John Oliver knocks ‘Last Week Tonight’ debut out of the park

(Photo Courtesy of Comedy Central)

(Photo Courtesy of Comedy Central)

Last summer, “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart took an unprecedented break from his long-running Comedy Central institution to direct his first feature film, “Rosewater.” In the interim, comedian and show correspondent John Oliver took over the desk. After some initial growing pains, Oliver breathed new life into a franchise few realized was in need of resuscitation, delivering an extra layer of wit that perfectly complemented the show’s formula. This had not changed much since Stewart took over the desk from Craig Kilborn in 1999.

With Stewart back on “The Daily Show,” the summer of John Oliver proved to be lucrative for the comedian, who is also one of the more compelling supporting characters on NBC’s “Community.” His ability to excel as a comedic news host encouraged HBO to carve out a half hour of its prestigious Sunday lineup for his new endeavor, “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.”

The result is a show that will be familiar to the Comedy Central audience, but with significantly more bite. By not shying away from the freedoms of being on HBO, a network that has fostered the crass and often incendiary political humor of Bill Maher for over a decade, Oliver unleashes an onslaught onto deserving subjects that “The Daily Show” gently ribs. Since “Last Week Tonight” only airs once per week, the jokes are more dense and the satire more pointed, layering five times the amount of news fodder with devastating precision.

 

 

A somewhat unexpected and entirely welcome surprise was the amount of passion Oliver exhibited during his recap of the week’s news, particularly in a segment about the American media’s flubbing of its election coverage in India. When Oliver filled in for Stewart last summer, he maintained the dispassionate, deadpan demeanor Stewart uses to make fun of an equally disinterested news media. On “Last Week Tonight” however, Oliver gets angrier, snarkier and even more gleeful than he has ever been on television.

One area where “Last Week Tonight” may try to improve in upcoming weeks is the interview segment. While Oliver’s interview with former National Security Agency director Gen. Keith Alexander was solid overall, it was a carbon copy of the format Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have employed on their shows for years. As “Last Week Tonight” pivots on every other convention of Comedy Central’s tried and true half-hour news format, it would be nice to see HBO’s entry stand completely on its own bearings.

In a television landscape where it seems like every network has a late night show, most of which seem unnecessary at best, it has taken John Oliver only 30 minutes to prove he belongs. In a clever programming move by HBO, he is the only game in town at the unusual time slot of 11 p.m. on Sunday. While the late night war wages on, Oliver gets to triumphantly stand alone with a show that has already proven itself to be appointment television.

“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” airs Sunday nights at 11 p.m. EST/8 p.m. PST on HBO.

Reach the reporter at zheltzel@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @zachheltzel