John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight has emerged as the perfect show for the era of social media: He takes a somewhat conventional stand on an issue, with some jokes added, so he can claim to be more than just a political pundit. The next day, sites such as Salon announce that John Oliver “DESTROYED” or “ANNIHILATED” whomever he was attacking. Since part of his schtick is focusing more on international news—which makes his audience feel superior to other Americans who don’t think about such things—it’s not surprising that he devoted a big chunk of his show last night to the Canadian election. We were all grateful, because, ever since Rob Ford stepped down as Toronto’s mayor, Canada hasn’t been of much interest to U.S. comedians. When a U.S. comedy show mentions us, we feel validated; but, as Oliver pointed out, the federal election has been of virtually no interest to Americans—until now.
We didn’t give Oliver a lot to work with, frankly. His conclusion is that: Prime Minister Stephen Harper is “pandering to Islamophobes” and doesn’t like marijuana (pot references are the most guaranteed laugh-getter on any cable show); Canada is boring; and the word “penis” is funny. Mocking the fact that a 78-day campaign is considered long in Canada, he compared it to “a woman who has only ever seen one penis saying, ‘That’s the longest one ever! There couldn’t possibly be one longer than that!’ ” You can always count on HBO for fresh comedic ideas.
But there were funny moments, of course, and, as with Oliver’s mentor, Jon Stewart, the funniest were often the ones in which he just lets the clips speak for themselves. To illustrate how uncharismatic and robotic Harper is, Oliver showed that clip of our PM standing awkwardly in front of a Netflix sign and saying: “One thing you may not know about me is that I love movies and TV shows.” The clip, and Oliver’s stunned reaction to it, was funny; when Oliver then described Harper as resembling “an alien trying to fit in at a dinner party,” it almost seemed redundant. The curse of every political clip show is that the writers are rarely as funny as reality.
The most commented-on moment in the show was when Oliver pointed out that, by doing an American TV episode in which he urges us to defeat Harper, he was technically in violation of Canadian law. This is the infamous section 331 of the Canada Elections Act, dealing with “non-interference by foreigners,” which states that no non-Canadian living abroad may “in any way induce electors to vote or refrain from voting for a particular candidate.” This law has been around since 1908, and no one is sure if it’s even been used. Asked if anyone has been charged with violating section 331, Elections Canada regional media adviser Dugald Maudsley said: “I don’t know. We don’t have that kind of detail, and it is an extraordinarily busy day to try to go back into the files to find that information, even if it exists.” So you’re not likely to see John Oliver jailed for violating this rule, but it certainly is useful when it comes to making our elections look weird.
It’s the kind of law that is saved from controversy, only because it’s impossible to see how it could ever work, since you can’t force non-Canadians outside Canada to follow Canadian law. The last time it was major news was in 2004, when Michael Moore was promoting his film Fahrenheit 9/11, and told Canadians that voting for the Conservatives was a bad idea. Kasra Nejatian, a young Conservative at Queen’s University, circulated a petition to have Moore charged with breaking the law. He wasn’t charged, and the Chargemoore.com site is gone now, but it was the first time people became widely aware that it might be against the law for Americans or Englishmen to tell Canadians how to vote.
Section 331 has become well-known enough that other media figures have some knowledge of its existence, even if they can’t remember the exact law. Last month , Win Butler of the music group Arcade Fire was asked for thoughts about our election, and replied: “I actually learned recently that, as an American citizen, I’m not allowed to endorse, as a public figure, a Canadian. If I were like, ‘I wish the NDP would win the election,’ that would be completely illegal for me to do.”
It probably isn’t really illegal. Elections Canada informed the media that section 331 does not apply to “the expression of personal political views,” meaning that Oliver will not go to jail for having Mike Myers on his show in a Mountie outfit and telling us not to vote for Harper. Nejatian says that when he and his lawyer tried to get Moore brought up on charges, “Elections Canada decided that the word ‘induce’ meant ‘to bribe.’ ” That meant that, unless a foreigner came to Canada and offered money to voters, they were fine.
But a law that is almost never used, and whose wording is so unclear that we have to look at other laws to make sense of it, is a law that is open to near-infinite mockery. So when Mountie Myers told the Last Week Tonight audience that Canada “has a law banning outsiders from telling Canadians how to vote,” he’s both right and wrong: Outsiders aren’t really banned from telling us how to vote, but we have a law that suggests, through poor wording, that they could be. If Oliver manages to get the law changed or reworded by calling attention to it, it will prove what we probably knew all along: Foreigners really should be influencing us. They’re just smarter.