Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’s HBO debut: Toward a more global union of satire

Most everyone has the conventional wisdom backward on John Oliver.

If anyone is wishing they could turn back time by about six months, it’s Comedy Central, because Sir John Oliver — I’ll knight him as an honorable servant of Comedy if the Queen Mother hasn’t yet done so — stands as such an obvious choice for the post-Daily Show slot post-Colbert Report that it’s surprising Comedy Central didn’t lock that down when it had the chance.

Oliver did move on, however. Not away from TV, but to HBO.

And to absolutely nobody’s surprise — presuming everybody paid as much attention as HBO did last summer when John Oliver filled in for Jon Stewart at the anchor desk on The Daily Show — that same Oliver was just as wickedly smart and funny when fronting his own topical comedy/news show on Sunday’s debut of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on HBO.

HBO has posted the full debut episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on its YouTube page (embedding disabled, so click over to watch!). Cue the theme song, Dave Hill and Valley Lodge!

And Oliver, you’re a go:

“Welcome to Last Week Tonight. I am John Oliver and welcome, welcome, welcome to whatever this is. Let’s get started straightaway. First, quick recap of the week. It turned out to be a rough week for unrepentant racists and recording devices.”

And just like that, we’re into the show.

A full half-hour without ads gives Oliver eight more minutes to fill, and he made it his own; most strikingly, perhaps, with a lengthy segment devoted to the biggest national elections of the day. No, not the upcoming Congressional races here in America, nor the hypothetical hot-air talking heads poll-crunching about our presidential campaigns in 2016 — but rather, those in India gathering 800-million-plus voters. Over the course of nine minutes and 15 seconds (completing the first half of the half-hour), Oliver dug in and laid waste both to the pathetic apathy of American TV news coverage to global affairs, as well as Indian TV news for adapting and translating some of the worst elements of American cable bloviating to its much larger audience.

“If this story isn’t worth covering, then nothing is worth covering,” Oliver said.

Oliver also devoted Episode 266 of his long-running Bugle podcast with Andy Zaltzman to India’s elections.

Promos for Oliver’s HBO effort poked fun at the fact that taping a show once a week instead of four or five would make him seem dated in comparison to The Daily Show or the other broadcast and basic cable late-night monologues. And yet, as his opening segment proved, sometimes the hot headline that arrives to your doorstep already as a punchline arrives at the end of the week — as it did with Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. Also, Sunday’s canonization of two dead popes by the current Pope Francis with the still-living Pope Benedict XVI in attendance handed Oliver another great topical joke. Certainly better, if not as visual, as the short segment: “John McCain Tells the Same Joke Six Different Times.”

For his showcase interview, Oliver’s pre-taped sit-down with Gen. Keith Alexander, the former director of the NSA, looked and felt like something straight out of The Daily Show. Not that anyone is complaining. Except maybe Mr. Tiggles!

Earlier in the show, Oliver also introduced a musical parody featuring Lisa Loeb to mock Oregon’s failed health-care website.

And a short segment, “Workplace of the Week,” shined a spotlight on the National Football League, thanks to cheerleaders who sued the NFL. Perhaps they should have tried out to become the team’s mascot, instead.

In its debut, Last Week Tonight made the statement that this is a John Oliver show. No correspondents. No fake alter-ego. Just the quick and polished wit of Mr. John Oliver.

Thank goodness I have HBO to enjoy him. How about you?

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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