Every week, a new Last Week Tonight video shows up in my YouTube subscriptions page – the main story John Oliver covers in the show is uploaded to YouTube the next day – and every week, I dutifully watch it. It’s always disappointing. Sometimes because it seems like a waste to focus on something ultimately trivial or obvious, like his recent piece debunking psychics. Sometimes because it seems like a waste to cover something important but without a point of view or anything to illuminate, like his recent piece on automation. Sometimes because it’s so frustrating that it makes me genuinely angry, like his recent Brexit update that in twenty-plus minutes tossed off the Irish border in a line.
I ask myself all the time if Last Week Tonight changed or if I changed. The answer is a little of both, I’m sure, but I can pull up one of his old segments from 2014 or 2015 every so often, and they’re so, so much better than anything Last Week Tonight is doing now that I can’t understand how anyone can talk about John Oliver like he’s still the king of late night – unless it was a comment on the barrenness of the field, I guess. Last Week Tonight may have always been flawed, but it once was entertaining and informative. It once felt like a thing of value.
Now it sucks.
When Last Week Tonight debuted in 2014, there wasn’t really anything like it. It took a lot of influence from Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show – on which John Oliver had been a correspondent and fill-in host – but it used its weekly schedule to make itself something fresh and new. In addition to eschewing Jon Stewart’s always-terrible interview segment, Last Week Tonight was structured around deep-dive pieces on under-reported topics – payday loans, drone strikes, or the exploitative nature of lotteries – instead of a rundown of the news but with jokes. Jon Stewart was a comedian who became the most trusted news anchor in America, but on Last Week Tonight, the pretence of being a comedy show first and foremost was pushed aside, no longer useful. It was funny, sure – though never quite as funny as it wanted to be – but I’m not sure anyone was watching it for the laughs.
In its first seasons, Last Week Tonight was a show that brought the worst shit that you’d never even heard about to your attention. The jokey jokes failed to land pretty often, but the show still made me laugh, just at Oliver’s sheer exasperation with the layers of bullshit he tore though: a yelp of holy-shit or how-are-you-serious always did more to build a humorous tone than the actual jokes. The stuff I tuned in for was the journalism. Like Jon Stewart before him, John Oliver resists the journalism label – “it’s comedy first, and it’s comedy second” – but the contention seems much more absurd. His staff conduct investigations, trawl through public documents for information and call up government departments and relevant parties for comment. Jon Stewart claimed satire, but John Oliver wasn’t satirising anything. He was just telling you about public policy, albeit from an explicitly liberal perspective.
He did a series of segments on the criminal justice system – once calling criminal justice the show’s “signature bit” – that still hold up as not just Last Week Tonight’s best work but one of the best and most accessible introductions to the topic you could find. He did a crash course on the prison industrial complex, covering prison rape, the War on Drugs and for-profit privatisation of prisons, and ended it with singing a song with Sesame Street muppets. He explained how completely fucked up mandatory minimum sentences are, a hard sell when mandatory minimums can sound sensible if you don’t think about it, and God knows you don’t want to think about it. He talked about the difficulty prisoners have in re-entering society, how fines and bail punish the poor, and the militarisation of the police. He did a segment on how the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) writes model legislation – to do things like expand payday loan companies, private prisons and for-profit colleges – that it hands to conservative lawmakers to pass, and it explains it so succinctly that Ava DuVernay uses it in 13th, her documentary on the American prison system.
These videos weren’t just entertaining, they honestly helped shape my worldview on criminal justice. It is so rare for the criminal justice system to be talked about seriously and in-depth, and rarer still for it to be done with a heartfelt empathy for criminals and prisoners. Most of the time it’s easier to just never ever think about it – or to pretend that whatever horrors are happening, the people they are happening to are bad people who deserve it. But John Oliver cut through that. He looked at the heart of the criminal justice system and showed us how dysfunctional and fundamentally absurd it is. His criminal justice segments exemplified what Last Week Tonight was at its best: here’s something you probably don’t really think about, something that doesn’t make the news because it’s effectively normal, and here’s why you need to give a shit.
Then Donald Trump ran for president.
Last Week Tonight avoided talking about Trump for a really long time, even as every other show on TV made hay. But the 2016 election sucked so much of politics and culture into itself that eventually Last Week Tonight had to cover it. It wasn’t an immediate, complete nosedive: he zoomed out to talk about reforming the primary system, and it was like an old-school Last Week Tonight bit but with a news hook. Then there was his take on voting third party, which made the incredibly superficial and boring decision to be just about voting for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson specifically, instead of an analysis of voting third party in the two party system in general, concluding that it’s not a choice between the lesser of two evils, it’s between the least of four evils. It also made fun of Jill Stein saying you could pay for free third-level education with quantitative easing and didn’t mention that quantitative easing was used to pay for the Iraq War.
But Jesus Christ, there was the Make Donald Drumpf Again thing, which, like, mightn’t have aged so badly if Trump didn’t win the election, but since he did, it’s hard to watch without cringing.
Once Trump got elected, more and more of the show’s long, deep-dive segments revolved around him. He closed 2016 with a full half-hour on Trump as president-elect and a segment on Trump University on the trot, and opened 2017 with 24 minutes on how Trump lies all the time. The American Healthcare Act, Jared and Ivanka, the Mueller investigation: more and more of his main stories were directly about Trump. It was depressing for a show that made its name on the obscure and under-reported.
