Saturday, February 13, 2016

Laughing at a Frightening World: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

The third season of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver premieres tomorrow night on HBO.

Our world has always been a scary place, but the rise of cable news and the Internet has amplified our sense of it as a hopeless case that’s rapidly falling apart. However, the pernicious effects of our contemporary news media go beyond fostering alarmism and fear; their emphasis on chasing the latest sensational story, and the single-minded focus that media outlets often display once they’re locked in on that story (think of CNN’s infamous infatuation with the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370), tend to crowd out deeper, more detailed analysis of long-term trends and under-reported phenomena.

For much of the 2000s, we at least had two nightly television shows that attempted to counter the hysteria and hype. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert scythed through the triviality, sanctimony, and unacknowledged bias that mars so much of our media coverage, using humor as a means to ridicule these flaws. Stewart launched a frontal assault, especially on Fox News, which he came to call “Bullshit Mountain” for its ugly track record of stretching the truth to whip up controversy where none should have existed. Colbert, on the other hand, was more indirect in his criticism, satirizing Fox News and its ilk by creating a self-involved, ostensibly conservative persona who resembled commentators such as Bill O’Reilly (he was so convincing in this fake role that I can recall at least one friend mentioning that his grandmother believed Colbert was sincere, and admired him for it).

However salutary an effect Colbert and Stewart might have had on political discourse in this country, they couldn’t keep at it forever, and in late 2014 and the summer of last year, respectively, they both stepped down to pursue other gigs. Fortunately, one of Stewart’s former “correspondents” (and, for a time, interim host), John Oliver, launched his own show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, on HBO in early 2014, and it’s built upon the legacy of The Daily Show to become a worthy successor. The show is now entering its third season, which begins tomorrow night.

Last Week Tonight casts a broader net than either The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Rather than focusing on satirizing the media (though Oliver does frequently feature montages of newscasters repeating dumb clich├ęs or similar inanities), the show is more directly concerned with discussing and analyzing the news, albeit from a humorous perspective. Oliver always follows his greeting to viewers with a series of short riffs on major headlines before moving onto a longer main story. This main story may take up the rest of the episode, or it may give way to a few short, unrelated items at the end. Either way, there’s much more of a focus on the news itself, rather than on how it’s been (mis)reported.

By the time their hosts stepped down, both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report had become venerable institutions, something which isn’t always conducive to fresh, cutting-edge comedy. Amid the general laments over the prospect of change, there were also many making the argument that the shows had become predictable: there were only so many times that Stewart could condemn Fox News on a nightly basis, only so many occasions for Colbert to elicit bemused reactions from his guests with his satire.

Last Week Tonight, on the other hand, still feels like it’s in an experimental phase. Oliver and his staff have established some recurring jokes and the show’s basic structure. However, there’s an extra weirdness to Last Week Tonight that gives it a little more of an edge. True, HBO’s lack of content restrictions mean that Oliver’s able to include a lot more profanity (and, ever so occasionally, nudity), but it also seems to give him and his staff free rein to indulge in stranger flourishes, such as their penchant for creating costumed mascots for a variety of causes, from stranded space geckos to the tobacco industry. Less odd, but just as effective, are recurring comic bits such as a gag in which Oliver begins discussing an event in a faraway country with the wrong nation highlighted on the map next to him, which emphasizes just how rarely we think of that country.

Edward Snowden (left) interviewed by John Oliver on Last Week Tonight (April 2015).

Gags aside, the lengthy main stories are the core of Last Week Tonight. They’re still meant to be humorous, filled with pop culture references and Oliver’s own running commentary, but they also pull off something fairly impressive: they make sustained, well-researched critiques of important but underreported stories that don’t normally command the headlines. Oliver has run segments on nuclear weapons, the exploitative and Kafkaesque use of municipal fines, and the death penalty.

As these topics indicate, Oliver often has a difficult balancing act to pull off with regards to the tone of the show and the seriousness of its content. At times, he abandons any pretense of trying to make his audience laugh; his segment on the death penalty was the most striking example of this, as he cajoled his audience into following him into this dark subject by promising them that, at the end, they would all get to watch a video of a hamster eating a tiny burrito. That sort of tonal balancing act doesn’t always work: sometimes it feels like Oliver’s more interested in stoking outrage about a given subject, and he’s often justified in doing so, but that tends to make it hard to get back into the humorous mode in which the show usually operates. Every so often, he switches it up by focusing on a lighter topic, such as the emptiness of beauty pageants’ claims to provide scholarships to women, or, in the final show of the second season, the utter uselessness of the penny in our current monetary system. He’ll also attempt to lighten the mood by dramatizing aspects of the stories that he discusses with sketches featuring a range of celebrities, such as a trailer for a fake movie that attempts to make the boring but essential topic of infrastructure maintenance sexy.

If the high-wire act of making serious news funny doesn’t always work, one aspect of Last Week Tonight that’s been consistently fascinating, entertaining, and occasionally just a tiny bit depressing is the way in which Oliver and his staff make the actual act of investigation into a story into an impressive stunt. While most of the stories on the show rely on footage and reporting from other media outlets (often some combination of PBS, Al Jazeera, and MSNBC, as befits the show’s own political orientation), Oliver will often highlight some particularly deep dive that his staff made into publicly-available documents, such as documentary evidence that failed to back up the beauty pageant industry’s claim about providing plentiful scholarships to women. He approaches such investigations with a showman’s mentality, subtly emphasizing the work that went into finding and examining the relevant documents. However, I can’t help but perceive an inherent critique of the media, as well: this is the sort of legwork for which the most prominent news outlets seem to have less and less in the way of time and resources.

If digging into the evidence isn’t sufficient, Oliver will sometimes make his point more directly. This season saw the creation (and eventual closure) of his Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, a church which he actually created and registered as a way of critiquing the laxity of current tax law as it pertains to oftentimes shady religious institutions. In many ways, these segments are the most satisfying part of the show, and they tend to be the most talked-about parts of it. One notable example, which helped to establish the show’s prominence in the cultural landscape, came in an episode in the first season dealing with the Federal Communications Commission and “net neutrality.” After lambasting the compromised nature of federal regulation of the Internet and the FCC’s too-cozy relationship with cable companies and other interested parties, Oliver encouraged his viewers to flood the agency’s website with comments, adding that this was the one time that the often hostile nature of Internet discourse might prove useful. “Seize your moment, my lovely trolls!” he said. “Turn on caps lock and fly, my pretties!”

It’s moments like these that have especially endeared Last Week Tonight to me. Building outrage over injustices and criticizing the media are often necessary functions of a show like Oliver’s, but his move into real-world actions feels particularly fresh, and sets him apart from some of the shows that have come before him. Like most people, I’m worried about issues like growing geopolitical instability and the increasingly strange and unpredictable presidential election under way in the United States, but at least I know that I can look forward to John Oliver and Last Week Tonight exploring those issues and reframing them in surprising and funny ways.

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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