At times, my life feels like space between weekly episodes of HBO’s Last Week Tonight.
The state of the nation over the past several months has often felt dark and demoralizing. So, 20 minutes of laughter at John Oliver’s uproarious political and social commentary is a refreshing change.
However, the significance of the show’s surging popularity goes beyond its therapeutic gags and quips. Oliver argues with serious, desperate purpose — albeit with a grin — about subjects that Americans, either out of ignorance or an aversion to hard facts, just don’t talk about enough.
Unlike many other comedy shows, Last Week Tonight doesn’t focus on aping the most idiotic, sensational or shallow aspects of the news cycle. Instead, it offers viewers an opportunity to make better sense of the world by covering such topics as income inequality, the racism inherent in our political justice system and the death penalty.
Oliver and his writers recognize that as many of our civic institutions become increasingly corrupt and decrepit, the most important ingredient of Last Week Tonight should not be cheap laughs, but deep truths. Many of his exposés have been true tour de forces of expository journalism.
This is not to say that Oliver isn’t funny. He is. The show’s mirth frequently reduces me to joyful tears. Whether about student debt — “Essentially, student debt is like HPV. If you go to college, you’re almost certainly going to get it. And if you do, it will follow you for the rest of your life” — or cranberries — “Cranberries taste like cherries that hate you. Cranberries taste like what a raspberry drinks before a colonoscopy” — his jibes are funny and poignant. His brand of humor is singularly original and his takedowns are as slick as a whistle. Democracy, he once quipped, “is like a tambourine: not everyone can be trusted with it.”
Furthermore, Last Week Tonight has gained a reputation for embracing an unorthodox and endearing type of advocacy. For example, Oliver established a legally recognized church, Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, in order to expose and ridicule televangelists who preach the “prosperity gospel” to embezzle money from unsuspecting followers. Later, he donated all money raised by the church to Doctors Without Borders. More recently, following a segment about Trump and his relationship with the truth, or lack thereof, Oliver obtained advertising time on cable news shows in the Washington, D.C. area in order to reach the president where he is. Parodying an actual ad for a catheter, he used a folksy cowboy to educate the president on the nuclear triad, geography and which one of his daughters is Tiffany. In a similar vein, he caricatured a real Russian pop song informing the president about the dangers of closer relations with Vladimir Putin.
Above all, Oliver relentlessly argues against apathy or indignation alone. He has urged viewers to “stay here and fight” instead of moving to Canada and to donate to organizations such as Planned Parenthood and ProPublica.
“It is going to be too easy for things to start feeling normal, especially if you are someone who is not directly impacted by [Trump’s] actions,” he said. “So keep reminding yourself this is not normal. Write it on a Post-It note, and stick it on your refrigerator. Hire a skywriter once a month. Tattoo it on your a**. Because a Klan-backed misogynist internet troll is going to be delivering the next State of the Union address. And that is not normal, it is f–ked up.”
The magic of Last Week Tonight is just the right combination of humor and fearlessness. It makes me laugh, it makes me think, and it makes me consider the hidden systems of power and injustice all around me. For 20 minutes a week, I can’t ask for much more.