Since HBO began running promotional material for “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” the big gag has been that the show, by the very nature of its once-a-week scheduling, is ill-equipped to cover breaking news. But I’m less worried that “Last Week Tonight” will fail to cover a wide array of bitsy topics with less currency than its predecessors, and more concerned that it will try to.
We already know that John Oliver is very, very funny. He is articulate and creatively verbose in that ornate, particularly British way. He is also incredibly quick and even drier than his normally acerbic self when riffing off the cuff, which is a nice surprise. (Recall Oliver reporting for “The Daily Show” at the Democratic National Convention.) His status as a Green Card-holding non-citizen grants him not only a refreshing outsider’s perspective on the socio-political lunacy of the United States, but also allows him to be more believably vicious than his native contemporaries when pointing out some outrage or absurdity. I just re-watched Oliver kicking off a live program entitled “The Decline of the American Empire” that was part of the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal a few years back. As the comedian lambasted America’s culture of excess, he gave off the distinct impression that, Green Card or not, he would not ever be going down with this ship.
Last year, John Oliver proved to just about everyone – including, apparently, HBO – that he could host his own show by taking over Jon Stewart’s anchor post on “The Daily Show” for an entire summer. In addition to being a welcome reprieve from Stewart’s self-seriousness, Oliver's stint in the hosting chair also highlighted something else that makes the notion of John Oliver as anchor so promising: enthusiasm. It takes stamina to run the gamut from appalled to flabbergasted night after night – or in Oliver’s case, weekend after weekend.
Still, Oliver was always convincing as a correspondent. His pieces from “the field,” his takedown interviews and longer pieces – remember Australia? – were always wildly entertaining. Very little has been said about what the format of “Last Week Tonight” will actually be aside from the many jokes about keeping up to date with breaking news stories; it seems safe to assume he will subscribe to the Stewart school of packing many quick, punchy bits of satire into every broadcast. Oliver, a sure-handed stand-up as well as a fantastic joke writer, is as up to this task as any. I only wonder if HBO isn’t missing an opportunity here to modify that formula and invite Oliver to tackle a sole subject per episode – imagine a sort of Martin Bashir/Diane Sawyer investigative reportage approach to fake news. Oliver has already demonstrated an ability to drill down into an idea and be funny as well as meaningful. Why not give him a chance to be more expansive than Stewart or Colbert ever had a chance to be?
If there is some truth in every joke, “Last Week Tonight’s” weekly schedule, so expertly spoofed by the HBO promos, could pose an actual problem for a show intended to skewer current events. So far, the goof has been that this fake news show can’t do what the others can do. The question is, what can it do better?
("Last Week Tonight" premiers tonight on HBO.)