John Oliver's 'Last Week Tonight' Is Funny But Too Fast for Its Own Good (Analysis)
The show needs an hour -- or fewer topics -- but as a weekly show, the additional 30 minutes is the better choice.
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver had its debut on HBO on Sunday and though one show, or even one month of shows, would still be too small of a sample size to judge, one thing was clear: He wasn't going to waste any time.
Even at a commercial-free 30 minutes, Last Week Tonight felt rushed and jam-packed with information, heightened by Oliver's tendency to get excited and/or yell. Those are all good traits (and, historically, pretty funny traits of his), but the entire concept might work better at an hour so he could at least breathe.
Even though there was a ton of press leading up to Oliver's premiere -- including the man himself on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter -- opening up your first show with nary a moment spent saying hello or acknowledging that you're new in the neighborhood is a bit odd. I was expecting at least some mention from Oliver that this was his first show, that it would be one every Sunday, that he was happy you tuned in and blah, blah, blah.
Instead, Oliver raced through a litany of Daily Show-esque news items from the week (that's in no way a critique, since doing what he did at The Daily Show is precisely why HBO hired Oliver away from Comedy Central). During said racing, Oliver barely had time to acknowledge when something was funny. A couple of clever asides had to be left behind because, as Oliver said himself, there wasn't enough time.
Now, on the one hand, maybe this is a slice of genius. There wasn't an audible exhalation from Oliver, perhaps setting the land speed record for stuffing a show with more material than 30 minutes will hold the easily distracted. I certainly didn't dare look away -- partly because I didn't want to miss Oliver's terrific sense of humor and lightning-quick comic reflexes, but also because I was pretty sure he was going to turn blue and splat on his shiny glass anchor desk.
It was fast, and it was furious -- literally, sometimes, as Oliver seemed particularly pissed off that the American news media was ignoring a very important election in India in order to speculate on our own presidential election, which is nearly 1,000 days away. In particular, I liked that bit on India because it did what The Daily Show does so well: skewers the media for not doing the job and then informing viewers about the issue at hand. It's a clever tactic that never ceases to work -- you can't be bothered to tell us what's going on in the world (here, let's look at you failing in your job) and, oh, by the way, here's what's going on in the world.
Oliver did a fantastic job of that.
On the other hand, it was a job that went too fast. I wanted more air built into Last Week Tonight -- not just so Oliver could breathe and avoid turning blue, but because I wanted to laugh longer at some bits or even ponder a couple of others for maybe three seconds more than I was allowed.
Either Last Week Tonight needs to rethink this half-hour idea, or Oliver and his staff need to pick fewer stories. It would be a shame if the latter was the only option. I could watch this show five nights a week (as a 30-minute show). But if we only get Oliver every Sunday, give the man more time. He didn't even get to say hello and welcome viewers. He didn't get to show off his new set or talk about HBO giving him this opportunity. Instead, he was off to the races, often leaning toward the camera as if doing so would get his words out to the viewing public faster and allow for another segment at the end.
The actual content was intriguing mostly because it was both more serious and less serious (though a bit about misleading claims on American food items worked well on both fronts). Skewering Oregon for wasting millions on a failed computer system that would sign up residents for health care was particularly aggressive (but funny) and made it clear that Oliver was happy to use HBO's more liberal rules about f-bombs and such. It was a good bit, angry and strident and funny, just as most people like Oliver. But they also like him because he's silly and charming and ludicrous, and those are things that could be more evident if he had time to showcase them.
As it stands now, Last Week Tonight is too hectic for those casual elements, but they might be essential to his success. It's something for HBO and Oliver to ponder going forward.