Last Week Tonight with John Oliver premiered on Sunday with many of the familiar trappings of late night: regal host’s desk, slick broadcast news-inspired graphics, catchy theme song, middle-aged white male anchor. But The Daily Show alum made it clear from the outset that he isn’t interested in simply reworking the comedy of his contemporaries.
And he wasted no time setting about doing it. After quickly dispensing of the week’s low hanging fruit that was Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling (“It turned out to be a rough week for unrepentant racists and recording devices”) and airing a pre-recorded bit at the expense of Oregon’s botched health care enrollment website, Oliver pivoted to a story on the ongoing elections in India, where an estimated 814 million people are eligible to vote.
For ten minutes, Oliver covered what will be the largest election in human history in greater depth than nearly every cable news channel has managed since the beginning of April. Between Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, only Fox News’ Shepard Smith gave the election any attention at all: 24 seconds on April 7, in which he notes with mild amusement that Spiderman will be on the ballot. But in Smith’s coverage, there was no mention of the campaign pledge made by front-runner Narendra Modi of the opposition BJP party to put a working toilet in every home, a huge issue in a country where indoor plumbing is far from certain and no mention of Modi’s troubling connection to violent riots in 2002 between the nation’s Hindu and Muslim populations. Oliver addressed both, with disarming, charming, and yes, hilarious incredulity.
The significance of Oliver’s commitment to international news isn’t merely a superficial victory for information-deprived viewers; it represents an opportunity to correct for a troubling imbalance. Too often, broadcasters decide what stories that warrant coverage based on a formula that errs on the side of simplicity when depth is required. Like Smith at Fox News, Oliver could have stopped at the fact that Modi has made campaign appearances via hologram, a funny anecdote unto itself. But as he himself would point out, “who gives a shit” about that when there are honest, serious issues at stake?
For longtime fans of Oliver, none of this is particularly new. Alongside his gig at The Daily Show and hosting responsibilities on Comedy Central’s New York Stand-Up Show, Oliver has been one half of the weekly podcast “The Bugle” for seven years. There, he and co-host Andy Zaltzman have never hesitated to make fodder of the likes of Silvio Berlusconi or Robert Mugabe, or find the comedy behind the financial crisis in Cyprus.
The premise of Last Week Tonight, which airs on Sunday nights at 11pm on HBO, isn’t particularly new, either: the idea that there is intrinsic humor in news and newsmakers who can be laughably bad at their jobs is the same idea that’s been driving The Daily Show since its inception. And while cable news doesn’t seem to have learned a whole lot from Jon Stewart, et. al. (Stewart’s legendary appearance on CNN’s Crossfire, in which Stewart famously chastised 24 hour news media for gross dereliction of duty, saying, “I didn’t realize that the news organizations look to Comedy Central for cues on integrity,” was ten years ago; though the show was canceled just after Stewart’s appearance, CNN resurrected Crossfire last year).
“Real” news can easily get caught up in breathlessly reporting on faux scandals and irrelevant minutiae–but so can fake news, as Oliver’s show proves, by covering the half of the globe that everyone (even, at times, Stewart) seems to forget exists. Oliver taking the lessons he learned about audiences’ appetite for journo-comedy and adding some much-needed international insight to Americans’ comedy news diet.
Of course, some of this is borne out of necessity. By the time Oliver’s show airs, most of the week’s big stories have been satirized six ways to Sunday by the rest of the late night lineup. If Oliver wants to keep an audience, he needs to turn elsewhere for comedic inspiration.
Luckily for him — and for his audience — the whole world can be his oyster.