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How John Oliver and HBO Shattered TV’s Comedy-News Format

Analysis: By adding a hint of investigative journalism, 'Last Week Tonight' is coming up with story segments that in some cases are longer than those on '60 Minutes'

Brevity, so it has been said, is the soul of wit. John Oliver seems to believe the opposite is equally true.

The comedian has been letting loose on his new HBO program “Last Week Tonight,” unveiling segments that can last anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes and often pack as much research as a front-page story you might see from a traditional outlet like a newspaper (when front-page stories carried more weight in the modern news cycle). Last Sunday, Oliver presented a nearly 20-minute treatise on the plight of gay, lesbian and transgender citizens of Uganda, raising the notion that evangelicals from America may have played an instrumental role in harsh new treatment being doled out by that nation’s government.

The segment included nods to information from Al Jazeera, NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, CNN, MSNBC, Christian evangelical news organization World, and advocacy group Political Research Associates, not to mention an interview with Ugandan LGBT rights advocate Pepe Julian Onziema. Oh, and a bunch of cheerleaders, a breakdancing Abraham Lincoln and a Statue of Liberty emerging from a cake.

TV news has always been ripe for satire. That’s what the original “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live” once did, with its ersatz “Point/Counterpoint” fights between Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd and various on-screen antics from Chevy Chase. In recent years, however, the format has leaped from poking fun at those who deliver the news to analyzing the headlines in new fashion, particularly at Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart-led “Daily Show.” Now Oliver and his staff are shaking up the genre anew, providing a sort of investigative journalism that is not seen in any of the other comedy-news hybrids on the air.

In recent weeks, Oliver has presented a segment lasting more than 13 minutes on the “net neutrality” debate and one of more than 16 minutes about the troubles of dietary supplements pitched by luminaries such as Dr. Oz. He eviscerated FIFA, the governing body behind the World Cup, in a bit lasting 13 minutes and 14 seconds, according to a video posting from HBO on YouTube.

How different are Oliver’s content pieces? The typical segment on the often hard-hitting “60 Minutes” typically comes in between 11 minutes and 13 minutes, according to a spokesman for the CBS newsmagazine. Producers at “Last Week Tonight,” declined through an HBO spokeswoman to comment.

Such stuff may have been unexpected from the comedian who shot up the ranks during a stint in 2013 filling in for Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.” A spokeswoman for the Comedy Central show said Oliver stuck to the program’s usual format: four “acts,” with the final one being quite short (the show’s “Moment of Zen” cap-off bumps up against the rolling of credits). While there are no set times for the other three segments on the program, chances are commercial breaks on the ad-supported cable outlet would prevent a 20-minute report on most evenings (to be fair, the show has sometimes done two-part interviews with guests).

“I see Oliver as the next logical extension of the genre,” said Dannagal Young, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware who studies the use of political satire. Oliver, she said, “is going beyond traditional satire to give audience members specific directives that allow them to take action on the issues he deconstructs on the show.“

This is a field in which both Stewart and Stephen Colbert have played. Colbert focused on campaign-finance reform issues in 2012 and Stewart spotlighted a healthcare bill for first responders to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in 2010. Both took part in a 2010 event billed as the “Rally to Restore Sanity,” an effort that solidified the notion that both hosts do a lot more than just lampoon daily headlines. These examples, however, have been “the exception rather than the rule,” Young suggested.

Others also see “Last Week Tonight” breaking new ground. “On ‘Weekend Update’ and ‘The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,’ the background information and context about major stories seems to be there to serve the jokes. It’s pretty clear that the soundbites and news footage are there to make sure you understand the story in question well enough to laugh at the punchline,” said Paul Gluck, a TV-industry veteran who is an associate professor of media studies and production at Temple University’s School of Media and Communication. “I suspect that John Oliver and his writers may have a wonderful and satirically subversive mission: I think the humor is there to serve the story.”

Very little on TV is cut entirely from new cloth, of course. One might find an antecedent for “Last Week Tonight” in “That Was the Week That Was,” the satirical half-hour program hosted by David Frost in the 1960s, first on the BBC and subsequently on NBC. And Bill Maher’s “Real Time,” also on HBO, uses many of the same elements Oliver’s program does (the reliance on nattering panelists often seems to prevent the well-prepared host from launching a verbal salvo or three).

Yet “Last Week Tonight” defies nearly all current norms. The show surrounds soundbites with exposition, rather than letting video stand as the sole element of a segment. It trusts the attention span of its audience, believing a viewership constantly distracted by smartphones and mobile alerts will hang in there for the duration of a story, so long as it is compelling and informative. And it believes people will keep watching even if they might walk away feeling uneasy or unsettled by the issues presented each week despite the many jokes and laughs that are also delivered.

In an era during which even the most celebrated newsmagazines have taken to relying on soft celebrity interviews and tales of heinous murders, many could learn something from “Last Week Tonight.” The program is drawing people in with the promise of laughter, but sending them back out to the world with an unexpected element: knowledge.

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