When Oliver took up his post at HBO, we had high expectations. The previous summer he manned "The Daily Show" desk with ease and seemed more than poised to continue the "fake news" formula perfected by his predecessors, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Instead, he chose a slightly different path for his show, one that placed more importance on drawing attention to an issue than gleaning laughs from the audience. As Steve Almond of "Salon" put it:
Oliver and his staff seem to recognize that the vital ingredient isn’t the gags, but the capacity to tell large and disturbing truths about these broken institutions. In contrast to the fake news programs, he doesn’t much rely on punny graphics and rapid-fire video montages. In short: He appears to have evolved past the point of shtick.
Instead of relying on tried and true shticks, he takes risks. On his second episode, Oliver eased into a segment about the death penalty by acknowledging the ludicrousness of the idea. He quipped, “I know what you’re thinking. You’re not really going to do a comic take on the death penalty? It’s your second episode! I’m not even sure I like this show yet.”
He also takes action. After explaining the "evil" that is net neutrality, he called on his viewers to leave comments on the FCC website. His simple appeal prompted Internet trolls to leave over 45,000 angry comments that subsequently caused the FCC website to crash.
And though he denies it, Oliver delivers real investigative journalism. As the Daily Beast pointed out, when the Miss America pageant claimed to provide $45 million in scholarships, Oliver responded: "'That is an unbelievable amount of money -- as in, I literally did not believe that,' Oliver said. So he and his team obtained a large pile of documents and tax forms, and determined that the $45 million figure was, at best, misleading spin." If that isn't investigative journalism, we don't know what is.
Oliver maintains: “It's not journalism, it’s comedy -- it’s comedy first, and it’s comedy second.” Yes, Oliver makes us laugh (Dogs reenacting Supreme Court deliberations? Come on), but more importantly he commands our attention. He doesn't shine a single spotlight on uncomfortable (prison rape), boring (payday loans) and foreign (Uganda's homophobic laws) topics; he strategically uses every spotlight, bell and whistle, so that we're left with no choice but to fully engage with each issue that he chooses to tackle.
We could go on about the genius of "Last Week Tonight," but the show's best takedowns really speak for themselves. Check out our favorite segments to see what makes John Oliver a such a powerful force in comedic journalism. See you in February, John!
The Death Penalty
"Whether you are boiling people alive or putting them to sleep with a tiny injection administered by a puppy dressed like Winnie the Pooh, in the end, you are getting the same result."Watch
American & British Influence In Uganda's Anti-Gay Laws
"Clearly, U.S. groups recognized the market for homophobia stateside was dwindling, and so tried to sell it somewhere else. Meaning that, Africa isn't just where we send our losing teams Super Bowl shirts, it's also now where we send our losing political philosophies."Watch
"The guy who used to run the cable industry's lobbying arm is now running the agency tasked with regulating it. That is the equivalent of needing a babysitter and hiring a dingo."Watch
"That's right, [the police] buy toys with pennies from heaven. Well, they should know those pennies may not be falling from heaven, so much as from the pockets of people they are holding upside down and shaking."Watch
The Pumpkin Spice Latte
"We tolerate pumpkin spice because we like the fall. It's the best season because you get to stop thinking about how weird your legs look in shorts."Watch
The Sugar Industry
"We are proposing, in the spirit of Halloween, that product manufacturers express their sugar content in the form of candy. Specifically, circus peanuts, the most disgusting of all the candies. They taste like an elephant ejaculated into a packet of Splenda... Do it, food makers. Expose your peanuts to the world. Because if you're going to shove your peanuts in our mouths, the very least you can do is tell us what we're swallowing."Watch
"It seems winning the lottery can be like marrying Tom Cruise. Sure, it seems amazing in your mind. You might even dream about it happening one day. But, if it actually does, five years later, the magic will be over, you will be estranged from your family, and you will have seen things you can never unsee. NEVER."Watch
The Wealth Gap
"Sixty-five percent of Americans believe that the wealth gap is increasing and 60 percent believe our system unfairly favors the wealthy, but ... 60 percent also believe that most people who want to get ahead can make it if they are willing to work hard. Or in other words, 'I can clearly see that this game is rigged, which is what's gonna make it so sweet when I win this thing.'"Watch
"Payday loans are like the Lay's Potato Chips of finance. You can't have just one and they're TERRIBLE for you."Watch
The American Prison System
"Our drug laws are a little draconian, and a lot racist. Because while white people and African Americans use drugs about the same amount, a study has found that African Americans have been sent to prison for drug offenses at up to 10 times the rate for some utterly known reason."Watch
Ferguson Violence & Militarized Police
"The police are not soldiers. So why in this photo from Ferguson are they wearing fucking camo? They are northwest of St. Louis, not northwest of the Amazon. If you are a cop in the United States, you should dress for the job you have, not the job you want."Watch
Climate Change Skeptics
"You don't need people’s opinion on a fact. You might as well have a poll asking: ‘Which number is bigger, 15 or five?’ or ‘Do owls exist?’ or ‘Are there hats?' The debate on climate change ought not to be whether or not it exists. It's what we should do about. There is a mountain of research on this topic.”Watch
The Miss America Pageant
"Currently, the biggest scholarship program exclusively for women in America requires you to be unmarried, with a mint-condition uterus, and also rewards working knowledge of buttock adhesive technology, which is just a little bit unsettling!"Watch
Dr. Oz and Dietary Supplements
"If [Dr. Oz wants] to keep spouting this bullshit, that's fine, but don't call [his] show 'Dr. Oz,' call it 'Check This Shit Out With Some Guy Named Mehmet.'Watch