Perspective | Why John Oliver's anti-catharsis comedy is political late night's reigning template – The Washington Post

“Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” returned Sunday for its ninth season, still the best that political late-night comedy has to offer. Forget the 20-odd Emmys it’s won, including its lock on the talk-show category six years running; “Last Week’s” cachet and influence are most readily seen in how many of its competitors have emulated its chief innovations: length and depth.
Oliver himself leaned into his show’s strengths in the season premiere. The 34-minute episode dedicated nearly half an hour to dissecting the moral panic over “critical race theory,” a phrase that’s only in quotes here because so many of its detractors don’t seem to know what it is they’re railing against.
The segment was notable for two reasons: It cemented “Last Week” as the funniest, best considered and most persuasive of its proliferating ilk, while inadvertently drawing attention to how much harder it needs to work these days to distinguish itself in the crowded and increasingly formally homogeneous late-night space.
Search YouTube and you can find Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah and Amber Ruffin (whose namesake series relaunches Friday) explaining the conservative crusade against the legal framework, simplified versions of which opponents claim are taught in schools to paint American history, and therefore the country itself, as racist. (What exactly is the problem here?)
If Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” was once the standard-bearer for political late night, “Last Week Tonight” has since dethroned it. Without Oliver, it’s impossible to picture the recurring segments of Seth Meyers’s “A Closer Look” or Ruffin’s “How Did We Get Here” or the entirety of Hasan Minhaj’s six-season “Patriot Act.” Even Oliver’s former boss and mentor modeled his Apple TV Plus comeback vehicle — “The Problem With Jon Stewart,” which resumes March 3 — more on “Last Week Tonight” than the Comedy Central series that he transformed into an institution.
The transition from newspaper-style daily coverage to magazine-inspired alternations between topical stories and investigative features that Oliver introduced to political comedy — truly mind-blowing at the time — has been a gift to not only liberal late night, but to viewers as journalism. With “Last Week Tonight” finding a home at HBO and thus freed of commercial breaks, it was refreshing not having our intelligence insulted with bite-sized takes on the news — and between 2015 to 2021-ish, when our brains became mush from the onslaught of scandals coming out of the White House, it was comforting having an Oliver or a Meyers summarize the insanity of the week or day. (Some have argued that talking-point-heavy comedy, especially during the Trump years, has devolved into political pandering — an assertion not without merit.)
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But the most substantive (if not necessarily the funniest) thing that late-night comics have done with the freedom of their longer segments is to provide deeper context — a way of understanding the news that can be especially valuable to younger viewers, who may still be forming their worldviews. In a recent interview with The Washington Post, for example, Meyers said of his series, “We have tried really hard to draw as much attention to the underlying elements that both led to Trump’s rise and are maintaining his position of power within American politics.” Meyers’s peers tend to go even further back in history to prove their points. Oliver’s discussion of critical race theory, for instance, extended back to the academic paradigm’s birth in the 1970s as a response to the limited gains of the civil rights movement.
Oliver’s influence is probably not his sole doing. In the near-decade since his show’s debut, the metrics of a late-night series’s success have expanded beyond network ratings to encompass streaming engagement on both a show’s home and clips on YouTube, where explainer videos of all political stripes thrive. Perhaps it’s because of how seamlessly late-night segments fit into the larger YouTube landscape that network executives have approved, if not encouraged, comedians going long on, say, the origins of “copaganda” or the 16-year chancellorship of Angela Merkel. The shifting monetization strategies of television have undoubtedly accelerated the borrowings from “Last Week Tonight,” as late night continues to be consumed not just in fragments, but in modes most familiar to digital natives.
All these are, on the whole, positive developments. The intense competition between so many similar shows has forced the hosts, with varying degrees of success, to differentiate themselves as much as possible — some, like Ruffin, by honing their voice, and others, such as Ziwe, by crafting a persona that’s never existed before on late night (in her case, one that’s extravagantly confrontational and parodically race-obsessed). The preponderance of video explainers stemming from mainstream sources like corporate TV lends YouTube a smidgen of the kind of fact-checking that the site could desperately use. And if bloat is a perennial blight of the streaming age, well, at least the political comics are using their extended run times to better edutain us.
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But there remains one juncture at which the domination of the Oliver model leaves us wanting. Two decades ago, during Stewart’s heyday in the George W. Bush years, the comedian offered some catharsis from the day’s cruelties and inanities by doing what the mainstream news largely didn’t: cutting through the bull. It didn’t change anything, but at least “The Daily Show” of yore let us know we weren’t alone in our frustrations. Stewart, too, was looking around, seeing that we were surrounded by nonsense or worse, and calling it out, often with the vocal register and gesticulations of a flabbergasted Muppet whose outsize reactions were much more honest and relatable than the faux-serious commentary or thought-averse shouting elsewhere on TV.
Oliver and his current cohort are more intellectually ambitious than Stewart’s “Daily Show”; they’re not just reacting, but researching. They’re probably making us better informed, but their background-rich monologues about entrenched historical patterns and systemic failures deny us that sense of catharsis, however fleeting.
To his credit, Oliver usually concludes with solutions to the problems he describes, but they’re often abstract and reliant on larger social change. His critical race theory segment, for example, proposes that we as a society embrace discomfort in the classroom (particularly White discomfort in matters of race) as an inevitable part of maturation and growth — a prescription hard to disagree with on paper, but difficult to execute in real life. Perhaps that’s what makes Oliver’s anti-catharsis comedy so fitting for our overly educated, politically powerless and ever sad and anxious times — and why we can’t get enough.
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