John Oliver Disembowels People Who Say He Disembowels People

No, not literally. But the host of HBO's "Last Week Tonight" doesn't love our hyperbolic headlines.
John Oliver, "Last Week Tonight" host and notable disemboweler.
John Oliver, "Last Week Tonight" host and notable disemboweler.

The Monday morning headlines following an episode of “Last Week Tonight” consistently frame John Oliver’s HBO series as the Mortal Kombat of late-night shows.

They frequently claim Oliver is “disemboweling,” “destroying” or “slamming” some target every week. 

Finish him, John!

To date, Oliver has “eviscerated” everything from police militarization to Rudy Giuliani to the media’s reporting on transgender issues.

Flawless victory!

Ahead of the sixth season of his show, Oliver is making his perspective clear: He’s not afraid to slam people who say he slams people.

In a press breakfast on Monday, the “Last Week Tonight” host was asked about his thoughts on the hyperbolic headlines surrounding his show, which he called “pretty dispiriting.”

“You can’t really help how [a ‘Last Week Tonight’ segment is] repackaged after the fact, you kind of just have to try and be confident with the piece in the context that exists,” Oliver said. “Then someone saying eviscerates or disembowels ― it can be a little bit sad when you’ve worked for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks or months and months on something, and then it’s ‘takes a sledgehammer to the face of person TK.’”

In 2014, Oliver launched his first epic takedown of headlines, using HuffPost as his personal piñata. Five years later, the “Last Week Tonight” host is still firmly on the side of those who decry headlines like “Watch John Oliver Verbally Pants Dr. Oz Over Dietary Supplements.”

”When people push back, ‘Well, he didn’t take a sledgehammer to the face ...’ Correct. Correct, we agree on that,” he said.

Despite the disapproval, Oliver seems to understand why those hyperbolic headlines prevail. As for why he chose not to reveal the specific topics he and his team will take on next season, he explained they would sound boring, i.e. they wouldn’t make for a good headline.

And he’s right. Voter ID laws? Gerrymandering? Just wait until next week for John Oliver’s shocking expose on municipal parking meters!

What Oliver does have going for him is a show format that allows him to delve into one particular topic, often for more than 18 minutes. With that amount of time, he’s able to break down exactly why Facebook should be flushed down the toilet

News writers don’t have that luxury. When they’re not being laid off, they’re often tasked with grabbing attention right now, and doing it in 60 characters or less, multiple times per day. Sensational words or vague headlines are, unfortunately, easily prioritized.

I, too, could be slammed for writing how celebrities have slammed others. In fact, no outlet is immune. In 2017, The New York Times addressed its own accusations of “clickbait” with a response from Mark Bulik, a senior editor for digital headlines. 

“For The Times to succeed in a digital age, The Times has to write headlines for a digital age,” Bulik wrote. “That means making sure we’re giving people a compelling reason to stop and read the articles.”

A “cardinal rule,” according to Bulik, is to not write a headline that leaves readers feeling cheated. Conversely, a headline that makes readers feel as though they’ve surmised the essence of a piece without actually reading it “doesn’t really serve anyone’s purposes,” either.

(Per that cardinal rule, if you actually thought John Oliver was going to be disemboweling people here, allow me to apologize. He did not brutally attack anyone during the press breakfast.)

It can be a little bit sad when you’ve worked for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks or months and months on something, and then it’s ‘takes a sledgehammer to the face of person TK.'" John Oliver

Later in his address to the press (where, again, Oliver did not assault anyone. I can’t stress that enough), the host explained that he originally entertained an even longer format for his show. Early plans threw around the idea of an hourlong program (before it was brought down to around 30 minutes) and included a guest segment, a staple of late-night TV.

“In our two test shows, we had an interview in studio at the end of the show … and [HBO] said, ‘You don’t have to do that. You can have another six minutes just for the story or telling jokes.’ That freedom meant a lot to us, and that did kind of affect the DNA of the show we ended up making,” he said.

That freedom helped the show evolve into what it is today, where one week Oliver could be talking about buying Russell Crowe’s jockstrap and another featuring a visit from the “Last Week Tonight” doggy Supreme Court, which, by the way, may not consist of all the original dog judges.

“I mean, nine dogs,” Oliver said. “They weren’t all puppies” when they started.

May the deceased dogs’ memories never be eviscerated with a sledgehammer.



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