There was no introduction, no fanfare, or elongated thank you’s at either the top or the bottom of the show as the era of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver began on HBO last night . “Welcome, welcome, welcome to whatever this is” said host John Oliver with wide eyes and spread arms before getting into the business at hand.
With the exception of a brief pre-taped remote song parody by Lisa Loeb and a pair of splitters that were designed to serve as stand ins for commercial breaks, Oliver was alone on the screen beside over-the-shoulder graphics and the occasional video clip. There are no correspondents like he had when he subbed for Jon Stewart as the host of The Daily Show last summer and there were no on-set guests this time out, just the week that was and John Oliver telling us all about it.
There is an intimacy to this show and that kind of setup that isn’t as present on The Daily Show with all of its moving pieces, celebrity guests, and its host that sometimes charges after that which he deems to be unjust and/or ridiculous to the occasional detriment of comedy.
There is no hammer in John Oliver’s tool belt, he merely pokes at stories and interview subjects deliberately and without fear. He is more of an observer, standing and pointing at ridiculous things with his mouth agape. He is amused and horrified and we are entertained by it and the ways that he processes and deftly calls out the absurdity of it all.
If there is a type of news show that Last Week Tonight most closely resembles, it is probably a newsmagazine like 60 Minutes, but based on what we saw last night, Oliver’s show doesn’t seem content to view itself as merely a parody of those shows, so much as they seem to view themselves as differently focused and empowered peers. But while some might say that that echoes the ethos of The Daily Show, it almost seems like Last Week Tonight wants to go a bit further.
We’re not going to get into the content of the conversation (check out the show for that), but Oliver’s interview with former NSA head General Keith Alexander is notable for Oliver’s light jabs during the interview and the hilarious payoff that came when Oliver pitched NSA re-branding ideas to General Alexander like a cat in a boot named Mr. Tiggles and “Trevor”, a “great listener” and a “perfect partner”.
The same thing goes for his coverage of a lawsuit over pomegranate juice as it pertains to truth in labeling and the mischievous payoff that came at the end of that segment.
With these stories, Oliver ably finds humor in an unexpected place while also informing his audience, though we can’t be sure which result he values more. Is Last Week Tonight a news program or a satire of a news program? Right now, we’re a little confused, but regardless of labels, the show stands out as an interesting addition to late night.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver airs on HBO on Sundays @11PM