Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Why Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is Amazing

If John Oliver played quarterback, he’d be Steve Young.

In the late 1980’s, the San Francisco 49ers had such an embarrassment of riches at quarterback that the backup – Young – would go on to the Hall of Fame. Every time Joe Montana would get hurt, Young would come on and do amazing things that made me people imagine what he could do if he played all the time. But Joe Montana has four Super Bowl rings and is arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time. So Young went back to the bench.

This past summer, Jon Stewart took a break and Oliver came off the bench. He was so good and so perfect as host of the Daily Show that many dubbed him the successor.

For the 49ers, this situation led to the greatest quarterback controversy of all time. A football player has a short career and the 49ers chose Young over Montana.

But television is not football. Comedy Central was not sending Jon Stewart anywhere. Oliver did not want to wait for his turn, which may have never came. He became a free agent and went to HBO.

A few months later, Stephen Colbert got the call to replace David Letterman and Comedy Central executives must cry themselves to sleep at night. If time had been kinder, they would have had Stewart followed by Oliver. No offense to Larry Wilmore, but there’s a reason why Oliver got the Daily Show chair last summer.

With his new weekly show on HBO, Oliver had a lot of hype to live up. Say, similar to Steve Young taking over for Joe Montana. HBO was betting big on Oliver, as Last Week Tonight airs after Veep and Game of Thrones.

last week tonight john oliver
After three episodes, I am here to tell you that Oliver has delivered on his promise and then some. The show is amazing and you need to start watching it every week.

The fear before it launched, mine included, was that it would be a Daily Show clone. While the show clearly has the Daily Show as inspiration, it has nixed the stuff that has become tiresome. There are no correspondents. There has only been one true interview.

The Daily Show still exists as a vehicle to mock the evening news. The Colbert Report still exists to mock talking head shows on Fox News. Last Week Tonight is really just a comedy show.

It’s refreshing.

What I appreciate most about Last Week Tonight is how it exists in a post-political universe. All comedic hosts do a shtick of some kind. Jimmy Fallon is an adult adolescent. Jon Stewart is doing Keith Olbermann with the smugness turned down 9 billion percent. Colbert is a parody of Bill O’Reilly.

Oliver’s shtick is bemused outsider. The accent helps, but Oliver attacks stories from a 10,000-foot viewpoint that points out the absurdity in all of it.

Let me repeat that last bit again – all of it.

When he skewered the absurd Kentucky Senate election between Mitch McConnell and Alison Grimes, neither side was spared. Grimes was portrayed as a chainsaw-wielding maniac. McConnell was portrayed as a wrinkly old penis. It was scathing to everyone involved.

In his last bit this week, he took to task those who still are skeptical of climate change. As he pointed out, it’s ridiculous to ask an opinion question about a fact.

“That’s like asking, ‘Are there hats?’ Yes or No,” he joked.

This, of course, is not new territory. What was new was Oliver’s approach. The words “Republican” or “Tea Party” or “Conservatives” were never mentioned. This was not a political issue. This was a human issue. So when he brought out 100 scientists to debate 3 detractors, his point was made – your party affiliation means nothing. You are your own opinion.

The reason this is so refreshing is because everything in our news has been colored by politics. Even this weekend, a Twitter campaign for the missing girls in Nigeria was co-opted by conservatives to once again rail against President Obama. You can’t watch a second of MSNBC or Fox News, or read news online, or skim social media, without getting some sort of spin or allegiances to one side or the other.

So far, Oliver has stayed away from that. I hope that continues. In his first episode, he covered the Indian elections through the prism of “Why is no one in the United States talking about this?” Again, he let both sides have it for being focused on the 2016 Presidential campaign while 800 million people were voting this year.

Oliver really won me over with his opening piece on Michael Sam and the NFL Draft this past Sunday – as if I wasn’t going to bring this back to sports.

There has been a lot written about Sam, his draft stock, the response to his coming out and the way ESPN covered the Rams picking him on Saturday.

Olivier showed a clip of the ESPN talking heads – Trey Wingo, Mel Kiper and Todd McShay – talking about Sam like they would any other seventh-rounder. They pointed out his weaknesses. They used insider terms. Wingo compared Sam’s emotion to that of Tahj Boyd’s and other players. As the clip ended, Oliver said…

“Mmm, sweet jargon.”

He pointed out that it was a huge moment because we were treating Sam like we would any other football player in the NFL Draft. And the absurdity lay not with a gay player being drafted, but the banality of the NFL Draft. The absurdity was the jargon, the buzzwords and the three-day marathon of nothingness that attracts millions upon millions of viewers.

The same way Louis C.K. has stood out for placing a mirror to the absurdity of relationships and daily life in 2014, Oliver is doing the same to our entire news culture.

His post-political view of our country is sorely needed. It’s not Republicans or Democrats that are misguided.

It’s all of us.

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