Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has taken a familiar format and fearlessly mined it for many seasons’ worth of current affairs comedy that’s not afraid to tackle big issues and go after sacred corporate cows—or news from our own backyard. As the show hits 200 episodes, arriving weekly on Neon, Tim Batt takes a look at the impact John Oliver’s made, and why he’s never been more relevant or watchable.
It’s easy to forget now, but when John Oliver launched Last Week Tonight, six years and 200 episodes ago, it seemed almost destined to fail. Instead, it quickly became a hit show that has made real change in American life, politics and television. Now, its unlikely format could be needed more than ever as a powerful weapon against the rising tide of misinformation and conspiracy theories in the age of COVID.
Rivers of ink were being expended to condemn our ever-decreasing attention spans and obsession with surface level celebrity news. In this context, expecting an audience to sit through diatribes on society’s woes that approached 20 minutes, delivered by a gawky-looking Brit from Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show seemed like an extreme long shot.
The show’s set and staging was sparse. Almost the entirety of the show’s 30 minute runtime was spent looking at a bespectacled Oliver eyeballing a single camera from behind a desk with square graphics playing out overhead and a static nighttime NYC behind him.
This format in comedy television was far from new, SNL had been doing it for decades. These staid elements sure didn’t look like a recipe for success in a medium that craves novelty. However, two things made Last Week Tonight a towering success in audience ratings and cultural impact – HBO and John Oliver, arguably in that order.
Comedians on television must constantly pull punches to appease advertisers and sponsors, since money is the lifeblood of any channel or network. But as America’s original paid subscription TV network, HBO doesn’t have ads. This means longer runtimes (an HBO half hour means 30 actual minutes, not 22 plus ad breaks) and no advertisers to keep happy. HBO has a storied history of groundbreaking programming (plus a litany of scandals to match) which they’ve been able to achieve through the programming bravery they can afford by not being differential to the whims of car companies, breakfast cereals and insurance corporations that need to maintain a family-friendly connection to their potential customers and performatively pull associations with pariahs.
As a result, Oliver’s punchlines are usually the most ubiquitous points of shared cultural understanding in America—famous companies. He has made a sport of deriding his network’s parent company, AT&T for their famously terrible telecom service. His recently mooted slogan for Taco Bell was “At a certain point, hunger outweighs fear”. (Low hanging fruit for comedy, sure but a great line all the same).
Even HBO isn’t off limits. In a recent piece on where the line should be drawn on erasing outdated content to not perpetuate outdated ideas, he slammed HBO Go by saying “In fact, there may be no better way to obliterate all evidence of something’s existence than to put it on HBO Max, the only ash heap of history that costs $15 a month.”
The lack of sacred cows has given Oliver a credibility to burn everything down that other comedians on TV would love to have. And it’s a freedom that’s been put into the perfect pair of hands. Being a British immigrant, Oliver has an outsider’s perspective, a delightfully foul mouth and a rage which seems utterly authentic. That comedic rage has been directed at everything from unqualified rich people ascending Mt Everest and endangering local sherpas, to the consistently slighted people of Puerto Rico, to Civil Asset Forfeiture.
Each episode seems better researched than most segments on 60 Minutes and the show’s retained a constantly high level of laughs since its inception. That’s no mean feat when you consider just much rests on Oliver’s shoulders to deliver week after week.
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The real beauty of the show lies in its ability to marry high brow subject matter with low brow humour. Take for example, the show’s long running feud with Bob Murray, a cartoonishly evil coal magnate. Unbeknown to the audience, HBO and Last Week Tonight were engaged in a two year long defamation lawsuit brought by Murray, who’s private company had nine workers die in a mine collapse. Oliver took aim at the “Generic Dr Evil” and Murray threw obscene money at trying to hit back. Last Week Tonight and HBO won the suit handily and tastefully responded by parading a staffer in a 6 foot squirrel costume on camera carrying a sign instructing Murray to Eat Shit.
Oliver never shied away from big topics and issues. In the second ever episode, he discussed the Death Penalty. The discomfort with trying to tackle such a dark subject on a comedy show still finding its tone was obvious. Oliver hedged and promised a video of tiny hamsters eating tiny burritos for anyone who could stay with him through the 12 minutes of critiquing capital punishment. The journey to his current state of supreme unabashed confidence has been earned—the man no longer gives a hoot if you want to see hamsters while he deconstructs the absurdity of American life.
That isn’t to say he’s abandoned any of the comedy though. Last Week Tonight has always been a comedy show before it is anything else. But every joke has a subject matter and all of Oliver’s are about what’s happening around us.
Speaking of us—Aotearoa has been, for a time, the gift that kept giving for Last Week Tonight. Oliver was the international Roaster in Chief of Sir John Key during Ponygate, labelling our PM “more cat than man” for his inability to go past long hair without playing with it. He deemed Hauraki’s Matt Heath and Jeremy Wells’ rapid fire interview of Key where the PM admitted to peeing in the shower and announced the Virgin Mary wasn’t real “the greatest political interview of all time”. In a succinct burn he called New Zealand “Australia’s Australia” and blasted us for a criminal lack of imagination during the flag referendum.
But nothing will top Oliver’s glee at Minister of Finance Stephen Joyce being smacked in the face with a dildo, giggling like a child at the sound of the sex toy hitting his face in a rare moment of corpsing on the show. Many jokes were made about the legendary moment in international media but Oliver was the only one who took it so far as to print it on a flag and mail it to Sir Peter Jackson to wave on the show, and then hire a church choir to sing about the dildo incident.
The unique combination of HBO’s wide sandpit and the incredible abilities of the Last Week Tonight team to deliver a sugared pill of dense topics in a comedy format are needed now more than ever. The dissolution of shared truth has been a phenomenon happening before our eyes for a long time now. But its outright destruction seems to be a short term goal of the sitting American President (and possibly Gerry Brownlee). In the context of a deadly global pandemic, we’ve never needed trustworthy voices more. In spite of John Oliver’s hero, Jon Stewart’s status as an almost universally trusted voice in the media landscape for calling out politicians on both sides of the aisle, he never had the bite that Oliver has.
Oliver’s visible frustration with the world as it is, great comedy writing, self-deprecating charisma and ability to deep dive into very specific topics surpasses any other comedian on television. He remains in a league of his own. While Colbert, Kimmel and Ellen have respectively struggled, awkwardly downgraded and self-immolated on their shows during lockdown, Last Week Tonight has bizarrely come out barely affected.
The ingredients were simple from the beginning—John Oliver and a wall. HBO still have access to both those things. Luckily, Oliver also isn’t reliant on a studio audience for his shtick—watch any old episode of Last Week Tonight and see him plow right over the audience laughter like it isn’t even there.
Last Week Tonight has earned its status as a uniquely bold and brave show in an ocean of TV comedy. John Oliver is as sharp as when he began and with the increased confidence that comes with seven seasons of perfecting the tone and format. In the age of COVID, he’s never been more relevant or watchable.