Monday, September 14, 2015

I'm Obsessed With Last Week Tonight With John Oliver

Image from
 It’s ridiculous how obsessed I’ve become about HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. In just a couple of weeks, I’ve gone from seeing just one short clip of his show several months ago, to watching virtually all of the uploads on his official YouTube channel, some of them multiple times. It’s gotten so bad (or so good) that during one whole (long) weekend, I did little else but eat, sleep and watch his show.

Of course I know I’m way tardy on the John Oliver bandwagon. I’m like that guy at a party who brings up a hot new band and insists everybody listen to them, only to have everyone else say, “Tagal na kaya nila,” and then add a variation of “I like their older stuff better” for good measure. But here I am now staying up way past my bedtime writing a blog entry about how I can't get enough of an American TV show. I’m hoping people give me a pass.

The first full John Oliver clip I watched was the one about government surveillance, with a sit-down interview with Edward Snowden. I had to see it as I’ve been following the whole Snowden saga since he flew from Hong Kong to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport over two years ago. It had all the elements of a juicy but fictional spy novel, but there it was unraveling in real life, and live on TV and social media. I found it intriguing that a relatively unknown TV host (unknown at least to me) would fly all the way to the Russian capital to get the chance to meet and interview such a divisive personality.

                                                                              John Oliver tackles tobacco 

The interview itself was insightful, provocative, and, above all, funny. For the first time, somebody dared to inject humor in a ridiculously complicated issue, and in the process, strip it down to make it as understandable and relevant as possible to the man on the street.

I didn’t revisit Oliver again until a few months later, when Jon Stewart stepped down from his show. I appreciated Stewart’s high-brow humor (high-brow in this case is relative, but compare his show to comedy in the Philippines and the level of sophistication might even reach stratospheric heights), but I don’t think I can call myself a diehard fan. Oliver was at the farewell show, paying tribute to his mentor, and that’s when it hit me. Of course. Where else would the geeky British guy with a penchant for checkered shirts come from than the satirical news show that started it all? I clicked on one of those suggested videos on the right of the screen on YouTube, then another, and then another. Before I knew it several days had passed and almost all the thumbnails on the Last Show Tonight channel had a grey film over them with the word “Watched.”

But what exactly makes Last Week Tonight so compelling? I mean, it’s just a guy at a desk talking directly to the camera. Granted he had a British accent, but it’s not like he’s the only one. For one thing, the show is clear about what it is. Oliver has never claimed to be anything other than a comedian, whose show just happens to straddle the line between hardcore news and a stand-up routine with visual aids. Much has been said about how much Oliver has so deeply assumed the role of a hardhitting journalist tackling serious issues like the death penalty, transgender rights, and nuclear weapons, but in interviews, the host has been adamant in saying that, as a comedian, his main job is to entertain people. This, I think, is important because it immediately dismisses any pretensions that the show sees itself as a traditional investigative news program. Last Week Tonight is a comedy show whose material just happens to be the stuff we see on the nightly news.

The show's episode about FIFA and the World Cup has 11 million views and counting

Criticisms that it’s nothing but a derivative of The Daily Show are unfounded. You can tell, of course, that it takes much of the elements that made Stewart’s old show great, but in the year or so that it has been on air, Last Week Tonight has firmly established itself as its own entity. The writing is incredibly sharp. I particularly enjoy the analogies and metaphors they use either to explain tricky concepts or simply to get a laugh out of audiences. Consider these gems:

In a story about tobacco:
“It’s an aging product that’s decreasing in popularity and yet somehow, it just can’t stop making money. It’s basically the agricultural equivalent of U2.”

In a story about the NCAA
“Paying college athletes with a top-level education is like asking a full-time nurse to take trumpet lessons. There’s no salary for this job, we’re just gonna give you trumpet lessons which you’ll be too busy to do, but if you don’t learn to play the trumpet, you’re fired.”

In a story about marketing to doctors:
“Drug companies are like high school boyfriends. They’re more concerned about getting inside you than being effective once they’re in there.”

                                      One of my favorite episodes is his takedown of the evil that is televangelists

The script is funny, sure, but equally impressive is the amount of research that goes into each episode. Oliver is basically in a one-sided conversation with his audience, but you can be sure every claim, every study, every statistic that comes out of his mouth is backed up by solid research. The comedy writers may concoct the sugar that helps make the medicine go down, but the medicine itself is crafted by the show’s research team, who are so good that they would make any traditional news agency proud.

Television is supposed to inform just as much as it should entertain, but I don’t think anybody would argue that, over the last few decades, it has become more of a vehicle for escape than a tool to increase knowledge. Although some would argue that it is still, first and foremost, a comedy show (including, most passionately, Oliver himself), Last Week Tonight With John Oliver is perhaps the most concrete example of a TV show that does not turn its back on its obligation to make us think even as it does its best to make us laugh. And I, for one, cannot get enough.