If You Liked John Oliver's Temp Gig Hosting The Daily Show, You'll Love Last Week Tonight
Tara really did. So that's good!
Whatever your politics, you kind of have to give The Daily Show its due. Since Jon Stewart took over from Craig Kilborn (remember that guy?), the show has positioned itself at the center of the country's political conversation, such that its coverage of media coverage gets covered on 24-hour cable news networks, and right-wingers have tried (and failed) to reproduce its satirical tone. It's become an institution, despite Stewart's disingenuous claim that it's just a silly comedy show. And last week alone, not one but two of its former correspondents returned to talk about the great new jobs they've landed since getting their start on The Daily Show. We'll have to wait until next year to see what happens when Stephen Colbert takes over from David Letterman on The Late Show, but John Oliver's new show débuted last night, and his entry into the cable news spoof space seems to be to...recreate The Daily Show. Which is actually fine!
I am definitely not blind to the problems with The Daily Show, most of which revolve around Stewart's personality (smug), insistence on doing the same four "character" voices (tired), and predictable interview style (though on this last point: when he comes alive and tries, he can still bring it with guests who are really full of shit). Samantha Bee and her cable news-inspired "performance art" segments also gots to go, particularly if they're supposed to be a proof of concept for her to take over the soon-to-be-vacated Colbert Report time slot with more of that. But it really does still deliver stinging media criticism despite Stewart's many tics, and it's the only late-night show I watch every single night. So if HBO's thinking with Last Week Tonight is to take The Daily Show's successful format and sand off the parts that don't work anymore, it's really good for everyone.
For starters: John Oliver. In addition to having spent close to a decade as a Daily Show correspondent (and, haircut aside, one of the best), Oliver filled in for Jon Stewart as host last summer when the latter was directing his first feature film, and wow, the show was so much more fun to watch during his tenure. Oliver reminded us of what The Daily Show was like when its host wasn't just coasting on his reputation: he tried. So when the (slightly try-hard) credits of Last Week Tonight ended and the camera swooped in on a set that looked remarkably like The Daily Show's, with Oliver in the anchor desk, it brought me back to the time when watching The Daily Show was an unqualified pleasure: last summer.
And honestly, Last Week Tonight is basically the same exact show Oliver did as a temp on Comedy Central. There's a desk piece full of damning clips, then a break; then another one, and another break; and then an interview -- and the last of these was improved from the original by being pre-taped, to allow for sharper edits and minimize live studio audience clapter.
I do have some concerns. Like, aren't producers worried that, since they're only on once a week, all the other late-night shows will have picked over every one-liner a given news story can spawn? (That said: it's smart of the show's second desk segment to focus on an undercovered story to minimize this risk.) "And Now This," the filmed bits inserted where it feels like commercials should be, have not quite found the right rhythm yet; the John McCain burn could have been edited more tightly and we still would have gotten it. And while the entire series premiere is up on YouTube, I'm curious to see how much of future episodes HBO makes available; if segments can't be shared online, it's going to be hard for a show like this to get much traction. (And if HBO does start cutting up episodes and just throwing them up on YouTube, is it so that they can be test flights for loosening up access to some of their other shows?)
Finally, let's be real: most Sundays, when every single other show is on, Last Week Tonight may not get in front of my face until the next day -- but I think HBO knows that, and made it a week's digest so that it can sit and stew for 12-18 hours. And Mondays are thin for this household, so that's a boon, too. But maybe if this show does well enough, HBO will expand it to more nights, and it can just rise up and replace The Daily Show and fulfill my dream of outliving Jon Stewart's TV career.