Why I Love Everything John Oliver Does on Last Week Tonight
He May Not Think He’s Funny, But He’s British. He Has To.
It’s astonishing in retrospect that I’ve been writing criticism for more than a decade, and yet somehow have never written a single article on my favorite late night comic of all time: John Oliver. I’ve loved him ever since he made his debut on The Daily Show way back in 2006, when he was making jokes about the kind of forums that were being held at the Holocaust Convention in Teheran and Bernie Madoff converting to Islam when he finally went to prison (‘B’nai Brith can still get him even from here!) When Oliver officially guest hosted the Daily Show in the summer of 2013 (while Jon Stewart was filming Rosewater) he demonstrating the enormous gifts for self-deprecation he had even then and the enormous capabilities he had to manufacture laughs while he was doing so. (It didn’t hurt that Anthony Weiner was trying to run for mayor of New York City, which led to the discovery of his texting pseudonym ‘Carlos Danger’. It’s an easy joke, but Oliver had a lot of fun with it.)
When, like so many great Daily Show alums, he left to fly solo the only question was format he would take — would he try a daily broadcast as Stephen Colbert (and later Larry Wilmore would) or would he try something more limited to a weekly broadcast (as Wyatt Cenac and Samantha Bee would end up doing) He chose the latter, and spent the first few months of 2014 in what would be his trademark self-deprecating style, utterly denying the urgency of watching it. (This is something he still does in his ads. “Appointment viewing,” he said recently, “if you have absolutely no other appointments. Seriously. At least try to sleep first.)
It may help that Oliver is British, and as he puts it their entire nationality is built on self-deprecation, but that may part of the reason Last Week Tonight has been such a success ever since it debuted in the summer of 2014. By my count, at least a third of every episode is spent mocking every aspect of his show and his own personality. He did so just last night by reading complaints about him from the web asking why he’s still on the air, and that added: “Believe me, I don’t know.” He also feels more than free to bite the hand that feeds him. AT & T has been one of the owners of HBO for much of Last Week’s run, and he has spent a lot of time cheerfully scalding his ‘business daddy.’ When they divested of HBO a few weeks ago, he thanked them by raising both his middle fingers and saying: “That’s two more bars than you’ve ever given anyone!” He has also frequently mocked the HBO line of programs that have been his lead in for years — when Game of Thrones was in its final weeks, he cheerfully told viewers that HBO was ‘fucked’ when it left, he has frequently bashed series like Euphoria and Entourage, and is more than willing to turn on HBO Max well before it premiered. It should be mentioned he’s an equality opportunity mocker of entertainment: he’s had no problem going after other so-called phenomena like Emily in Paris and Ozark.
More to the point, Last Week’s format is fundamentally different from not only any other late night comedy show, but practically any other so called ‘news shows’. And that’s because, despite the title, Oliver doesn’t real devote much of his half-hour to the previous week. He will give a brief summary of the high and low points of the week, mostly political, but usually that only takes up five to seven minutes at the top of the hour. And to be clear, after eight years of watching the series, he may be the least partisan person in all of late night. Yes during the Trump administration, he spent more than a few series berating everybody who ended up in the White House and ran more than his share of stories about the scandals involved. But he has fundamentally gone after Joe Biden’s administration and the Democrat Senate with far more ferocity — and it must be said, even-handedness — than anyone else. During the evacuation of Afghanistan, he was more than willing to critique not only how the withdrawal was handed but Biden’s own remarks about it during the Obama administration. He has also been more than willing to critique him for his votes in the Senate and his stance on crime. Don’t get me wrong: he hates the Republicans with a passion and hilarity (his Dr. Seuss mockeries of Ted Cruz are always favorites) but he will not let anybody off the hook. And he never forgets.
But fundamentally, Last Week Tonight isn’t about American politics or indeed America. He has devoted shows to the politics of Mexico. Brazil, China, Taiwan and even countries you would think were irrelevant to discourse, like Belarus. He has spent a lot of time covering Brexit before, during and now that’s it happening. He has covered the movement of fascism across the globes and genocides across the world. And he does all of this by entertaining you.
