Before taping the second-ever episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver implored members of the audience not to internalize their laughter like they do when watching comedy programs at home. The studio audience must laugh hard and externally, he explained, or the show will not work.
He began with a quick recap of the previous week’s news, including the Ukrainian crisis and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Then, something different happened. “I know what you’re thinking,” Oliver said. “You’re thinking, ‘Wait, you’re not going to really do a comic take on the death penalty, right? It’s your second episode—I haven’t even decided if I like this show yet.”
He then ranted for 12 minutes about the death penalty, earning two million views on YouTube. And the audience laughed externally.
John Oliver commands a bully pulpit. After more than seven years as a correspondent on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Oliver, much like fellow former correspondent Stephen Colbert, now hosts his own late night news and political satire TV show. Oliver’s eight-week, critically-praised stint as acting host of The Daily Show prepared him to host his own Jon Stewart-style program. But HBO’s Last Week Tonight is not The Daily Show. Oliver has found his voice and his place in political commentary, separate from Stewart and—in several respects—better.
“A good satirist is someone who hits a point, cares about something, and wants you to care about it,” Jonathan Gray, professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told the HPR. A good satirist “makes a statement” about his or her subject and does not simply mock for comedy’s sake.
In an interview with the HPR, Amber Day, associate professor of English and cultural studies at Bryant University and author of Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate, describes TV news satire as an “evolving genre.” According to Day, Stewart made his name by delivering insightful critiques of contemporary political issues, analyzing how the press discussed those issues, and monitoring the mass media pandemonium of the cable news era. Stewart, along with Comedy Central colleague Colbert, defined the genre. But now, Day says, just as Stewart and Colbert separated themselves from the Saturday Night Live model of news satire, Oliver has separated himself from the Comedy Central model.
To make a statement, a TV news satirist must introduce relevant topics, satirize them with the goal of improving conditions, and both analyze and serve as a check on the mass media. Stewart, Colbert, and Oliver all do this—but Oliver does it better. He is an outsider who satirizes American politics and news, but he also satirizes international affairs. He satirizes topics that viewers of the genre have never before considered, and his presence on HBO gives him more time, more freedom, and a better schedule to do so. But it is the traits unique to Oliver himself—his format, his style, and his tone—that truly propel him past his peers.
The hosts of satire news programs usually present themselves as outsiders, and Oliver speaks with a unique voice as a British citizen living in America. While Stewart and Colbert are “insider-outsiders,” according to Day, Oliver is better positioned to offer a true outsider’s perspective. He lives in the United States, but he is a British citizen. He alternates between addressing the audience as “we” and “you,” giving himself an advantage in comedic range over Stewart and Colbert. According to Gray, Stewart will “invoke the rest of the world” and speculate about other countries’ opinions on American domestic issues. Oliver does not have to speculate.
Oliver offers a global focus previously missing in TV news satire. In his first episode, he lambasted the American media’s lacking coverage of the Indian general election.
American television viewers recognize this dance, but Oliver’s unique rants simplify and popularize complicated issues like net neutrality, corruption in FIFA, and the American prison system. His net neutrality rant crashed the FCC website when he called upon fans to bombard the site’s comments section in support of net neutrality. In his original critique of Oliver’s program, New York Times TV critic Neil Genzlinger claims that Oliver “dived into a couple of … pools already occupied” and delivered “pretty standard stuff.” But in an interview with the HPR, Genzlinger praised Oliver’s “leaps of faith” to examine rarely discussed issues as unmatched in late night TV, especially on talk shows like The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, but even on Stewart’s and Colbert’s programs.
Last Week Tonight derives from the behind-the-desk format of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, but it deviates in length and programming schedule. Stewart and Colbert air Monday through Thursday night for 22 minutes, whereas Oliver airs only on Sundays for a full half-hour on HBO. Those eight minutes make the difference.
According to Day, Oliver’s lack of commercial breaks allows him to tackle issues “newsmagazine style,” unlike Stewart and Colbert who must cut to commercial two to three times per episode. HBO does not air commercials, so Oliver can discuss student debt or net neutrality at greater length. But he can also better satirize the issues because his writing staff only needs to produce one show per week. To produce four shows per week and remain relevant requires the Daily Show and Colbert Report writing staffs to sacrifice quality for quantity. “He does only one show a week,” HitFix.com TV critic Alan Sepinwall said in an interview with the HPR, “and therefore has depth where his Comedy Central pals have breadth.” According to Genzlinger, Stewart can “take the easy way out” and “bash Fox News” four times a week, a format that Oliver is rendering “predictable.” Repetition cannot discredit Oliver’s criticism of Fox News because he airs once a week and normally comments on issues rather than the media itself.
HBO’s liberal censorship policy is no secret. According to Day, although advertisers do not censor Stewart and Colbert, HBO’s pay cable system frees Oliver and his writers from ever thinking twice about airing a piece on, for example, General Motors. Gray disputes Oliver’s increased freedom, but Oliver clearly has more freedom than if his show aired on Comedy Central. For example, HBO provided Oliver a space to air a piece on Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race featuring full-frontal male nudity. Oliver does not exploit his freedom; he used the male nudity once to underscore Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes’ emphasis on her Republican opponent Sen. Mitch McConnell’s old age. If Oliver maintains this methodical use of obscenity, he can deliver a truer satire that carries more comedic weight than anything his Comedy Central comrades can produce. Stewart and Colbert can explain Grimes’ ad hominem attack, but Oliver can show it.
