The Rest of 2014: Last Week Tonight

We’re spending the month of December looking back at some of the great new releases that we missed out on reviewing earlier this year. This is The Rest of 2014.


When John Oliver was introduced to America as a correspondent from The Daily Show, it didn’t take long for us to realize he was Good. When Stewart left in 2013 to direct a film and Oliver took over The Daily Show for the summer (an episode of which I was fortunate enough to see live), no one knew what to expect, but his turn behind the desk garnered rave reviews. By the time Stewart came back, Oliver had cemented himself as television’s Next Big Thing, and everyone with a TV network wanted a piece of him. CBS offered him the 12:35 slot after Letterman—likely knowing that Craig Ferguson was on his way out—before Oliver signed with HBO after they relentlessly courted him. When asked why Oliver picked HBO, he said because it “seemed like the most amazing place to do something different.”

When Last Week Tonight launched, nobody knew what we were going to get. Now, news junkies have a new TV staple. Before the show launched, the expectation was that Last Week Tonight would essentially be a full half hour the Daily Show opening desk segment. For the first few episodes, it was exactly that. But soon it found a format that worked, and it stuck with it: a few short-form news pieces, an extended breakdown of an important story, and a completely ludicrous ending, occasionally including a few interviews and video pieces.

Unlike his kin, Stewart, and the recently departed Colbert, who for the most part comment on news commentary, Oliver often goes directly to the source and comments on the story itself. He often picks stories that receive little news coverage in America, such as FIFA corruption, the Indian election, and the USA’s position on Cuba. His asides are gems, ranging from a battle of wits with Stephen Hawking, to a bit on Ayn Rand, all the way to mocking the way newscasters misuse the word “selfie.”

As the series continued and Oliver became more focused on his long-form “cover story”-type segments, it was hard not to notice certain journalistic habits had crept into his routine. While he vehemently denies being a journalist, it’s hard not to look at the stack of tax returns on his desk during his Miss America piece and ignore his team’s investigative prowess. This journalistc streak led him to get serious on a few occasions (this being most evident during his episodes on drones and on homophobic legislation in Uganda), but Oliver’s people were quick to point out that all the research they did was simply to lead up to a punchline.

One scholar has bridged this gap, coining the perfect phrase for what Oliver and his crew do: Investigative Comedy.

This is the face of a man who has better ratings than Bill Maher. Maybe everything's going to be okay.

This is the face of a man who has better ratings than Bill Maher. Maybe everything’s going to be okay.

Recently, news aggregators have been doing their best—whether they know it or not—to ruin shows like Last Week Tonight and The Daily Show. Between Tuesday and Friday of any given week, HuffPost, Slate, even fucking Salonlink to Jon Stewart on their front page, almost always saying he “eviscerated” or “slammed” or “mercilessly mocked” something or other. Even if you don’t follow said aggregators, there’s a 100% chance your Facebook friends have shared these pages, often with the phrase, “Stewart nails it.” As of late, this has led to backlash, claiming that Stewart or Colbert or Oliver haven’t changed anything.

That’s occasionally how you end up with cognitive dissonance like this:

Oh, Salon, you card.

Oh, Salon, you card.

The fact is, it’s ridiculous to want comedians to change anything. Satirist Tom Lehrer was fond of saying that his work wasn’t converting people, so much as titillating them and showing them it was okay to laugh, and that applies here as well. As Stewart often reminds people, his job is simply to make people laugh. While he does get serious on occasion, it’s not his job to come up with solutions, and for anyone who thinks it is, I must question why you’re looking for political solutions from a channel literally called “Comedy Central.”  If you expect a Stewart segment to change the outcome of something, the problem lies with your expectations, not with Stewart.

That said, while I would happily go the rest of my life without seeing anything Oliver does described as a “takedown,” his segments have had some results outside of the “making people laugh” department. He’s not just titillating the converted, he’s beating apathy by encouraging people to get up and do things, and the impact is tangible. There are undeniably a few silly examples. He coined the phrase “calling dingo”—used to denote a conflict of interest akin to having a dingo watch your baby—and it almost immediately ended up on the ultimate collection of slang that is Urban Dictionary. He also put a chicken on Tinder. I want to stress that happened in real life. His piece on Pom Wonderful got him a letter with some creative use of language.

But his impact goes beyond the silliness.

At the end of his segment on net neutrality, Oliver urges internet trolls to “get out there and for once in your lives, focus your indiscriminate rage in a useful direction” by flooding the comment section of the FCC’s “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet” page. So many people visited and commented on this page that the site briefly crashed. The Verge filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the FCC and obtained emails sent by employees reacting to the piece. The results are an utter delight that is worth your time.

After his Miss America piece, Oliver mentioned three women-only scholarship foundations (the Society for Women Engineers (SWE), The Patsy Takemoto Mink Education Foundation, and the Jeanette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund) that weren’t nearly as well funded, and encouraged viewers to donate to them.

A mere two days after the piece aired, SWE received about $25,000 in donations, 15% of what they expect in donations annually, and their web traffic doubled. Within four days, the tiny Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund received $6,300 in donations and had their web traffic increased elevenfold. Oliver’s not just making us laugh, he’s making a difference.

Last Week Tonight has revealed that Oliver is funnier and more talented than we ever knew, and the freedom offered by HBO cements the fact that he’s not just Stewart’s sardonic British sidekick, he’s a comedy force to be reckoned with. Just ask the Thai government.

For years, whenever something ridiculous happened on a weekend, people would respond with “I can’t wait to see what Stewart has to say next week.” Now, we also wait for Sundays.

Post By David Lebovitz (48 Posts)

Pronounced Lee-BO-its. Basically a Rick Moranis character without the glasses. Imaginary late night talk show host. Has a degree in something called "communications."