Oliver and Company

Cookie Monster and John Oliver at news desk in suits

I praised the pleasant surprise that was John Oliver’s hosting of The Daily Show
when Jon Stewart took a sabbatical last summer. And I was not alone. Many TV critics predicted that Oliver would be promoted from correspondent to host of his own show — probably someplace other than Comedy Central, since a third half-hour* of satirical news and punditry there wasn’t likely. That someplace turned out to be HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

(*Stephen Colbert had yet to be named David Letterman’s successor on CBS’s Late Show, a move that left The Colbert Report’s post-Stewart 11:30 slot open. TDS “Senior Black Correspondent” Larry Wilmore is now slated to move into that slot with The Minority Report in 2015.)

One nice thing about Last Week is that it turns the glaring potential handicap of
airing on Sunday — after everybody from Stewart to Jimmy Fallon to Saturday Night Live has taken a swing at the latest headlines — into a strength by providing longer, more in-depth looks at current or recent events than is usually done on The Daily Show and Colbert Report, never mind Weekend Update or the late-night monologues. Case in point: Last night’s 15-minute segment on Miss America, a piece whose humor you’d think in this age would be as passé as the pageant itself but which has actual, thoughtful reportage, analysis, and bullshit-calling that includes the pertinent phrase “mint-condition uterus” and the admittedly but happily gratuitous phrase “James f---ing Franco”.

That sort of focus often leads to a revisitation of stories covered earlier. LWT got repeated mileage out of Russia losing contact with a capsule of geckos sent into space for a study of their mating habits in zero gravity, crowned earlier this month with a memorial performance of “Say Something”.

Oliver’s desk segments are broken up by short bits, usually a kind of animated infographic on a newsworthy subject narrated in stentorian voiceover, that take the place of the commercials that would be airing if this weren’t HBO. Filmed pieces might also be integrated into longer segments, like the brilliant fake ad for “Ladybucks” that Oliver threw to at the end of a segment on the wage gap between men and women.

I suppose that HBO uploads the bulk of each week’s Last Week to the show’s free YouTube channel on Mondays because it doesn’t figure there’s much shelf life in the program behind a paywall and it can only engender goodwill — maybe even push a few possible subscribers over the line — by sharing. The channel offers an occasional online exclusive as well.

Oliver recently anchored a special report with Cookie Monster for Mashable produced by Sesame Street, whose teaser video was one of those exclusives. The main piece has guest appearances from Al Roker, Kate McKinnon, and Nick Offerman and is worth a watch. Do not miss the outtakes.

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