Why “Last Week Tonight” is TV’s Best Journalism, Regardless of What John Oliver Says
This post might make you want to watch a lot of YouTube videos, so let me borrow a tactic from John Oliver and say this: At the end of this story, I’ve got a video for you of a puppy doing the Harlem Shake.
Comedy Central might be kicking itself about now.
John Oliver was under their employ, working as a correspondent on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” It was 2013, and the whispers of Stewart’s eventual retirement had begun after he took a two-month hiatus to direct his first feature film, “Rosewater.” Rather than put the whole show on hold while he was gone, Stewart tapped Oliver to replace him at the “Daily Show” desk for the entirety of the two months.
Oliver killed it, earning high praise around the Interwebs and convincing Comedy Central that they had a British, bespectacled safety net should Stewart ever leave for good. But a little television network named HBO was also impressed by Oliver’s hosting stint, and within months they had inked Oliver to a deal for his own show. It would be a weekly comedy series “presenting a satirical look at news, politics, and current events.” Sites like the AV Club called it “The Daily Show except weekly.”
It was a fair question: How would a once-per-week news comedy show survive in the age of the vicious 24-hour news cycle? How could Oliver and his team talk about the news in a fresh way when it had already been chewed, digested and spit back out? Would it help that they could focus on making one great show every week instead of just four decent-to-good ones?
The answer to that last question is definitively “yes.” Because now — 66 episodes in and in the midst of its third season — Oliver and Co. have created the best journalism and entertainment program on TV. While the jury is still out on new “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah, it is clear that Comedy Central let go of a superstar.
“Last Week Tonight” is funny, informative, and inspires viewers to social action thanks to in-depth reporting, research, and fact-finding.
Oliver is adamant that his show is not journalism. He has said things like, “I’m not a respected journalist. I’m doing the job of a comedian. So, I make jokes about the news…That is more of an insult to the current state of journalism than it is a compliment for the state of comedy.” And, “It’s not journalism, it’s comedy — it’s comedy first, and it’s comedy second.”
The show certainly fits into the category of “comedy,” I wouldn’t deny him that. But the work that Oliver and his team do on “Last Week Tonight” is definitely journalism. Every week, they pick a subject, research the hell out of it, and teach their audience the intricacies and importance of it. They explain the news to viewers in a way that makes sense, is entertaining, and pulls no punches. And they pick subjects you’ve probably never thought twice about. Prosperity gospel churches. Net neutrality. Special districts. Chicken farming.
Sure, Oliver picks sides. But he presents things in a way that informs and investigates both sides. When the show ends every week and I’ve learned a tremendous amount about encryption, municipal violations, the IRS, or Donald Drumpf, I feel I have gained a much clearer view of the subject at hand and can have an informed opinion. Even if you disagree with Oliver, you can’t deny his arguments are researched, nuanced and thoughtful.
When your show keeps people informed and explains to them why the news is important and what the news means, that’s journalism, folks. And Oliver and Co. do that more effectively than anyone else right now.
Sure, the show slides into activism. His feature stories tend to end with a call to action. Oliver has founded his own church, created an entire Supreme Court made of puppies, and crashed the FCC website. Oliver doesn’t just point out that things are wrong in the world. He reminds people that they can do something about it.
If Oliver doesn’t realize his show is doing great journalism, that’s fine. As long as he keeps making it, I’ll keep watching. And I like to believe that the world is a better place with “Last Week Tonight” in it.
The third season of “Last Week Tonight” is currently airing on Sundays at 11 p.m. ET on HBO. You can watch all of the show’s episodes on HBO GO and HBO NOW. Most of the feature stories are on the show’s YouTube page. Check it out, and let us know what you think.
Hidden in Plain View is a bi-weekly column where I help you find great shows buried in the clutter that is modern television. With more than 400 original scripted series on TV in 2015 alone (and more expected this year), it is simply a fact that you’re missing out on something great. Archive of previous columns here.