Oliver already has a recognizable format: recap, rant, and crescendo. The recap keeps the show current; it fulfills the show’s duty to its title. Then Oliver can rant about whatever issue he wants for however long he wants, although usually between 12 and 16 minutes. Finally, the show reaches a crescendo. Sometimes Oliver will issue a call to action for his audience to tweet with a certain hashtag, leave comments on the FCC’s website, or write letters to the Kremlin addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Other times Oliver will invite an unexpected guest such as Steve Buscemi to tap dance or “A Great Big World” to sing a swan song for Russian space geckos. The crescendo engages the audience and plays to the show’s viral potential. This points to another advantage over Stewart and Colbert: HBO uploads Oliver’s clips to YouTube.
Last Week Tonight has thus far prevented its format from slipping to Stewart’s and Colbert’s predictability. The audience anticipates Oliver’s extended commentary for a week. They wonder what issue Oliver will rant about this week, but they know it will be important and under-the-radar. It will engage the audience and reveal an under-covered and rarely discussed problem. Stewart and Colbert do not command this level of anticipation, not only because they only air four nights a week, but also by nature of their material. They rely on their comedic talents, rather than their shows’ substance. Simply put, viewers tune in to Stewart and Colbert to watch some timely commentary in a familiar style. But they tune in the Oliver’s program to learn something new, and new is never predictable.
There are no panelists, no correspondents, and few interviews. After the recap and rant, Oliver says, “And now, this,” and the camera cuts to an unrelated segment—such as clips of 60 Minutes reporters asking leading questions. These segments air where Stewart and Colbert air commercials, and they allow Oliver to squeeze every possible minute of satire out of the show. The brief segments often focus on the media, which helps Oliver analyze and check the big networks while cleansing the audience’s palate before the next bit. However, Oliver himself does not contribute to or comment on the segments. A disembodied voice narrates the segments, distancing Oliver from what is normally the show’s only media-bashing aspect. Oliver projects a sense of urgency to transition to the next topic, whereas Stewart obsesses over demonstrating Fox News’s conservative bias. Colbert does the same: his entire faux-conservative character is a Fox News satire that has spanned the entire nine-year run of his program.
The critics agree that Oliver can do more with his program than Colbert or, especially, Stewart. According to Genzlinger, Oliver’s “baffled” persona remains consistent throughout the length of his program, whereas Stewart shifts personas during the three “acts” of his show. Colbert stays in character for all of his 22 minutes, but he must still pander to a guest every night—and Oliver is just not doing that. Oliver delivers 30 full minutes of material, polished and perfected by a writing staff that has had a week to prepare, unhampered by shameless plugs for Hillary Clinton’s new book or promotional movie clips.
Stewart and Colbert cannot control their tones like Oliver can. Oliver, according to Genzlinger, is “incredulous at how stupid and idiotic humanity is on its face.” In fact, Oliver’s baffled tone allows him to mine humor out of simply presenting news items without even telling a joke. Colbert has to tell a joke because his humor depends on his character’s verbal reaction, and the insider Stewart cannot appear as baffled about American politics as the outsider Oliver.
According to Genzlinger, Last Week Tonight “is much better [than The Daily Show]. It does more, it goes deeper, the writing is smarter, and the research is smarter.” And although The Colbert Report delivers a fresher perspective than The Daily Show by way of Colbert’s character, the reality is that Colbert is leaving. The faux-conservative pundit Stephen Colbert will give way to a network TV, appeal-to-the-masses Stephen Colbert, and only Stewart and Oliver will remain in the genre (until Larry Wilmore, Colbert’s Comedy Central replacement, arrives at 11:30 p.m. on weekdays). Oliver has more time and a better venue to introduce and satirize issues important to the audience. He delivers an outsider’s perspective on America’s mass media system. He starts each program with a timely recap of the week’s news, but then delivers a timeless, in-depth commentary on issues like the death penalty and native advertising.
Success in late night comedy—and in this niche subcategory of political and news satire—requires originality. The genre must evolve to satisfy its viewers. It must hold up a mirror to the audience and challenge them to think critically about society. Oliver surpasses Stewart and Colbert in this respect. There is no perfect formula, and thus fans should not fear or reject Oliver’s superiority to Stewart. If Oliver better mines for societal hypocrisy through extended commentary, and if the audience invests more credence in that commentary, then he is the better host and the better satirist. His formula is better than Stewart’s, and he has demonstrated that a show in this genre can better accomplish its goals by doing what Last Week Tonight does. Oliver need not fear compartmentalized laughter; the audience will laugh hard and true for as long as Last Week Tonight is on the air—or at least until the genre evolves again.
Correction (8/22/15): An earlier version of this article stated that John Oliver covered the Indian presidential election; however, Oliver’s piece actually covered the Indian general election, which brought Narendra Modi to the prime ministership. This has since been changed.