The last two minutes of the July 26 episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver might have been surprising to people who have heard about the show but never watched it. As the 17-minute piece on mandatory minimum sentencing laws drew to a close, Oliver delivered an impassioned plea to viewers to consider the issue and its implications. Even as a devoted fan of the show, I kept waiting for Oliver to punctuate the earnest moment with levity. But he never did, and his show is all the better for it.
It’s impossible to write about Last Week Tonight on the Internet without drawing accusations of clickbait, as his clips are designed, as if genetically, to feed the media beast in a way that even the best of Jon Stewart never matched. But if you dig deeper than the superficial weekly recap below an embedded YouTube clip, if you watch that YouTube clip and pay attention to the care and detail that goes into crafting a Last Week Tonight segment, you realize that people are clicking not because media outlets are telling them to, but because the show rewards their clicks with substance, style and sincerity.
When the show debuted, it looked like The Daily Show with British accents – John Oliver sits at a desk reading headlines and offering commentary that ranges from snarky jabs to sincere sentiment. But once the show shook out the jitters of its early run, it settled into a formula that takes the essence of the model Stewart pioneered and stretches it, at times approaching the running time of an entire Daily Show episode sans commercials. The show turns what appears to be the limitations of a weekly Sunday night timeslot into an asset, as Oliver makes brief mention of the week’s top stories before digging deep for issues that the 24-hour news cycle is too breathless to cover.
Instead of positioning his show at the center of that news cycle, Oliver has started a news cycle of his own. When he talks about an issue, people pay attention, and sometimes take action, as when viewers flocked to donate to women’s scholarship organizations after he uncovered corruption of the Miss America foundation and net neutrality lawmakers cited Oliver’s commentary in their positions. Just this week, the D.C. Council responded rapturously to his piece advocating for D.C. statehood, offering to add him as a ceremonial 14th member of the legislative body. Even the notoriously finnicky whistleblower Edward Snowden was impressed with Oliver’s work, so much so that he allowed the show’s crew to come to Russia and film what is, to me, the funniest half hour of television this year.
But Last Week Tonight deserves praise for far more than its willingness to tackle complex issues and attract lawmakers’ attention. The writing craft on display in each segment is impeccable and surprising, and the variety of comedic perspectives at work in any given segment is stunning.
Some jokes call attention to the artifice of television commentary, like on a recent episode when Oliver mentioned that President Lincoln pardoned John Wilkes Booth for bestiality. “It’s true!” he insisted, until moments later: “Actually, it’s not true.” In our rush to generate headlines and hold up Oliver as a figure of truth, jokes like this make it difficult to forget that Last Week Tonight deserves the same skepticism and critical attention that other news media get on The Daily Show and elsewhere.
Other jokes target the absurdity of U.S. government policies, social inequalities and corporate practices. Many of those jokes emerge from rigorously researched video clips compiled from primary news sources. Sometimes Oliver’s comments, gesticulations and mannerisms call attention to absurdities presented in those clips, and other times, those clips speak for themselves, as with last Sunday’s display of Eleanor Holmes Norton awesomeness.
But Last Week Tonight ultimately succeeds because its jokes are all motivated by a sincere hunger for information and context. Oliver’s wry delivery doesn’t simply prod at public figures and governmental bodies. It jabs at them, respectfully but insistently, forcing them to pay attention. In the process, John Oliver and his team of writers (who deserve to be named, so I will: Kevin Avery, showrunner Tim Carvell, Josh Gondelman, Dan Gurewitch, Geoff Haggerty, Jeff Mauer, Scott Sherman, Will Tracy, Jill Twiss, Juli Weiner and Oliver himself) have created the most humane show on television, appealing not only to the people in power but more directly to the people who live or die on the effect of that power. The show is goal-oriented in a way that some of its forebears aren’t, and Oliver’s wry humor coexists well with the show’s relentless sincerity.
Last Thursday, America said goodbye to Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show. Oliver rose to prominence in the U.S. through his work as a correspondent, and later a long-term fill-in host, on Stewart’s program, before migrating to HBO and freeing himself from the pesky constraints of commercials. It’s easy to see the influence of Stewart on everything from the substance to the line delivery on Last Week Tonight. But any sense that Oliver was simply reapplying Stewart’s formula to the subscription TV crowd has long since vanished. Last Week Tonight isn’t a tireless watchdog for the media or the government in the way that The Daily Show could be in some of its finer moments. It’s not built to comment upon the idiosyncrasies of each day’s top headlines. Instead, it’s offering viewers an opportunity to see past the issues of the day and look at the issues ingrained in the modern world. Where The Daily Show is reactionary, Last Week Tonight is laced with the context, perspective and insight that comes only with the passage of time.
As Stewart said farewell on Thursday, with Oliver in attendance, it was easy to sense a change of the guard. Perhaps in time, change will come again. But for now, Last Week Tonight reigns as television’s best source for the seemingly contradictory blend of comedy, politics and humanity.