A Tale of Two Comedians in a Pandemic

Both Jimmy Kimmel and John Oliver addressed the problem of decreasing Covid-19 vaccination rates, but only one did it well

Within two days of one another, two late-night talk show hosts addressed the issue of people who haven’t yet gotten the Covid-19 vaccine. The difference between the approaches — and the public health impact — is stark. No, I’m not talking about Tucker Carlson spouting off his anti-vaccine nonsense. I’m talking about two hosts who both thought people should get the vaccine. Except, one did his homework, and one most certainly did not — which possibly ensures that some folks will never get their vaccine given his approach.

The disaster of a performance that damaged public health came from Jimmy Kimmel, who not only had no clue what he was talking about, but who clearly didn’t care if he knew what he was talking about and appeared to have no real interest in promoting public health. His spiel had one goal, and it wasn’t getting more people vaccinated. It was getting laughs.

John Oliver, on the other hand, did extensive research and gave perhaps the best mass media performance related to vaccine hesitancy that I’ve ever seen. He clearly cares about actually motivating people to get vaccinated, and he cares about things like facts and research and science. Here’s how one host got it so wrong and the other got it so right.

Jimmy Kimmel: Let’s just mock the idiots

On Kimmel’s May 4 show, he invited doctors to deliver a message to the nation on the topic of Covid-19 vaccines. The first half of the “doctor PSA” included doctors introducing themselves, starting out smiling and friendly. But this is Kimmel, so we knew the bit was going somewhere that he, at least, would think was funny.

Soon the doctors were bragging about how much time and money they spent in medical school and how much they learned, with a clear disdain for their audience. There’s a way to do this where the doctors don’t sound like assholes. Except that’s not funny to Kimmel, so he invited doctors willing to alienate people by acting like assholes.

The doctors — supposedly real, which I only believe because I, too, have had asshole doctors before — mock the idea of getting information from random, non-medical-professional friends on Facebook, which, we can all agree, is often not a reliable source of information about Covid-19 or vaccines. But using doctors that people don’t know to mock people for listening to the people in their network whom they do know and trust is… not a great way to win folks over and is furthermore completely ignorant of the research on how people seek information about important life decisions, including medical ones. In fact, it just turns off those people who already have an underlying distrust of doctors and the medical establishment — and possibly a justified one.

The doctors then recommended telling your random Facebook friend to STFU. They made patronizing statements, such as “You do your job, I’ll do mine,” and “Remember that polio shot we gave your kid, and then your kid not getting polio? Well, those two things are related.” (Incidentally, that’s not an entirely accurate statement since polio hasn’t existed in the U.S. for decades, and no vaccine works 100% of the time.)

Kimmel gives people reasons to mistrust doctors

The spot concludes with all the doctors telling the audience — sometimes even shouting at the audience — to “Get the vaccine!” One of them even says “Grow the f — up and get the vaccine!” I don’t know about you, but if I had concerns about a medical procedure or medication and my doctor shouted at me like that, I’d find myself another doctor immediately.

I’d also give some serious thought about whether their recommendations would be beneficial to me, and I might be angry enough to consider reporting them to the medical board. Kimmel’s entire schtick gives people who are waffling about whether to get a vaccine exactly zero reasons to trust a doctor or consider getting the vaccine. It makes them feel foolish and stupid, which makes them less likely to seek out accurate information, and it does all this just for some laughs. I see zero concern for public health but plenty of arrogance and ego that have long been contributors to vaccine hesitancy.

Most harmfully, the video turns the vaccine-hesitant viewer into the villain. It entirely ignores the fact that many people spreading misinformation on social media aren’t spouting off their own opinions — they’re sharing blog posts and statements from a small handful of anti-vaccine disinformation agents who often did, in fact, attend medical school. It undermines your entire argument if you use a small handful of foul-mouthed doctors your audience doesn’t know to contradict the message of multiple influential anti-vaccine doctors who have made money and built a name on spreading harmful disinformation.

I wasn’t surprised by Kimmel’s buffoonery on this topic because it’s not the first time he’s done it. In 2015, in the wake of the Disneyland measles outbreak with vaccine hesitancy still a hot topic, Kimmel used mockery about vaccine hesitancy for laughs, and likely further alienated those who had questions about vaccines but were afraid to ask.

What made that fake PSA particularly damaging — and absolutely against everything that public health stands for — was the fact that it, again, used real doctors, the very professionals that parents are supposed to feel comfortable asking questions about vaccines. The doctors who participated cursed, mocked, and shamed parents who don’t vaccinate their kids. Plenty of people found it hilarious, but not those of us actually familiar with the research on vaccine hesitancy. Instead, we cringed because we saw how much harm that video might cause. By turning one of the most trusted groups on vaccines into a bunch of sailor-mouthed, patronizing assholes, Kimmel might as well have put up signs saying, “Don’t ask your doctor questions. Stay home and don’t vaccinate because no one cares about you, and we hope your kids die.” That’s essentially what his show’s underlying message was.

John Oliver: Actually relying on experts

John Oliver, in direct contrast to Kimmel, dedicated his May 3 show Last Week Tonight to actually giving people reasons to consider getting vaccinated, or, at the least, helping people know how to talk to their vaccine-hesitant friends and family about it. Oliver is famous for doing his homework — every show’s topic is meticulously and thoroughly researched — and this one was no exception.

In his typical style, Oliver set the stage with the crisis at hand: India has set a world record for daily Covid cases, more than a half-million people have already died in the U.S., and yet “Some vaccination locations have already gone from having not enough supply to not enough demand.” He shared a montage of news clips underscoring his point and then stated quite sincerely, “It’s genuinely dispiriting that just a few months into the vaccine rollout, we are already at this point.”

