Opinion: Did John Oliver’s ‘Colombia-cocaine’ joke go too far?

By Arjun Harindranath May 19, 2018

Still courtesy of HBO/Youtube

Comedian John Oliver was in the news this week in Colombia as he delivered off-the-cuff off-colour remarks about the country in a segment on his show Last Week Tonight.

The 20-minute clip was largely about the economic crisis in Venezuela and the elections that are planned for this Sunday. In speaking about Venezuela being the most corrupt nation in Latin America, as an aside, Oliver then had these choice words to say about Colombia:

“And remember, Latin America has Colombia in it. A country where the only campaign finance law is ‘please report all bribes consisting of more than 10 kilos of cocaine.”

The joke–that lasted a total of seven seconds–stung enough for local media to cover the insult though. El Tiempo, Semana, BBC Mundo and Caracol, among others covered the incident but none seemed overly offended by the comedian’s actions.

The joke was however insulting enough to raise the diplomatic ire of Colombian Ambassador to the United States, Camilo Reyes, who issued a formal protest for the insult at HBO, acknowledging in a letter to the cable channel that, though the clip was only intended in jest, “the scourge of drugs is no laughing matter.”

Tweeters also expressed similar sentiments with columnist at El Tiempo María Antonia García De La Torre saying “Colombia is waiting for you to apologize for the nasty joke about political campaigns financed by kilos of cocaine. Were you impersonating Donald Trump? Because you sounded like him when he says all Mexicans are rapists. You’re a cool dude, just say you’re sorry.”

Meanwhile RCN correspondent Juan Carlos Iragorri fought fire with fire with a burn of his own saying that “Well, it seems that Mr Oliver ignores almost everything about Colombia. Ah, he did not study in Oxford, where they have a Latin American Centre! He went to The Other Place!” referring to the fact that Oliver’s alma mater is Cambridge University.

It’s important to recognise that Oliver, who rose to fame as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, is an equal opportunity offender when it comes to heaping insults on countries. He said that New Zealand “like an edible arrangement, is full of fucking Kiwis.” On Canada, Oliver opined that it was “the country you think of so little, that’s it, end of sentence.” Denmark has been labelled “wrong Norway” and his native United Kingdom as “Earth’s least magical kingdom.” Russia was demonised as “Earth’s Death Star” and China as a “Panda Fuck-pad”.

Much like the above slights, the joke about Colombia is par for the course for comedians like John Oliver. The joke itself plays off the absurd (no one could believe that campaign laws refer to payments in bags of cocaine) and Oliver will probably confess himself that Colombia was more a means to an end as it allowed himself a cheap laugh as he transitioned towards skewering Venezuela’s situation even further.

It’s also clear that it’s the ‘cocaine’ and not the ‘corruption’ that seems to have upset commentators. Which raises the question of whether the ‘scourge of drugs’ could ever be a laughing matter. Could cocaine ever be something to be cackled at? Is joking about cocaine to the Colombians what “mentioning the War” is to the Germans? It’s defensible to argue that the joke was unfunny and probably should have ended on the cutting room floor, but is it worth being offended over?

The argument most worth making is that Oliver is playing to a base that has limited reference points for Colombia beyond what they’ve absorbed about Pablo Escobar and the drug cartels. Rather than educating his audience, he has chosen to perpetuate a stereotype that strikes a raw nerve for many Colombians. The joke benefits to a large degree from his audience’s lack of knowledge rather than their understanding. Oliver ought to, according to this argument,  at the very least be sensitive about a nation that has newly emerged after decades of internal conflict and wishes to be removed of its association with narco-trafficking.

The problem with this argument is that it assumes any association that a country might have with its unsavoury past should be addressed by those external to it. In other words, those who argue John Oliver is to blame fail to recognise that it’s the link between cocaine and Colombia that ought to be addressed, not jokes that exploit that link. By most estimates, Colombia is still overwhelmingly the world’s largest producer of cocaine. Warning comedians not to joke about it doesn’t begin to address the larger problem which would persist beyond our outrage at an off-coloured joke.

Was the joke tone-deaf? Sure. Was it unfunny? Probably. Was it insulting? Colombia can be comforted by the fact that their country has an election process more open and less of a sham than one Venezuela will stage this weekend, and that if given the choice Venezuela would choose the minor insult over the humanitarian crisis they currently face. Among jokes about ‘world-class plantains’ and ‘the Maduro diet’ within the offending clip, Colombians got off lucky that their country wasn’t the entire target of the segment.

In the meantime, the clip on Venezuela’s election woes have nearly topped four million views on Youtube and it’s John Oliver who’s having the last laugh.