If you’re not watching Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, you’re missing out on a cultural phenomenon — the rebirth of television news as a force for good.
We marvel at tales of yesterday in which a plucky news team led by a charismatic journalist in the person of Edward R. Murrow could not only report the news fairly, accurately and honestly, but with a sacred attention to detail and fact, and then present them in such a way as to not only make you understand, but to effect change. The fall of red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy is people’s exhibit number one for that case.
At long last, the spiritual successor to Murrow has arrived in the unlikely guise of a comedian with a keen news sense, Mr. John Oliver, late of The Daily Show and now making quite a large mark on the media landscape with his HBO show, Last Week Tonight.
More than anything, John Oliver’s show is HARD NEWS, albeit covered in healthy gobs of laughter and comedy. But make no mistake, it is hard news.
Oliver delves deeper into an issue than most other TV news shows. TV, we are told, is for short attention spans. TV news, we are told, has time only for headlines and maybe a paragraph, but no more. Even long form news programming like CNN doesn’t dive deeply into an issue, it only repeats, ad nauseam, the top three lines of the story, with video on mind-numbing loops playing over and over again, and then asking a rotating band of pundits what they think about it. A powerless cruise ship and a missing airliner are people’s exhibits number two and three for that case.
John Oliver’s format is basically this: a “quick recap” of a couple of current stories, followed by his main story in which up to 25 minutes of the show can be devoted — in depth, with jokes, in detail, with jokes, stories told with WORDS, not just video, with jokes.
Maybe it’s because Oliver, with his funny little British man routine, is unassuming and nonthreatening, thereby sucking us in, but we watch and learn more about an issue than we ever could watching any other news show, except perhaps 60 Minutes.
Finally, people’s exhibit number four is Oliver’s handling of FIFA over the course of two shows. Now that arrests have been made and the exposure of corruption has entered mainstream public awareness, we see, once again, TV news not just as a source of information, but as a force for good.
John Oliver has been able to dress up Last Week Tonight as a comedy show, a spinoff of The Daily Show, the better to trick us into having longer attention spans. I couldn’t accomplish that, what with this LONG blog post. You probably stopped reading after the first couple of paragraphs because I’m not nearly as funny as Oliver. But Oliver has succeeded, and I can only hope he keeps succeeding. America needs another Edward R. Murrow, and if he happens to also be funny, so much the better.