At long last, John Oliver gets his own talk show

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By Benjamin Lucas

I’m surprised it took this long. Last night, HBO premiered their newest late-night talk show, Last Week Tonight. If you enjoyed John Oliver’s eight weeks hosting The Daily Show, then you will be pleased to find that the structure of Last Week Tonight is nearly identical to the quasi-nightly shenanigans of Stewart and Colbert. Oliver’s first episode covered the elections in India, a lawsuit between POM Wonderful and Coca-Cola, and some baffling comments made by (often) senior political pundits on the ripe goldmine of cable news outlets.

There really is nothing better than a transparently racist person saying transparently racist things on live television – that is, if you’re the host of any late-night talk show and you have your sights set on the younger demographic. HBO is no stranger to this format, long champions of Bill Maher’s roundtable and commentary, and John Oliver’s brand of humor fits in nice and snug behind Game of Thrones followups Veep and Silicon Valley, creating a slightly socially conscious hour-and-a-half of comedy.

As a host, John Oliver is smart and confident. He moves swiftly through each bit, getting in his quips without sitting on a topic long enough to overstay its welcome or short enough to feel like a one-liner compilation of the week’s slightly ludicrous stories. Whether he hits or misses, he is never boring. Even early on in his Daily Show days he frequently managed to upstage Stewart, and his cartoonish stylings translate well to HBO’s looser censorship and sophisticated production values. Their musical parody of Oregon’s Obamacare website was a well-polished imitation of the original, ridiculous ad. But there is one factor that casts a shadow over the whole affair – one that prevented me from enjoying Oliver’s show, which is that these are mere bites taken from the low-hanging fruit of cable news, and they aren’t cut deep enough to resonate past the credits. 

Aside from being on HBO, there isn’t much difference between Last Week Tonight and Stewart/Colbert’s hour aside from not having the swear words bleeped out. One of Oliver’s wiser decisions is to cover events on a more global scale versus keeping everything nice and domestic, which adds a wider range of culture and further opportunity to lampoon foreign news outlets. His coverage of the Indian elections and America’s, well, non-coverage was on-point.

But I could not shake the feeling that Last Week Tonight is spinning its wheels, and I don’t see it changing anytime soon. Something groan-inducing happens, Oliver points and laughs, and we move on. That, say, Stewart does this four nights a week allows for the occasional misstep. Oliver, having the luxury of an entire week to find the juiciest stories and calculate every joke far ahead of time means he doesn’t need to tackle, say, POM Wonderful lying about their secret ingredient – the comedic equivalent of a puff piece.

It’s easy to point and laugh at outrageous people saying outrageous things. Why else would any cable news outlet give them airtime? Same reason they cover a cheetah jumping out of a roof instead of the biggest election in the world. Chances are likely you’ve met someone who sidesteps cable news entirely (wisely) and gets their news directly from shows like Oliver’s, but how much of an understanding will they get of anything when everything is filtered through snark goggles?

Herein lies the irony of Last Week Tonight. That it bashes the undercoverage of the Indian elections isn’t so much a reflection of cable news as it is a reflection of its own audience. Whether it’s blatant racists or FOX’s petty shouting matches, Oliver’s treatment of the material is satisfying because it makes you feel smarter. And then we’re off to the next joke.

Last Week Tonight brought to mind Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe segments. Brooker, one of the most fearlessly cynical personalities on any news network today, picks the “story of the week” – regardless how off-putting it may be (and often is) – and uses it for bitter and scathing satire that reveals broader points about our media and world today. I don’t expect John Oliver, or anyone, to leave me with that sour taste I enthusiastically treasure from Newswipe. But for thirty minutes a week and the power of hindsight, Last Week Tonight deserves to be better.

 

I’m surprised it took this long. Last night, HBO premiered their newest late-night talk show, Last Week Tonight. If you enjoyed John Oliver’s eight weeks hosting The Daily Show, then you will be pleased to find that the structure of Last Week Tonight is nearly identical to the quasi-nightly shenanigans of Stewart and Colbert. Oliver’s first episode covered the elections in India, a lawsuit between POM Wonderful and Coca-Cola and some baffling comments made by (often) senior political pundits on the rich gold mine of cable news outlets.

There really is nothing better than a transparently racist person saying transparently racist things on live television — that is, if you’re the host of any late-night talk show and you have set your sights on the younger demographic.

HBO is no stranger to this format, long champions of Bill Maher’s roundtable and commentary, and John Oliver’s brand of humor fits in nice and snug behind Game of Thrones follow-ups, “Veep” and Silicon Valley, creating a slightly socially conscious hour-and-a-half of comedy.

As a host, John Oliver is smart and confident. He moves swiftly through each bit, getting in his quips without sitting on a topic long enough to overstay its welcome or short enough to feel like a one-liner compilation of the week’s slightly ludicrous stories.

Whether he hits or misses, he is never boring. Even early on in his Daily Show days he managed to frequently upstage Stewart, and his cartoonish stylings translate well to HBO’s looser censorship and sophisticated production values.

Their musical parody of Oregon’s Obamacare website was a well-polished imitation of the original, ridiculous ad.

But there is one factor that casts a shadow over the whole affair — one that prevented me from enjoying Oliver’s show, which is that these are mere bites taken from the low-hanging fruit of cable news, and they aren’t cut deep enough to resonate past the credits.

Aside from being on HBO, there isn’t much difference between Last Week Tonight and Stewart and Colbert’s hour, aside from not having the swear words bleeped out.

One of Oliver’s wiser decisions is to cover events on a more global scale versus keeping everything nice and domestic, which adds a wider range of culture and further opportunity to lampoon foreign news outlets. His coverage of the Indian elections and America’s, well, non-coverage were on-point.

But I could not shake the feeling that Last Week Tonight is spinning its wheels, and I don’t see it changing anytime soon. Something groan-inducing happens, Oliver points and laughs and we move on. That, say, Stewart does this four nights a week allows for the occasional misstep. Oliver has the luxury of an entire week to find the juiciest stories and calculate every joke far ahead of time, which means he doesn’t need to tackle POM Wonderful lying about their secret ingredient — the comedic equivalent of a puff piece.

It’s easy to point and laugh at outrageous people saying outrageous things. Why else would any cable news outlet give them airtime? Same reason they cover a cheetah jumping out of a roof instead of the biggest election in the world. Chances are likely you’ve met someone who sidesteps cable news entirely (wisely) and gets their news directly from shows like Oliver’s, but how much of an understanding will they get of anything when everything is filtered through snark goggles?

Herein lies the irony of Last Week Tonight. That it bashes the under-coverage of the Indian elections isn’t so much a reflection of cable news as it is a reflection of its own audience. Whether it’s blatant racists or FOX’s petty shouting matches, Oliver’s treatment of the material is satisfying because it makes you feel smarter. And once that job is done, we’re off to the next joke.

To make an unflattering comparison, Last Week Tonight brought to mind Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe segments. Brooker, one of the most fearlessly cynical personalities on any news network today, picks the “story of the week,” regardless of how off-putting it may be (and often is), and uses it for bitter and scathing satire that reveals broader points about our media and world today.

I don’t expect John Oliver, or anyone, to leave me with that sour taste I enthusiastically treasure from Newswipe. But for 30 minutes a week with the power of hindsight, Last Week Tonight deserves to be better.

 

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