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

Last Week Tonight with John-Oliver

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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  1. Fred Forever says:

    I LOVE JOHN OLIVER

  2. John says:

    Seems a little overly praiseworthy. It does not trust the audiences’ attention span that much. Most of the jokes are there to shamelessly serve the audience, making tenuous links to keep enough laughs up.

  3. a567and8 says:

    I agree with you. And I treasure the work Oliver is doing. Hope he has a long TV life!

  4. acme says:

    I disagree that Stewart and Colbert use the headlines to get to the laugh, while Oliver uses the laugh to reinforce the story. All are doing live, moving political cartoons, in which the point being made is, well, the point, assisted by humor. They are much better news shows than the news shows.

  5. The sad thing is on these serious issues the only way to get the American people engaged is if it is funny.Having said that anyway knowledge on important issues gets through is fine with me.I am an avid watcher and hope the genre spreads.

  6. Name (required) says:

    I don’t think these people are trying to be better comedians and entertainers, they’re trying to be better citizens. And we should try to keep up with them!

  7. S Anderson says:

    I love this show!
    John’s segments offer a clear & logical view of the complete lunacy which has manifested into a portion of our nation’s mindset.
    The show’s brilliant commentary spells out concise reasons for the decline of our civilization.
    His biting humor is absolute truth wrapped in a good poke at the morons who feel they have the right to force the masses into their warped version of reality.
    I am not a DINGO—

  8. thirteen says:

    It was “The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” and both the BBC and NBC versions of “That Was the Week That Was” were on the air at the same time in their respective countries. Producer David Frost rather famously used to fly back and forth across the Atlantic a couple of times per week to supervise and host both shows.

  9. Dave says:

    Yes, so cutting edge.

    TV Nation did this…

    …twenty years ago.

  10. I’ll bet I’m one of the 2 or 3 people in American who said to myself “This is like ‘The Week That Was” of so long ago”. I really liked that show.

  11. Kevin says:

    This is why you don’t drink and post…

  12. Which race is he exactly biased and racist against? Very curious to learn more.

  13. Uncle Spud says:

    The Daily Show started in 1996 and has featured Jon Stewart since 1999. So how is that “In recent years” and “in new fashion”?

  14. frederick says:

    He could use some editing on his segments. I tried to watch the Uganda episode but found the cheerleaders and uncle sam distracting to the story. About the time abe lincoln came out, I turned the channel as I didn’t feel like watching the clowns dance on the stage for another minute to drive in the point that this is suppose to be sarcastically patriotic.

  15. Asdf Jkl says:

    I’ve often felt watching the Daily Show that I wish the segments weren’t so short, that sometimes Jon gives you only enough to get your interest piqued in a subject and then moves on to the next thing. Oliver seems to have less of a problem with sticking to the issue for a while and I love it. Preach, Mr. Oliver, preach! Now I just need to get HBO so I can watch it in its entirety instead of just the segments online.

  16. I love John Oliver and the show has its high points, but I do agree that segments are drug out minutes longer than they have to be. I find many of the jokes pull at straws and will try too hard to make a joke, to the extent that they forget what the initial point of the segment was. If this could be reigned in a bit, I think the show will be stronger. Needs to be snappy! Do a 6-8 minute bit and move on to the next segment.

    • I really don’t want to appear disrespectful, but I think this might be exactly what the article is talking about as to the American attention span. I’ve seen all the shows, the segments are not too long, they are packed full with information with little that could be trimmed without losing something that is worth knowing. Sure there are occasional bits / jokes that don’t work that well. (I also did not like the cheerleader / breakdancing Lincoln bit) But then a) that just happens in every comedy show, humour is subjective and not easy to get right and b) they’ve still only done 8 shows, they’re still finding their feet and there’s no reason to believe they won’t get better as time goes on.

  17. tim forget says:

    John Oliver like his mentor John Stewart of the daily show is what you yanks need. A vehicle id comedy to bring out the truth about your political and social conditions. It sure makes my say wtf.

    • Considering the state of British satire, you would definitely need them, too. Unfortunately the BBC is far too afraid of the Daily Mail and its pond scum readers to do anything even slightly innovative or controversial…

  18. Tanner Caplan says:

    I’m pleased to see Last Week Tonight is delivering on predictions I made in my review of the first episode http://uchicagogate.com/2014/05/29/review-last-week-tonight-with-john-oliver/

  19. Linda Doucett says:

    The best show on the air. I watch… then watch again. The power of comedy is highly underestimated

  20. Love this show!!! One of the few shows worth watching.

  21. Dan says:

    Quit it, dinosaur. Go back to your ancient times. As usual, you are on the wrong side of history and truth.

  22. Judith says:

    He raves like a maniac and trashes people with the best of them. Forget his mindlessness and utterly malformed diatribes.

  23. DBCooper says:

    His wit is it, my favorite show all week, he doesn’t overdo, and crosses the line just fine by me.

  24. We love his show. So smart – so entertaining. This should be Must-See-TV for everyone.

  25. Messi fanatic says:

    TWTWTW was a terrific format. Oliver has pushed open some new real estate. The truth is best told with a sense if humor and if watch certain stand ups they are socially and politically astute. While you laugh and can’t really deny the truth.
    Last Week adds to the real estate of progressive thinking, HBO also has Vice, and Real Time…

  26. Matt says:

    They should expand the show to at least twice a week

    • Denise Flynn says:

      Or an hour long show once a week would be great.

    • Linda Doucett says:

      every night

      • Don’t overdue it. The weekly schedule also helps them by giving them time to do all that research. Expanding the show with a regular interview segment and one or two additional stories would be good (especially because John really is an engaging interviewer, more so than Stewart) but I would be afraid of them stretching themselves too far as well. I’ll prefer half an hour of concentrated quality over something watered down.

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