Photo-Illustration: Photo: Eric Liebowitz/HBO
A friend once shared a qualm about Last Week Tonight With John Oliver that went something like this: “I love it, but I wish he wouldn’t make jokes every 20 seconds.” Though I respectfully disagreed, the comment was illuminating, as it harkened back to Jon Stewart’s repeated claim that The Daily Show was “a comedy show” first, and thus not as journalistically liable as a segment on cable news might be. This friend preferred Last Week Tonight as a news program; the comedy only got in the way.
Now, John Oliver and his crew at LWT have only further blurred the lines between comedy news and actual news, probably more than any other show in history. Embracing wide-ranging topics that other topical shows aren’t touching with a ten-foot pole (tax-exempt municipal bonds for stadium construction, anyone?), Oliver and his staff have managed to accomplish the oft-untenable task of mixing a well-timed dick joke with hard-hitting journalism. And as their work in 2015 proved time and again, they’re pulling it off with flying colors, going places that other popular news programs won’t even tread.
From segments on standardized tests to chicken farming to pennies, here are the best Last Week Tonight segments from 2015, listed chronologically. It’s easily the most enjoyable way to relive some of this year’s most infuriating news.
“Marketing to Doctors” (February)
Oliver opened his second season with a blistering attack on a worthy opponent: obnoxious cartoon bladders. As amusing as that would have been, his point was more about big pharma, which, as Oliver points out, spends more on marketing than it does on research. And doctors, some of whom advertise a “free lunch” to the pharmaceutical reps who are willing to pay, in exchange for prescriptions.
Just when we thought we were done fearing Big Tobacco, Oliver swoops in to remind us that overseas, these guys are just as evil as ever.
A fine representation of John Oliver and his staff’s ability to take a profoundly unsexy topic and turn it into comedy gold. Here, looking at America’s crumbling infrastructure.
Nobody’s launched more detailed, televised tirades against corrupt sports organizations than Oliver. From FIFA to the NFL to fantasy sports, Oliver and his staff know how to stick needles into groups badly in need of a take-down. One of Oliver’s finest examples in 2015 was this, a depressing look at how the NCAA exploits student athletes.
“Government Surveillance” (April)
A substantial get for the still relatively new HBO program, this segment on government spying culminated in an interview with Edward Snowden that became one of the most wide-ranging we’d seen thus far.
You’d probably never heard of “patent trolls,” but now, for better or worse, you know exactly what they are. Here’s another example of a topic nobody had spent much time considering being thoroughly examined and ultimately torn apart by the staff at Last Week Tonight.
Guaranteed: This segment will make every future mall-visit feel a touch more evil. It’s a great reminder that companies like H&M and the Gap still have to get their cheap clothes from somewhere. “People who own oil fields are worth less than the people who make distressed jean shorts,” Oliver explains. This distressing segment tells us why.
“Standardized Testing” (May)
Here comes the monkey, as they say. (They don’t actually say that, it’s just a reference to this segment.) Anyway, this piece reinforced something we’ve all known for years: Standardized tests are fucking terrible and should be burned at the stake.
“Paid Family Leave” (May)
The same companies running sappy Mother’s Day ads are screwing new moms out of maternity leave. And that shouldn’t happen.
An exposé on the harsh realities of chicken farming, this was the best reminder since Food, Inc. that the meat Americans consume most often is in desperate need of a makeover.
“Online Harassment” (June)
Oliver takes a look at the seemingly endless online criminal activity — especially threats against women — that is rarely prosecuted. From rape threats to revenge porn to hacked nude photos, the list goes on and on. Also, nobody digs up old commercials better than Oliver’s staff. The two-decades-old commercial for “the internet” that he summons here is wonderful.
“FIFA 2” (June)
Oliver returns to the belly of the football/soccer beast to see how things are faring in FIFA-land. Turns out: Everything’s great!!*
*Everything is not great.
“Transgender Rights” (June)
For all the LGBT strides we made in 2015, life is still monumentally more difficult for those who identity as trans.
Probably the only show that can explore “tax-exempt municipal bonds” and rack up 5 million YouTube views. Bravo. This segment explores the public money being poured into the construction of private stadiums.
“Food Waste” (July)
Just a friendly reminder for those people — definitely not me — who might buy a bit too much at Trader Joe’s and then watch it go bad after two days. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten Trader Joe’s spinach on time. I’m part of the problem. Oh God. And food waste causes methane gas. Killing the planet. Again, everything is not great.
“Sex Ed” (August)
I saw this posted on social media probably more than any other LWT clip all year. This is worth watching for the super helpful “sock-as-condom” demonstration alone! As if we didn’t know that abstinence-only sex ed is terrible, this segment makes sure to drive the message home, and their homemade, star-studded sex-ed video is a wonderful cap.
This glorious segment encapsulates everything that Last Week Tonight does best. You might not initially see why something that’s been going on for years — like televangelism — is still relevant, but Oliver unpacks the ridiculousness and then goes another step further, by participating in the charade himself. A highlight of the year, for sure.
“LGBT Discrimination” (August)
Months after the historic same-sex-marriage ruling passed, Oliver details the myriad reasons why we still desperately need a federal anti-discrimination law. Also: Big Earl sucks.
“Public Defenders” (September)
Oliver tackles a subject near and dear to anyone currently bingeing Making a Murderer. Public defenders are taking on far more cases than any reasonable human being should possibly handle, and failing their clients in the process. As a bonus, this bit also includes Oliver ranking the Muppets in order of fuckability, which is a list we didn’t even know we wanted.
“Migrants and Refugees” (September)
Among the revelations of this segment: Fox News isn’t sympathetic to the plight of refugees. Contain your shock, there’s more. Turns out Oliver was following the refugee crisis even before it became a horrifying buzzword for U.S. Republicans later this fall. After viewing this one, I’ll never watch True Lies in the same way again.
“Mental Health” (October)
“Real e-snake agent” might be one of the better Oliver puns of 2015, so we can go ahead and put that in our Best of John Oliver Puns list. But otherwise, this segment digs up some truly appalling statistics about the state of mental health in America, like a rehab center in Nevada that deals with mentally ill people by providing them with a one-way ticket on a Greyhound bus (not recommended), and the fact that jails — with 2 million mentally ill people currently serving time — are our nation’s largest suppliers of mental health assistance.
“Canadian Election” (October)
Oh, Canada. We might have insane people running for our elections here in the U.S. of A., but as Oliver points out, Canada isn’t exactly immune to the madness. From the guy pissing in a person’s cup and then rinsing it out in their kitchen to Justin Trudeau’s “falling down stairs” party trick, Canada earns at least a B+ in its election cycle of crazy.
“Prisoner Re-entry” (November)
The awful cherry on top of Oliver’s multi-part prison series in 2015.
A good way to end the year, indeed, with this segment on the uselessness of America’s trash coin, the penny.