Political comedy has been a popular subgenre for a long time. With all of the ire that the cable news outlets get, many people more easily gravitate towards satirical news programs to learn about current events, along with a bit of levity. Late night comedy shows see a great deal of success by giving their light-hearted takes on the news. Arguably the most acclaimed of these programs was The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. For a time, the Comedy Central production was lauded for its humorous yet insightful witticisms about politics and news for well over a decade. Jon Stewart was constantly entertaining as the host, and many of the shows correspondents went on to have fruitful careers of their own, such as Steve Carell, Ed Helms, Lewis Black, and Stephen Colbert. (The latter even had his own satirical new program, The Colbert Report, which rivaled TDS for the top spot in the subgenre.) However, Stewart’s retirement and the departure of many of the shows most notable talents left a void in many viewer’s hearts. Many feel that the new host, Trevor Noah lacks the same charisma and comedic prowess of his predecessor. While The Daily Show with Trevor Noah has a solid fanbase and continues to receive praise, it seems that its halcyon days are behind it. Now, there’s a new standard bearer for satirical news. HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver follows a similar yet different formula to TDS while delivering a unique brand of humor that has earned the adulation of numerous fans. After winning a Peabody Awards two years ago and four Emmys this year – including Outstanding Variety Talk Series – the program has solidified itself a cornerstone of late night television.
For many fans, the first thing that makes Last Week Tonight such a beloved show is its host. British comedian John Oliver is another alumnus of The Daily Show; he served as a correspondent for nearly seven and a half years and sat in as a guest host for thirty-three episodes during the summer of 2013 while Stewart was directing the film, Rosewater. During his tenure there, he exhibiting the same comedic presence that he maintained when he started to host his show in 2014. Oliver is charming, amusing, and somewhat relatable as he jokes about current events. He can be composed, exuberant, cynical, vicious, and self-debasing over the course of a half-hour show. A large chunk of the entertainment factor of LWT can be attributed to Oliver’s talent. While the premise behind this program is similar to that of TDS, its format sets it apart from other news satire programs. Unlike its contemporaries, LWT will spend fifteen to twenty minutes on a singular topic. It can be a current event (such as the Syrian refugee crisis) or an issue that has had continuous effects on the world (such as charter schools). Because of this change, the show has more of a focus, as it can concentrate on one topic in depth so its audience can fully understand it. It may be difficult to write that many jokes about one thing, but luckily, Oliver and his writing team do a great job of keeping the segments enjoyable. Their piece on Donald Trump is reportedly the “most watched piece of HBO content ever” with over 29 million views on YouTube. Furthermore, the show’s staff often go to extreme extents to research for stories. For example, to research for one segment, Oliver sent letters and money to televangelist Robert Tilton for seven months. Then, he and his staff legally created a church called “Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption” to exemplify the kinds of deception that religious institutions are allowed to do. Thanks to the creative freedom granted by HBO, LWT can do more than what many other political comedy programs cannot.
In its relatively short release time, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has already had a tremendous impact on the public consciousness. In a case involving the rights of citizens in U.S. territories, a Ninth Circuit Court judge cited a segment from the show to rule for the people of Guam. After the show had discussed the plights of public defenders, the New Orleans Public Defense office received thousands of dollars in crowdfunding. The program has been so successful at informing the public that many writers have coined the term, “the John Oliver effect.” While Oliver denies that he is a journalist himself, it seems that he and his team do more research than many legitimate professionals in journalism. Just like Jon Stewart did as the host of The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has shown that comedy can change the world.