I haven’t watched an entire episode of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report in months. My disengagement coincided with the debut of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, which ended its first season Sunday night. Oliver’s show gives me the same giddy charge that really great segments of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report once did. If you’re a fan of those Comedy Central time-slot-mates, you share their embedded video segments not just because they’re repeating your favorite bits of received political wisdom (which is a huge part of their appeal), but because there’s a high level of craft happening from one minute to the next: clever writing, acting, editing, and graphics. But there’s a big difference between those shows and Last Week: When I watch John Oliver, I feel as if some sort of progress is being made.
Not political progress, mind you. I doubt any mainstream TV show can promise such a thing, even one that, like both The Daily Show and Colbert, combines the practiced irreverence of Saturday Night Live and the deep-dish research of a 60 Minutes or Frontline. The Daily Show has been calling out Republican retro-yahoo policies and Democratic hypocrisy and blundering with hard evidence ever since Stewart took over, and that stuff is still the show’s bread and butter (the “interview with an earnest ninny who doesn’t know he’s being made fun of” segment used to be equally central to the show but hasn’t been in years). No, I’m talking about a combination of aesthetic and journalistic progress. Last Week is doing what media watchdogs (including the Peabody Awards) keep saying that The Daily Show does — practicing real journalism in comedy form — but it’s doing it better, and in a simpler, yet more ambitious, ultimately more useful way. If Stewart’s show is doing what might be called a reported feature, augmenting opinions with facts, Oliver’s show is doing something closer to pure reporting, or what the era of web journalism calls an “explainer,” often without a hook, or the barest wisp of a hook. Sunday night’s season-ending episode of Last Week included a lot of terrific shtick, including Oliver’s riff on a CBS Sunday Morning segment celebrating a “salmon cannon” that helped salmon swim upstream against a dam-induced current to spawn; this led to a dadaist gimmick with him firing fish (somehow) onto the sets of other TV programs, including The Daily Show’s.
Over the past few weeks he’s shown us, with evidence, that while our national legislature is unproductive and tedious, our local legislatures are incredibly prolific and often demented; that the rules governing drone strikes are so filled with slippery language as to be almost meaningless; that the death penalty and our preferred defense of the need for the death penalty are holdovers from medieval Europe’s golden age of religious-based torture; that the increasing income inequality in the United States is inextricably tied to its historical belief in optimism, a cover for money-grubbing that turns exploited people into enablers (“I can clearly see that this game is rigged,” Oliver proclaimed, in the voice of a typical American citizen, “which is gonna make it really sweet when I win this thing!”); that former U.S. troops are working harder to get translators to the states than our own government is; that “nutritional supplements” are the new snake oil; and that President Warren G. Harding was a smooth mofo who wrote “smutty fuck-notes” to his mistress. And his interviews, while tinged with agreeable but by-now-cliché Daily Show–style goofiness, are excellent: particularly his sit-downs with Stephen Hawking, Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, and General Keith Alexander, former head of the National Security Agency, where the motto was, to quote Oliver, “Collect everything … the motto of a hoarder, that’s the fundamental principle that ends up with somebody living alongside 1,500 copies of newspapers from the 1950s and ‘60s and six mummified cats.” (It helps tremendously that most of these interviews are conducted off-site, away from a studio audience that might encourage the guest to “perform” too much or the host to overdo the chumminess.)
Oliver’s brand of journalism (which is, of course, couched as cheerful Sunday-night entertainment) often has an actual, demonstrable impact on public consciousness, as when his segment on net neutrality caused untold numbers of people to crash a government server. At the very least, he’s become a model for so-called straight journalists, particularly of the TV-news variety. We’re told over and over that people won’t sit still for news segments longer than about a minute, yet Oliver’s showpiece explainers often run five, seven, even ten minutes without a break. Granted, they’re not above using singing puppets to explain the prison-industrial complex, but hey, a spoonful of sugar.
I dislike having to use Oliver as a cudgel with which to beat The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Both Comedy Central shows are still smart and amusing, though both have a tendency toward self-satisfaction, and Colbert’s — which is heading into its home stretch prior to Colbert’s taking over for David Letterman — now has the bittersweet farewell-tour feeling. And, of course, both programs had a measurable impact on the medium, or on cable, anyway. The Jon Stewart incarnation of The Daily Show (there was another host, kids; look him up) gave Comedy Central an identity beyond its previously established, potluck-programming stew of South Park, whack-job sitcoms, and brick-wall stand-up; it soon became known as an anointer of new talent, fulfilling the comedy launching-pad role once claimed by The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Former Daily Show correspondent Steve Carell owes his TV and film careers to Stewart, and neither Oliver’s TV persona (snitty/curious Englishman giving America the side-eye) nor his HBO series (he was a Daily Show correspondent and guest-host before going solo) would exist without Stewart’s support. The titular host of The Colbert Report likewise rose to fame as a Daily Show regular, then hatched his performance-art-y spinoff character, a Fox News–style blowhard teetering on the edge of self-awareness. Both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report remain an indispensable part of the bedtime routine for liberal couples with iPads, and they’re aces at supplying Facebook, Twitter, and assorted aggregation maws with embedded video (often packaged with strangely violent headlines: “Watch Jon Stewart Eviscerate Climate-Change deniers,” etc.).
But that forward-motion thing: It really matters. When you watch Oliver’s show, you’re riding a bike through terrain that keeps changing. Its Comedy Central progenitors are more like stationary bikes: There is the feeling of motion, sometimes furious motion, and perhaps there are tangible benefits (We’re keeping our minds lean? I’ll see myself out, thanks), but are you really getting anywhere? Every Daily Show is, in a sense, the same show; the gags change and sometimes there’s a splendidly silly image, but the feeling of a well-oiled machine is unavoidable. At the end, you feel that certain core beliefs have been repeated and thus strengthened, and that’s about it. Viewers are being informed, but mainly of treachery by the Other Side; because the Other Side doesn’t generally watch The Daily Show or click on videos that show up in their Facebook feeds, all that fine setting-the-record-straight research is ultimately preaching to the converted, which means watching The Daily Show is the mainstream liberal’s political equivalent of going to church. The program is mainly a social ritual in televised form, intended to reaffirm shared values, and it’s therefore of little interest to anyone who voted red last week, except, perhaps, for political strategists looking to find out how the enemy thinks. The Colbert Report does something similar, even though it has a different, slightly wilder energy, driven as it is by an extended stunt of a performance by Colbert, the affable liberal, playing “Colbert,” the nitwit right-winger parroting Fox News talking points. If Oliver’s show hadn’t come along, it seems possible that The Daily Show and its time-slot partner (come January, it’ll be former Daily Show correspondent Larry Wilmore’s The Minority Report) would have become televisual furniture, another thing that’s just mysteriously Still On, and that the habituated audience keeps watching without ever feeling dissatisfied.
Oliver’s show threw a wrench into that possible outcome by taking core bits that once were the sole province of The Daily Show (the punny/smart-assed headlines, the “gotcha” deconstructions of political chicanery, the “Does this person I am interviewing know I am putting them on?” segments, the occasionally surreal imagery) and putting them at the service of education. I’ve watched every installment of Last Week since its debut. Every time, I’ve come away feeling that I’ve truly learned something. In an increasingly degraded journalistic landscape, that’s an astonishing achievement.