shaped your career?
Well, yeah. When I first started doing stand-up in San Francisco, there was a point where everyone started using YouTube to make videos and do Web series. A lot of my friends were doing it. I was just doing comedy but nothing else and a friend asked me at the last minute to be in a sketch he was shooting. I did it and it was really fun. And it also occurred to me: I could be writing this stuff and putting it out online. It kinda steered things in a different direction for me–which led to me writing and producing my own short, "Thugs, The Musical."
The Internet had a huge role in that because it’s where this new audience is just waiting. That’s the value for stand-up comics. You can now do a thing and someone will find it. Whatever that thing is.
Are you funny in real life? Like, offstage?
I don’t think so. I remember right before I started stand-up I told my ex-girlfriend, "Yeah, I’m gonna do standup comedy." And she said, "But you’re not funny." I was like, "All right. I’ll take that."