April 27, 2014

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”



John Oliver’s was one of the feel-good TV stories of 2013.  Pulled into duty as substitute host of The Daily Show when Jon Stewart took a 3-month break to direct his first feature film, longtime “Senior British Correspondent” Oliver was widely expected to do a competent job holding down the fort during the boss’s absence, the comedy equivalent of the Vice President who takes over while the President is under anesthesia.  But he turned out to be the understudy who goes out there a (comparative) nobody, and comes back a star–it was almost instantly clear that Oliver had everything a late-night comedy host needed, including the aplomb to conduct an interview with Aaron Sorkin in semi-darkness when the studio lights went off.  Unfortunately for Comedy Central, it didn’t have a big job to offer Oliver (less than a year later, of course, the Stephen Colbert slot would have been his for the taking), so he was in the enviable position of being the date everyone wanted to bring to the prom (including CBS, which reportedly offered him Craig Ferguson’s slot–which, less than a year later, could have been the path for him, instead of Colbert, to take over for David Letterman).  It was HBO that promised the biggest stretch limo and corsage, and so tonight saw the debut of Oliver’s new Sunday night satiric news series LAST WEEK TONIGHT

It’s not much of a surprise, and at this point not really a criticism, to note that Last Week Tonight‘s premiere felt almost exactly like an episode of The Daily Show.  (Apart from Oliver, Last Week‘s head writer/Executive Producer Tim Carvell is a fellow Daily Show veteran.)  The occasional profanity went unbleeped (and in one case, unblurred), Oliver doesn’t have a team of correspondents backing him up, and he’s using short pre-taped pieces where the commercials on Comedy Central would go.  But otherwise, the format and tone are very much the same.

Like Stewart, Oliver began with a lengthy segment that found its way to the main story of the night, about the current election campaign in India and the US media’s almost complete lack of interest in it, despite its relevance to the US economy and plenty of strong story hooks (the contenders are a fashion-model-ready member of the Gandhi family pitted against a politician arguably responsible in part for a massacre of Moslems).  Oliver brought equal parts incredulity and outrage to the tale, much as Stewart would, and there were even the obligatory shots taken at CNN and FOX News.  Also Stewart-ready was a bit on Oregon’s woeful healthcare website, so bad that the state’s citizens have had to be turned over to the federal site, this segment juiced up with a fake commercial blasting Oregon that featured singer Lisa Loeb.

The main distinction between The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight was its middle segment, where Stewart would typically throw to one of his supporting cast members for a pre-taped package.  Instead, Oliver continued to handle things solo, this time with a piece about a POM vs. Minute Maid lawsuit that turned into an assault on the crazily false health claims companies are allowed to make in their advertising under their 1st Amendment rights.  (Pomegranates, contrary to POM’s assertions, don’t ward off prostate cancer.)  It was fine, but 25 straight minutes of Oliver behind the desk suggested that there’s a reason The Daily Show usually breaks things up for a few minutes.  The final piece was Oliver’s interview with former NSA head Keith Alexander.  It was pre-taped rather than recorded live on the show’s set, so it looked more like one of the correspondent interviews on The Daily Show than Stewart’s own (in other words, like the ones Oliver used to do during most of his time on The Daily Show), complete with Oliver asking the General to choose between several new goofy NSA logos (one being the Washington Redskins’s), but otherwise felt much the same.  There was even the note that the full interview could be watched online that Stewart often provides.

Apart from a nod to a bit more audience interactivity (viewers were encouraged to put their own labels on product packages and send photos to the show’s Twitter account), Oliver stuck with what he knows, and since he’s so good at it, Last Week Tonight was perfectly entertaining, smart, pointed and very funny.  As the show goes on, though, it would be well-advised to start developing a voice and format more its own, lest the series feel like little more than a weekend episode of The Daily Show with Oliver still playing substitute host.  No doubt that’s the plan, and while his new series finds its own place in the world, it’s not as though TV suffers from too much intelligent, thoughtful, opinionated comedy.  At the very least, Last Week Tonight is a useful weekend fix for fans of John Oliver’s roots who until now have had to get all the way from Thursday to Monday without a new Daily Show to watch.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."