When Last Week Tonight was announced, given John Oliver’s past work as a fill-in host and a correspondent for The Daily Show, it was easy to see Last Week Tonight as a Daily Show clone… only aired once per week. The Daily Show and John Oliver were popular enough that this seemed to make sense. The self-effacing, minimal advertisements for the new show — in which John Oliver mocked the once-per-week format, basically underlining the joke in the show’s title — did nothing to disabuse potential viewers of the idea that Last Week Tonight was just The Daily Show once per week.
What’s become clear is that Last Week Tonight is a very different beast. Sure, it’s comedy news with a liberal slant. But its once-weekly format and HBO budget mean that each episode is exquisitely produced. An episode of Last Week Tonight feels like an event.
The pre-recorded sequences are consistently hilarious and couldn’t be better edited; there’s no comparison between them and what Comedy Central can produce on a much more compressed schedule. The show actually uses these like commercial breaks: Oliver whips one story into a frenzied climax, and the pre-recorded sequence that follows lets everyone recover before returning to Oliver at his desk. This allows the show to have multiple climaxes, without commercial interruption, but it also helps to break up the monotony of a half hour focused on someone sitting at a desk.
Each episode now seems to end with a spectacle, a big number that’s amazing to see. A clear example came at the end of the third episode (11 May), in which Oliver addresses the failure of the talking-heads format, in which a scientist and a denier of climate change are positioned as if they’re equal. Oliver stages one such debate, in which Bill Nye represents the scientific consensus (a role he’s frequently played in these cable debates). Then, to compensate for how 97% of scientists agree with the evidence for climate change, Oliver has two people join the climate change denier and 96 people join Nye. They surround the desk, drowning out everything. It’s a vital illustration of an important point — not only about climate change but about the failure of the media, which adopts the adversarial model of a courtroom to create a sense of false equivalency. There’s a sense of chaos, as the set chokes on people and Oliver tries to end the show amidst the human sea. No, it’s not funny, but it’s the kind of thing you don’t often see on television. Sure, it’s a bit of a gimmick — despite illustrating a vital point — but it works. It’s a lot of fun, and you know you’ll be talking about it not just tomorrow but for weeks or months to come.
Yesterday’s episode ended with an episode in which Oliver discusses the continued crisis in Syria and Bashar al-Assad, that country’s current despotic ruler. Oliver mocks how al-Assad’s playlist, which has been leaked to the public, includes silly songs, including Right Said Fred’s 1991 hit “I’m Too Sexy.” The show ends with Right Said Fred performing the song, newly retooled as a personal message to al-Assad that explicitly calls for him to be tried for war crimes.
This is a gimmick in a way the Bill Nye ending isn’t. And it’s a risky choice, because musical performances can easily go on too long. Once they start, the show’s trapped into finishing them. If the performance isn’t great, the initial excitement of the gimmick can easily go away, leaving the show feeling like it’s dragging. Right Said Fred doesn’t help the situation much; the two-person band knows this is a gimmick and does an acceptable job, but isn’t interested in really selling the idea. The real showman here is Oliver himself, who introduces Right Said Fred with great panache, really selling the idea that this is something special. And just when the performance risks feeling stale, Oliver dances through the background with a sign, exuding more energy than the band itself.
This Oliver’s a showman.
But of all the show’s episodes, nothing beats last week’s episode (1 June). In the middle of the show, Oliver addresses Net Neutrality. It’s a hard-hitting but hilarious piece. It runs an astounding 13 minutes, yet the time rushes by. At the end of the segment, Oliver implores those who make snarky comments on the internet to comment on the FCC’s public comment system. After a pause, he begins, “Good evening, monsters.” Oliver suggests that all that public trolling has been training for this, an opportunity to finally put all that brazen bile to good use. He steps away from his desk to conclude the segment. As moving, vaguely patriotic music plays, Oliver’s energy reaches a crescendo. With the FCC comment URL cleanly showing in the background, Oliver points repeatedly at the camera, gesturing wildly. “For once in your lives, focus your indiscriminate rage in a useful direction. Seize your moments, my lovely trolls! Turn on caps lock, and fly, my pretties! Fly! Fly! Fly!” As the camera pulls up and out, Oliver jumps manically to accent his words, as if he’s really releasing all the vicious trolls of the internet on an FCC corrupted by corporate influence.
And he did. Traffic spiked, crashing the FCC’s comments system. Tens of thousands of comments ultimately got through. (I went myself, though .)
That could have been the climactic ending of the show, but instead it’s merely the end of a segment. From this height of energy, you couldn’t go back to Oliver calmly at his desk. Instead, the show segues into a pre-recorded video introducing viewers to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot. It’s couched as an educational sequence mocking — and participating in — Americans’ lack of awareness of anything beyond their borders:
America: everyone knows it’s the greatest nation on Earth and our leaders are the greatest leaders on Earth. But did you know there are other countries that are not America, and each of them has a leader of its very own? Let’s take a minute to meet one, in our ongoing series: “Other Countries’ Presidents of the United States.”
The segment goes on to skewer Abbot, cutting clips brilliantly and leaving viewers both laughing and aghast. And it’s also not even the show’s climax.
This is a show with balls. In one case, literally. Mocking the national sideshow aspects of Kentucky’s Senate race between Republican incument Mitch McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, Oliver suggested that political discourse would only improve once they’ve hit rock bottom and that HBO, lacking content restrictions, could play a role in this. He then offered the show’s versions of ads for both candidates. In the Republican one, a Grimes stand-in chainsaws cole miners and kills a kitten off-camera. The Democratic one focuses on how McConnell’s an old man — cutting back several times to a close-up of a man’s genitalia.
It’s perhaps the cheapest example of what Last Week Tonight can do that Comedy Central can’t. But it’s far from the only one.
The Daily Show has changed the political conversation. Segments on it — and its companion show, The Colbert Report — often go viral. People watch them who don’t watch the news. And while it’s easy to see this as some kind of decline in civilization, people who do this, when tested, actually have a better understanding of the news than viewers of Fox News do. But another reason these two Comedy Central shows do so well in these short clips is because the shows themselves are a little hit-and-miss — as is to be expected with a show produced on such a quick clip. Like sketch comedy, not everything’s going to work.
Last Week Tonight has the time to make every single segment work, and it’s hitting a very high success rate. Just a few weeks after its launch, it’s already changed the political conversation and established itself as the premiere comedy news show. Politics and news are just going to have to adjust… again.
HBO carved out a reputation for original programming that put network shows to shame, raising the bar not only for networks but also for basic cable, other paid cable channels, and even streaming services like Netflix. HBO used to have the motto “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.”
Last Week Tonight isn’t The Daily Show. It’s HBO. And John Oliver.