But more than that, Last Week Tonight wasn’t very good at being about Trump. It became reactive and shallow, when its strengths had been in building a big picture by paying close attention to grains of sand. More than anything, it became just like every other news show, and I hate every other news show. Trump is the opposite of under-reported, and the way Oliver talked about him never illuminated some broader political issue. His segments on criminal justice were about race and poverty and privatisation, about how easy it is for the system to create perverse incentives or deny people the resources to do their jobs well. His segments about Donald Trump are about Donald Trump.
The weird thing is that the tone and style of Last Week Tonight’s Trump coverage has infected their old-school deep-dives, and I have no idea why. It kind of makes sense when it’s Trump-adjacent: he did fifteen whole minutes on Rudy Giuliani actually being a bad guy even though he was mayor of New York on 9/11. “Giuliani was a bad guy all along” is not quite the revelation Oliver plays it as.
But nothing is quite the revelation Oliver plays it as. He did a segment on NRA TV – the National Rifle Association’s TV station – and concluded that it’s just an advertising campaign for gun manufacturers… so ignore it? It’s bizarre, because who wasn’t ignoring NRA TV, especially considering he opens the segment by asking what the hell is NRA TV? It would have been so easy to say that it’s no surprise that NRA TV is just an advertising campaign for gun manufacturers, because that’s essentially what the NRA is. He did a segment on cryptocurrencies and said that currencies only have value because people agree they do – and not because, uh, states demand you pay your taxes in a certain currency – while never acknowledging if there might be anything insidiously right-wing about the cryptocurrency project, even though it’s basically just for hardcore libertarians. In late 2017, he used a clip from Fox News to argue for means-testing flood relief, and said that even this Fox News guy knows it’s ridiculous, and it seemed so careless when the right, of course, have a long-standing hatred for all universal benefits.
Worse is the quality of Last Week Tonight’s international coverage. Whether it was elections in Mexico or Italy, or Brexit, or Venezuela, more and more I found a cursory Wikipedia search or just my everyday news diet more illuminating. Everything has to be compared to Trump for no reason, and nuance is easily discarded when the American viewer is unlikely to know much on the topic. Oliver pointing out the Brexit border problem and then pivoting to “but it’s not just Northern Ireland, there’s also Dover!” kind of made my skin crawl when he could have done the full twenty minutes just on Brexit and the Irish border.
What I tuned in for was the journalism. When that’s gone, what’s left? There are the jokey jokes, which fall even more painfully on their face when there isn’t something interesting happening in the meantime. The John Oliver joke formula is basically unrelated cutaway gags: he’ll show a clip of something awful, and then say “that’s the craziest thing I’ve heard since…” or similar. He’ll often start an argument with the example, turning to the photo and saying “fuck you!” or what have you. Most of Oliver’s gags are unmemorable, and some are really bad: he once showed a clip of a female candidate saying you could rely on her to not whip her dick out in front of anyone – unlike her opponent – because she didn’t have one, and John Oliver said the person you could most rely on for that is Dickless Dennis. On the very rare occasion he delivers something with actual teeth, it goes down badly in the studio. In a segment about robocalls, he said spoofing technology was the perfect metaphor for Senator Susan Collins: “it’s all about temporarily pretending to be one thing and then disappointing everyone when you reveal who you actually are.” And the audience booed. He made a joke at the expense of a “moderate” Republican on his liberal comedy news show, and the audience booed.
Because that’s not what people want from Last Week Tonight, not in This Age of Trump. John Oliver was never a particularly leftist voice – there’s a reason his criminal justice series never quite connects the dots and points towards abolitionism – but in those early seasons, he was willing to call out Democrats for their crimes, like Obama’s drones program or his mistreatment of whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden. But new battle lines have been drawn. Now the only political narrative in town is Trump vs. Everyone Else, and so complex issues like automation or international trade agreements or the politics of entire other countries must be filtered through Trump vs. Everyone Else. And what gets lost is revelation. What gets lost is feeling like you learn something about the state of the world. What gets lost is a point of view more than Against Trump.
Since Last Week Tonight first aired, the landscape of late night TV has changed dramatically. Stephen Colbert, another Daily Show alum, is hosting Late Night, and it’s almost all liberal political commentary, because I mean, it’s Colbert. Seth Meyers does a weekly segment called A Closer Look which is basically a miniature Last Week Tonight. Samantha Bee and Hasan Minhaj have their own shows. The Daily Show, now hosted by Trevor Noah, is still on the air, even though it sucks so bad that it does jokes about how a war between India and Pakistan would be really entertaining because it would be like a Bollywood movie or whatever. Late night TV has been remade in John Oliver’s image. And I hate it.
Last Week’s Tonight’s fingerprints are all over the current state of late night, and it’s all the wrong fingerprints. Last Week Tonight and the rest of late night have bended towards one another, picking up the worst of one another’s habits. The result is an endless sea of reactive, shallow news-comedy about Trump vs. Everyone Else, and it’d be one thing if any of them managed to land a Trump joke even once, but they never do.