John Oliver: The Al Jazeera America of comedy news?

John Oliver on HBO.
Los Angeles Times Television Critic

If “The Daily Show” is MSNBC and “The Colbert Report” is Fox, then “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” which debuted Sunday night on HBO is ... Al Jazeera America.

Ever since the BBC debuted “That Was the Week That Was” in 1962 (Note to Oliver: You didn’t even consider singing the headlines?), riffing on current events has fueled all sorts of comedy, from the opening monologues of “The Tonight Show” to the satiric performance art of “The Colbert Report.” Indeed, 10 years ago, a Pew Center poll threw the news media into a tizzy by revealing that more than 20% of young people said they got their news from shows like “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “Saturday Night Live.”

The format has become so ubiquitous that these shows now must brand themselves in a way similar to the newscasts they often lampoon. When HBO announced that Oliver, a “Daily Show” regular who spent last summer subbing for Stewart, would be hosting his own show on Sunday nights, all anyone wanted to know was what would he do differently.

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The short answer: not all that much.


The long answer (albeit based on a single episode and, therefore, very premature and possibly meaningless but which, as Oliver himself might note, I’m going to give anyway): Like Al Jazeera America, he will ostensibly go deeper, broader and with niftier graphics.

He will also drop a lot of F-bombs.Think London, mid-Blitz.

Because Oliver is, of course, British and Cambridge-educated no less, which has always given his take on the American sociopolitical scene the infuriating but unavoidable charm of the expatriate -- happy to intelligently point out this country’s many flaws but never, you know, actually leaving.

Which isn’t to put Oliver in the same category with, say, Piers Morgan. Heaven forbid. No, Oliver is a quick and brilliant comedian whose gimlet eye is offset by an effortlessly earnest tone and possibly the most adorable set of dimples on television today. And he wisely references his native land’s own precarious history on a regular basis, as he did Sunday night when entering a very long segment on the two candidates up for election in India. “Let’s deal with Gandhi first,” he said, adding, “and I realize that is not the first time that has been said in a British accent.”

The Indian piece did, in fact, set the tone for “Last Week Tonight,” which followed a format similar to that of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” if neither of those shows had commercials. Oliver opened with fairly predictable bits on the dual racism of Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling before moving to the dual canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II.

For most of the 30 minutes, he sat at a desk, occasionally cutting to taped bits, including “John McCain Tells the Same Joke Six Different Times” and a very pointed interview with former National Security Agency chief Keith Alexander, in which the two tried to rebrand the agency. (Alexander’s truly hilarious idea for a new slogan: “The only government agency that really listens.”)

But with his report on the elections in India, there was a sense of Oliver the comedian rather than Oliver the “Daily Show” spinoff. Raging, as he often has, that the American media are too obsessed with overcovering its own years-off election to pay attention to important political shifts around the globe, Oliver managed the fine double punch of stinging criticism and actual information, which is the very reason so many people say they get their news from comedy.

More important, he did it in an arena that his even his colleagues too often ignore — international politics.

Yes, he followed it up with swings at lower hanging fruit, including a very funny take-down of food labeling in general and Pop-Tarts in particular that included one of the best uses of the F-word in recent memory. But it was with the Indian coverage that he both shone (commenting on one candidate’s use of holographic appearances, he said, “That’s not just how you get elected. That’s how religions get started”) and set himself apart.

If Oliver can do for international news what Stewart and Colbert have done on the domestic scene, well, the already-crowded Sunday night DVR queue just took on an extra half-hour.


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