Similarly, while he has often discussed every aspect of systemic racism and the flaws in the criminal justice system, he does this in ways you might not expect. He has covered nearly every problem with the justice system — the flaws in forensics, sheriffs, DA’s and the problem with public defenders. This year alone he has covered the flaws in the appellate court system and just last night, the problems with police interrogation. And he always finds angles that the average viewer may not be unaware of — last night he pointed out that basic technique for interviewing and interrogation is fundamentally flawed, and that only in the United States are police allowed to lie to suspects while interviewing them. (Knowing this has actually made me want to update a couple of blogs I have on police procedurals which I will do at a later date). Similarly he finds that there are areas of life that racism has permeated we may not be aware of — I had no idea, until a segment he did last year on hair about just how complicated the issue of styling or products really is for African-Americans and other minorities. I hadn’t even heard of the CROWN Act which has recently passed Congress or knew why it was important.
Now I realize that there are those who would chastise comedians like Oliver for daring to view themselves in the ‘white savior role’, something Oliver himself would be the first to deny he is. The thing is he’s actually accomplished a lot in his show, compared not only to other comic, but to Congress. His first year on the air, he exposed the flaws of net neutrality to the world, showed everybody that there might be something they could do to get rid of it — and it worked! (Of course that was during the Obama administration, but unbowed he brought the issue about again in 2017 and recently it’s been voted down.) He exposed the almost cartoonish corruption of the International Soccer organization FIFA on an early show, and not long after there were a spate of resignations. When Mike Pence was Vice President, he reacted to his position on homosexuality by writing a children’s book featuring Pence’s rabbit Marlon Bundo to raise money for LGBTQ+ causes. The book quickly sold out. And in a major piece on the problems with debt in America, he formed his own company, bought up $15 million worth of it from thousands of Americas, and forgave it. Yes, he says he did it in part to overtake Oprah’s record for a charitable give away, but this was much more significant than giving away cars to a studio audience.
And while you watch Oliver you will invariably be entertained by just about everything he does. He spent much of the 2020 season, seeming to sexually entice Adam Driver to engage in S and M, which paid off in the finale when Driver called him and chastised him for what he was doing. He spent much of 2021 with a running gag of being able to summon George Clooney by snapping his fingers, something he did at the end of the season which involved him summoning celebrities who had no idea who he was. He bought five wax dummies of former Presidents and used one of Warren Harding in a trailer for a biopic (which featured among others Laura-Fucking-Linney) He’s performed musical numbers in which he begged a slap suit by posting as many outrageous claims as he could in five minutes. And while he did much of 20220 and 2021 in a blank white void, he found a way to make that fun too — in the last few episodes of that period; the void developed a personality, and typically, berated Oliver for his abilities to host. (When Oliver went back to his studio audience, the void sang Empty Chairs from Les Miz and quickly uttered that the Queen had Princess Diana killed, a conspiracy theory that John Oliver has been joking about for years and did so last night.)
I usually don’t like it when the same series or actors wins awards year after year — much as I loved The Daily Show under Jon Stewart’s regime, after five or six awards I thought the Emmy voters were getting lazy. Similarly there are a lot of good competitors in Late Night Variety and I hope that one day Seth Meyers or Stephen Colbert breaks through (or Desus and Mero get nominated). But I don’t fundamentally object to Last Week Tonight winning for five consecutive years. The format may be fundamentally the same as it was when it started (though honestly I do wish he’d do more interviews; the ones he did with Anita Hill and Monica Lewinsky in years past showed he still hadn’t lost his touch) but you can’t really argue that its not the same show twice. Oliver deals with issues that we will not see on most cable news (something he has been berating for a long time) or indeed find on our own volition. These are issues that people like me need to know a lot about. And if we’re going to learn about them, it’s good that we’re learning them from a man who delivers the message by cheerfully reminding that he played Zazu in the ‘bad’ version of The Lion King. He takes his subjects seriously, but never himself, and he despite saying he only gives grim news, he actually has done good things. That’s more than we get from most people, much less a late night comic who still can’t understand why anyone should watch his show.
My score: 5 stars.