Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Why Last Week Tonight is the Greatest Show on Earth right now #SundayGuardian #TV #Column

Weekly column by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoon) for The Sunday Guardian. Original (edited) article:

To declare that Last Week Tonight With John Oliver as one of the greatest shows on air today may just be a tad too early considering it’s only been 17 weeks since the show premiered on HBO; and also because it’s always a tad too early to declare something the greatest (*cough* Lance Armstrong *cough*).  But we’ll go out on a limb, along with all other parts of the body, to say that the news comedy show fronted by a once wee bit famous British comedian, is not only one of the greatest shows on air today, but also one of the best things to have happened to television in a long time.

If you are acquainted with the internet, you would know exactly what we are talking about. It’s hard to miss John Oliver’s cheery professor-meets-lovably aunt face on the world wide web, what with every news aggregator site from Buzzfeed to Vox aggressively shoving the show’s latest viral news rant into our faces, and for good reason too: everything Oliver does on the show is bloody brilliant.

Because everything Oliver and the producers of Last Week Tonight pull off week on week is nothing you’ve seen, much less expected, from a news comedy show. This is a show that delivers over 10 minute monologues on absurd topics like net neutrality and on far flung countries like Brunei, rarely has celebrity guests, is devoid of sketches or comic correspondents, and can essentially be summarised as 30 minutes of a Brit comedian telling America how ridiculous a country it is.

Last Week Tonight seems to have so many things wrong with it, that when you put them all together, it somehow, magically, becomes right. But this magic is a carefully constructed magic, with an aim far greater than merely to rouse laughter: Last Week Tonight aims to educate the viewers, mostly comprising of millenials famous for suffering from ADD, by being a cool, counterculture alternative to the instant gratification they are so used to.

The stories the show covers are ones that no one else does – like LGBT rights in Uganda or Native Advertising; and it covers them with a relentless passion and an irrepressible enthusiasm, that’s embodied by the former Emmy-award winning, ‘Senior British Correspondent’ to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Oliver, who is both the center of the magic and the perpetrator of the madness of the show. Oliver doesn’t just ask America to care about the stories he covers, they evidently *really* matter to his team as well; and they are chosen, researched and spoken of from a place of emotion; wrapped up in a tidy bow of rip-roaring jokes and well-timed cuss words. When Oliver chides, you feel like a little kid who deserved to be scolded, and you consequently want to do whatever you can to make up for it.

And the show certainly gives you that chance to make up for it; in fact, it implores your moral compasses to act. So when Oliver delivers a diatribe on net neutrality, he then makes a passionate appeal to internet trolls (“seize your moment, my lovely trolls, turn on caps lock, and fly my pretties, fly, fly”), driving them to the FCC website to comment, resulting in the site crashing. Oliver’s often asked people to email organisations (or in one case, Vladmir Putin) on specific addresses and mercilessly use hashtags to take part in a noble stance the show’s taken.

The show’s activism is now the stuff of internet legend but it is done with such well-meaning cheek, that you cannot help be entertained. In fact, the show goes to ridiculously fun lengths to make the most bland topics interesting: at the end of a profile of Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad, it got ‘90s Europo sensations Right Said Fred to rework their song ‘I’m too Sexy’ into ‘You’re just a walking taint/The opposite of saint/At least Hitler could paint’; when discussing American’s prison systems, it got the muppets from the Sesame Street to sing an original song with Oliver (It’s a fact that needs to be spoken/ America’s prison systems are broken); it even got Steve Buscemi to do a tap dance and Stephen Hawking to deliver zingers dime-a-dozen to Oliver.

Perhaps the most important asset the show has, that makes it so ‘greatest’, can simply be paraphrased in one word: balls. Enjoying the freedom of being on an HBO as opposed to network television, gives Oliver and his team the freedom to piss on, cuss on, slur or offend any person or corporation that they decide deserves it. And everyone from FIFA (“comically grotesque” to Thai Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn (“buffoon & idiot”) has got a pounding from Oliver with a cheery face and a jolly good middle finger!

The show’s bias is neither with the left nor the right, the show neither dumbs down its content nor babbles in pseudo-intellect; and when it gives an opinion, it comes neither from a moral high ground nor from emotion; because where John Oliver stands, it is only logical that no one is spared.


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Note: An edited version of this article first appeared in The Sunday Guardian in the September 21, 2014 issue.

Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.


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