Laughing longest: why Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is a new breed of political comedy

The Brit abroad has nailed issue-led satire that’s hilarious, persuasive and a huge hit online

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Laughing longest: why Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is a new breed of political comedy
Written By
Jack Seale

Fifty-two million. That’s the current figure for the total number of views on YouTube for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver – an HBO political comedy hosted by a Brit. Not bad for a show that airs at 11pm on Sunday nights on cable, and only started three months ago.

About a million people see the show on HBO. It gets more than 4 million hits online per week because John Oliver has quickly hit upon a formula for political comedy that’s both shareable, and actually worth watching once you’ve clicked on your friend’s link: funny, yes, but also substantial, informative and unabashedly angry, on subjects most satirists might worry were dry, downbeat or obscure.

That Oliver – who was virtually unknown, and completely unknown to Americans, when he landed a job on Comedy Central's Daily Show in 2006 – would be bold in his choice of topics, and in how much time to dedicate to them, was evident in the first episode of his debut solo show on 27 April, which spent more than five minutes discussing the imminent parliamentary elections in India. Some reviewers thought this was odd, citing an (admittedly explosive and hilarious) filmed interview with former National Security Agency director General Keith Alexander as having rescued what they felt was otherwise a misjudged premiere. “The host might do better the more he gets out from behind his hard-won studio desk,” wrote The Guardian’s Tom McCarthy. Happily, Oliver took no notice.

Last Week Tonight tends to open with a quick round-up of bitty stories from the week, before launching into a daringly long segment on one particular topic. America’s poorly maintained nuclear arsenal, corruption within Fifa, net neutrality, the death penalty and homophobic laws in Uganda are among the issues the 37-year-old Oliver, seated and stationary behind that desk, has given more than ten minutes – sometimes nearly 20 – of solid air time. 

The good news for UK viewers who don’t have Sky Atlantic – HBO’s British pay-TV sister channel which shows Last Week Tonight on Tuesdays – is that this central segment goes up on the programme’s official YouTube channel, in full, two days after the US transmission. Other bits and pieces, such as a recent report on Russia’s sex-mad space geckoes, are on YouTube too. More than half the show is online – and those long, worthy diatribes are all big viral hits.

John Oliver

The extended bits are awesomely well researched, drawing on academic studies, political documents, America’s myriad rolling news channels and media from around the globe. This flotsam is pulled together and marshalled into relentlessly cogent arguments that unapologetically reflect a viewpoint most people would recognise as progressive. But they don't feel overtly partisan, perhaps because Oliver is an outsider, perhaps because it's all played for laughs, or perhaps because – in order to get away from the problem of a weekly show not being able to compete on topicality with nightly or rolling bulletins –- he steers away from current US political debates towards more obscure, timeless or international stories.

In any case, Oliver is so persuasive, anyone shouting bias would have to mount a case as to why it’s good that slave labourers are dying in Qatar, or why it’s totally fine for unproven medicinal supplements to be on sale in the States before their potentially horrendous side effects are known. 

For those of us not interested in attempting that, Oliver’s show offers the deep satisfaction of watching an argument being soundly knocked right out of the park. Corruption, dogma and bigotry are the butt of the jokes. The videos meet the main requirement for shareability of political content: watch this. It says it all. This guy speaks for me. 

LWT's comprehensive treatments have a lot in common with the new wave of “explainer” journalism, led by US websites such as Vox, that seek less to break stories than to tell readers, as a million online headlines of the past year have put it, “Everything You Need to Know About” a subject people are discussing already. The length of the segments also mirrors the move towards “longform” journalism online instead of, or in parallel to, insubstantial listicles, quizzes and memes. Serious TV news shows would balk at asking audiences to sit focused for so long on one thing. Modern online audiences aren't spooked.

And the laughs? They're plentiful, and made bigger by the catharsis of righteous anger. Oliver's behind-the-desk persona is more directly incensed and incredulous than the roving reporter who spent seven years as Jon Stewart's sidekick on The Daily Show. Often the gag is him simply putting on a "WTF?" face after a clip of some outstanding idiocy. He also regularly swears down the lens. ("That is some weapons-grade bulls**t!") 

The show makes heavy use of the sort of "That's a bit like…" analogies that could easily be stale and formulaic, and often are when print satirists over-use them, but aren't here because they're trashily colourful and ruthlessly well written. The death penalty is like the McRib: people desperately want it when it's not there, but it really has no place in civilised society. America's nuclear arsenal is like a Tyrannosaurus Rex's arms: "They're essentially useless, and you are plenty scary enough without them."

Oliver's also developed a cute habit of turning to his right and becoming furious with the incongruous visual - usually a tacky foodstuff - that's hovering above his shoulder. On America's prison population: "The only other thing that has grown at that rate since the 70s is varieties of Cheerios. F**K YOU, FRUITY CHEERIOS! YOU'RE TRUMPED-UP FROOT LOOPS, AND YOU KNOW IT!"

John Oliver

But these gags don't just sugar the pill: they're always pressed into hard service, helping to ram Oliver's point home. Take, for example, his explanation of why citizens and corporations can't reasonably withhold tax dollars in protest at a single piece of government expenditure: it's a salad bar. You can't demand a discount because you have a moral objection to beets. "Of course you do! They're an abomination of a root vegetable. Their bland flavour and slimy texture is an affront unto the Lord. And if you can persuade enough people of that, you can have a referendum to remove beets from the salad bar in the future. But until such time, you're paying for those f***ing beets."

“I suspect that John Oliver and his writers may have a wonderful and satirically subversive mission,” US media studies professor Paul Gluck told Variety. “I think the humour is there to serve the story.”

Last Week Tonight's global impact was gleefully confirmed by the host during last Sunday's show, when Oliver reported that, following a previous segment on “Thailand’s buffoonish clown prince and his miniature poodle called Foofoo”, confidential Thai government documents had named "John William Oliver" personally among overseas actors who were undermining the royal institution.

"If I can bring down your monarchy, you have – at best – a wobbly monarchy," quipped Oliver in his trademark wry rhythm. He might not actually be toppling governments yet, but his influence is unmistakable. 

Last Week Tonight airs on Sundays on HBO and on Tuesdays on Sky Atlantic. The YouTube channel updates on Tuesdays 

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Not seen Last Week Tonight yet? Set aside an hour and lap up our pick of the top five LWT home runs:

5. Nuclear Weapons (1.12m views)

A subject that is neither new nor, at first glance, directly relevant to British viewers. But Oliver has found so much incompetence and bad logic within America's nuclear policy, he builds it into an increasingly uproarious farce.

4. Prison (2.64m views)

A choice of subject, and a take on it, that is genuinely bold for American TV. British viewers should note that the privatisation of prison and probation services is a growing controversy here too. 

3. Wealth Gap (3.61m views)

What's become one of the defining political debates of the age – albeit not enough in TV news media, as Oliver discusses. LWT nails it.

2. Fifa (7.45m views)

A segment that brought the show to a new audience. As the World Cup started, anyone not aware of Fifa corruption allegations was given the definitive take on it.

1. Uganda (1.27m views)

The show at its absolute best: funny but deadly serious, and making an overseas story relevant to domestic viewers partly by showing how the US is involved, and partly just by showing that concern about vicious homophobic laws should be universal, wherever they're enacted. The heartfelt interview at the end is sublime. 

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