John Oliver began his new HBO show, Last Week Tonight, by saying what many of us were thinking. “Welcome to whatever this is.”
What was Oliver’s new show going to be? Would it be something different from The Daily Show? Should it have been different, considering the spectacular job Oliver did subbing in for Jon Stewart while he was taking a three-month sabbatical to direct a movie last year? With fewer restrictions on language and content on HBO, was Oliver going to bring us an angle on the week’s news that we hadn’t really seen before?
Well… sort of. At first glance, Last Week Tonight looks just like The Daily Show. Oliver is sitting at a desk, parodying a newscast or cable talk show as we’ve seen Stewart and Stephen Colbert do for years. But Oliver isn’t just doing what’s already been done. He’s bringing his own voice to the commentary, and it’s an angry one. That edge makes the content feel refreshing and sets Oliver apart from his late-night peers.
Oliver sets the tone early on during a segment about Oregon’s failed health care website, an undertaking that cost state taxpayers $248 million yet didn’t enroll a single resident into a private health insurance plan. A TV ad campaign aimed at Oregon’s crunchy, twee lifestyle is singled out for ridicule. Yes — it’s probably an easy target, but Oliver and his writers don’t pull any punches toward the pandering advertising that plays up the stereotypes many have about Oregon.
“Look — we get it, Oregon,” Oliver rants. “You people live in a cartoon. Your mountains are breathtaking, your coffee is Fair Trade, and everywhere you go, you hear the sound of fucking ukeleles.”
With that, we see (hear) one key difference for Last Week Tonight. Swear words! Profanity! It’s not really shocking, of course, because this is HBO. It would be disappointing if Oliver didn’t take advantage of his new premium cable surroundings by letting some dirty language fly, especially a word that wouldn’t be heard after 10 p.m. on basic cable — even in 2014.
“Working blue” could easily be a crutch, allowing Oliver to get by on curse words and shock value, rather than actually funny material. But we already know from his six years on The Daily Show and his stand-up comedy that Oliver is much smarter than that.
And it’s not like Stewart never lets the profanity fly. It just gets bleeped out on Comedy Central. But is the bleep funnier than the actual curse word? This is something I’ve argued over with friends for years. Now that Oliver is no longer handcuffed by that particular basic-cable restriction, we may find out.
One more promising aspect to that Oregon segment is that the show produced its own parody commercial featuring Lisa Loeb. (“That’s right,” Oliver said. “We flew in Lisa Loeb to tell you to go fuck yourselves, Oregon.”) We don’t know what kind of budget Last Week Tonight has compared to other shows of its ilk.
But with an entire week to produce these sorts of bits, one luxury the show does enjoy is time. They don’t have to be thrown together quickly, and hopefully the production values reflect that. (Although that hasn’t always worked for another HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher. Those bits are hit or miss, at best. Though the inconsistency occasionally has its own charm, as Maher knows when they’re not very good and can riff off that.)
In addition to holding the media accountable as perhaps its most visible critic, one thing The Daily Show has always done well is bring attention to the stories that network and cable news seem to be ignoring. This is an ambition that Oliver has brought with him to his new show, raising the bar by educating viewers on the truly important stories happening in the world, and not just the easy, salacious angles of the news that boosts ratings and feeds red meat to the perpetually outraged.
Last Week Tonight devoted the largest segment of its debut episode to the elections in India, which 814 million voters could have a say in. First, Oliver takes cable news to task for constantly speculating on who might run for president in 2016 (“Who gives a shit?” he snarks), rather than focus on a story that could have far greater influence on the world (especially right now).
But the host then dares to feed his audience some vegetables, educating people on the two promiment candidates — Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi — instead of pandering to them. Unfortunately, as Oliver also points out, the news in India has adopted the Fox News shouting match format, lowering the level of political discourse in that country. That should provide plenty of material to make fun of in the weeks and months to come.
Being a weekly half-hour program would seem to be where Last Week Tonight could suffer the most. Obviously, there’s the immediacy factor. Stewart and Colbert can attack a news development or narrative within hours of it occurring, and can quickly follow up on whatever direction the story goes. Yet Oliver can take a wider view and perhaps become an even better aggregator of news and punditry because his show will have more time to compose its commentary.
If its debut episode is any indication, Last Week Tonight can also take advantage of its once-a-week format to pack each show with the best possible content. That first episode is packed tight, with no room for excess. (Other segments include a look at POM Wonderful’s lawsuit against Coca-Cola, working conditions for NFL cheerleaders, and an interview with former NSA director, General Keith Alexander.) Not having to fill two hours of content every week allows the producers to make sure everything in the show matters. This gives the show an energy that is sometimes missing from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.
Oliver seems energized because of it. He’s not just leaning back at his desk, content that you’ll tune in because you know him from that other show. He’s working hard to pull you and keep you. He has to keep you compelled after you just finished watching Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley and Veep. He can’t be the letdown that gives you a reason to turn off your TV and go to sleep.
Most importantly, because Oliver’s program is on late Sunday night, he truly can be the last word on the week’s news. It doesn’t appear that he’s going to waste that opportunity.