“Last Week Tonight” is a Massive Success

2014 was a very good year for John Oliver.

The British comedian-turned television show host recently concluded his first season with a skit that best captured the spirit of his new show: flinging salmon at various celebrities and other media personalities.

In a similar way, Oliver has flung his own brand of comedic journalism at a plethora of domestic and international current affairs topics. Ranging from police militarization, net neutrality, anti-gay laws in Uganda and foreign elections, the former Daily Show correspondent has tackled important current events — including some suffering from a lack of media coverage — with an unparalleled level of satiric and intellectual finesse during his initial foray into the world of premium-cable television at HBO.

Throughout the first season, viewers and critics alike have showered Oliver with praise. They commend the British comedian’s blend of eye-opening investigative reporting and smart quips that are aimed at bringing important – and sometimes startling – issues into public awareness. The show has described by Mediaite as the “Al Jazeera America of late night.”

The key to the show’s success may lie in Oliver’s British persona. The self-deprecating British host made a name for himself in his seven years on The Daily Show, highlighting the ridiculous and terrifying nature of American politics while simultaneously pointing out the outrageous extent of idiosyncrasies within American society to the point of comedic hilarity.

At the onset of his show, many thought he would continue the “fake news” formula that show hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central have perfected through the years. But with the airing of his second episode – which took an in-depth look at the death penalty (seen below) – it was indicative of a new direction the show was preparing to take.

He took a risk. Preparing his viewers for a segment on the death penalty, he acknowledged the seeming ludicrousness of it, quipping to his audience, “I know what you’re thinking. You’re not really going to do a comic death on the death penalty? It’s only your second episode! I’m not even sure I like this show yet.”

In another episode that aired on June 1, Oliver also explored the concept of net neutrality, which is the principle that all data on the Internet should be treated equally. But in recent months, cable companies and Internet service providers have argued that there should be an ability to pay for a “fast lane” to reach consumers on the web. The Federal Communications Commission – an independent government agency tasked with regulating TV, radio and satellite communications – took up the issue for debate earlier this year.

The British comedian confronted the little-known issue head-on, explaining the concept with his trademark satiric flair.

Defending the Internet as “the electronic cat database,” Oliver warned that if cable companies were allowed to offer two speeds of service, “there won’t be Usain Bolt and Usain Bolt on a motorbike, there will be Usain Bolt and Usain Bolt-ed to an anchor.”

Another factor in the show’s success is Oliver’s dependence on his viewers to take action, often with results. In the same net neutrality segment – where he called FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler a dingo – he called on the “Internet trolls” of his viewership to “focus their indiscriminate rage in a useful direction” and flood the comment section of the FCC’s website in support of net neutrality.

The day after the segment aired, the FCC reported having “technical difficulties” due to “heavy traffic” on the comments section of their site, and they were forced to shut it down for an entire day. In the two days after the segment aired, the FCC received over 22,000 comments, almost as many as they had received in the past two months, according to Mashable.

In a more investigative piece, Oliver took issue with the Miss America Pageant’s claim that they are the largest provider of women’s scholarships in the world, with $45 million made available to women every year. The claim had Oliver in utter disbelief, and he responded: “That is an unbelievable amount of money, as in I literally did not believe that.”

So Oliver and his staff obtained the state-level tax forms of Miss America competitions from 43 states, which revealed that the figure was at best, misleading spin.

There have also been light-hearted moments on the show. A notable instant was a segment where Oliver criticized the Supreme Court’s ban on televising their proceedings by creating his own video footage featuring animals with audio of real court proceedings. The “Doggy Supreme Court” featured a chicken as a stenographer and dogs dressed up as Supreme Court justices. It included a bulldog posing as Justice Antonin Scalia and a poodle – wearing glasses – standing in for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

With Oliver’s ratings already edging out 12-season strong Real Time With Bill Maher, the show’s continuing popularity will ensure more season renewals. As of now, the world can look forward to the second season of Last Week Tonight, set to begin in February 2015.

by JOSEPH ZEBALLOS / staff writer

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