Here’s a list of things Oliver did right from the get-go, things that are in line with the evidence on vaccine hesitancy and confidence:

  • He explained how many people need to be vaccinated or immune to Covid-19 to reach herd immunity, and why we can’t get there if more adults don’t get vaccinated, including the fact that we’re not vaccinating children yet.
  • He acknowledged the truth that you “might not get seriously sick from Covid or indeed sick at all,” which earns him more credibility among people who know that Covid-19 can be mild for many people.
  • He told people how to actually find a vaccine appointment near them (going to Vaccines.gov to look up a nearby vaccination site), as opposed to just making fun of people for not getting vaccinated.
  • He gave evidence-based, factual, and impassioned reasons why it’s worth getting the vaccine: You could inadvertently infect someone else who does die. Even if all vulnerable people get the vaccine, the fact that it’s not 100% effective means it’s still possible they could catch it. New mutations become more likely if the virus continues circulating — including variants that could “help it evade the vaccine completely.”
  • And yes, he cracked jokes, but they were mostly directed at himself or punching up at others, not aimed at the people who actually have worries about the vaccine.

Using a fictional loser as the scapegoat

Perhaps the most clever strategy Oliver used to get his message across was to give the audience a scapegoat to make fun of. Oliver is a comedian, and he does want to be funny. But unlike Kimmel, who directed his mockery at viewers who have concerns about the vaccine, Oliver created a villain that he, along with the audience, could laugh at: a generic white guy in an office.

Oliver also yells about getting vaccinated, but he directs his shouting at a fictional guy named “Mike” in Baltimore: “Get the fucking vaccine, Mike!” This tactic is brilliant because a person watching isn’t going to take it personally. Oliver isn’t yelling at you to get the vaccine. He’s yelling at some random dude who just hasn’t bothered to get it because he hasn’t felt like it.

This tactic is important because it avoids shaming people who haven’t gotten their shot yet, it directs attention away from you, the viewer, and it refers to a situation where the person is simply ambivalent about making an appointment instead of someone who has genuine questions or concerns about the vaccine. Early on in the episode, Oliver does include an interview with a man who hasn’t gotten the vaccine yet because he has questions about its safety, but the clip humanizes the man rather than mocks him — his father is dying of Covid, but he’s still scared. It’s relatable.

Oliver also correctly identifies the real villains when it comes to vaccine hesitancy and refusal — and it’s not your Facebook friends. Instead of telling Mike in Baltimore not to listen to his Facebook friends, Oliver calls out Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones, just two of the many disinformation agents intentionally spreading disinformation and casting doubt on the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness.

He doesn’t waste much breath on Jones, calling him — in Jones’ own words — “a fucking moron.” But he spends a bit of time accurately pointing out how Carlson repeatedly raises questions about the vaccines without answering them — even though the answers are available and straightforward. Carlson’s approach thereby leads people into the arms of anti-vaccine groups who will continue feeding those same people misinformation.

Again, Oliver doesn’t blame the people stumbling onto the misinformation, as Kimmel did. He blames Carlson and anti-vaccine groups, and he nails it in describing their goal: “If anti-vaxxers can spread enough misinformation to cause people to throw up their hands and say, ‘I just don’t know enough to get the shot,’ they have already seriously fucked things up for all of us.” They don’t need to convince you they’re right, Oliver says. They just need to convince you to doubt that public health officials are right.

Oliver really understands vaccine hesitancy

The more I watched, the more impressed I was with Oliver’s command of the evidence on vaccine hesitancy and the care he and his writers had taken with his script. Not only does he correct the record on common questions and myths about the vaccine, but he actually describes where each misconception came from in the first place, from the conspiracy theory about Bill Gates putting microchips into the vaccine to unfounded worries about infertility.

He acknowledges concerns that are entirely reasonable, such as how quickly the vaccine was developed, and then addresses those concerns head-on. He acknowledges that side effects happen, including the very serious but very rare severe allergic reactions. He even addresses what the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System is and why its reports can’t be taken at face value.

What I appreciated the most was that Oliver did the exact opposite of Kimmel in talking about the people themselves who are uneasy about getting the vaccine. Instead of lumping them all together as “anti-vaxxers” intent on destroying public health, Oliver debunks the common misconceptions that “pro-vaccine” people often have about those who refuse vaccines.

He explains that you can’t characterize any one group as vaccine-hesitant and that different groups will have hesitancy for different reasons. He acknowledges the shameful history — such as the Tuskegee study — that has created understandable distrust in the Black population and in others. In a brilliant move, he shares a clip of a Black pediatrician who was herself uneasy about getting the vaccine at first. He points out, accurately, that most people hesitant about the vaccine are “not fanatics or conspiracy theorists. They’re just trying to make the best decisions for themselves and their family.” He flat out tells the audience something that vaccine hesitancy experts have been saying for years: Don’t dismiss or judge them for having doubts. Instead, talk to them.

How did Oliver get it so right? Toward the very end (at about 22:17), he tells us: “In researching this piece, experts repeatedly told us…” Oliver actually bothered to talk to experts. Kimmel called a bunch of random doctors willing to act the fool and swear on television. And Oliver leaves the audience with the most important message of all: “The truth is, I’m not going to be able convince the people in your life who are hesitant. The person with the best chance of doing that is you.” And he’s given us the most important tools we need to do exactly that.

Tara Haelle is a science journalist, public speaker, and author of Vaccination Investigation and The Informed Parent. Follow her at @tarahaelle.

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