I haven’t watched an entire episode of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report in months. My disengagement coincided with the debut of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, which ended its first season Sunday night. Oliver’s show gives me the same giddy charge that really great segments of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report once did. If you’re a fan of those Comedy Central time-slot-mates, you share their embedded video segments not just because they’re repeating your favorite bits of received political wisdom (which is a huge part of their appeal), but because there’s a high level of craft happening from one minute to the next: clever writing, acting, editing, and graphics. But there’s a big difference between those shows and Last Week: When I watch John Oliver, I feel as if some sort of progress is being made.
Not political progress, mind you. I doubt any mainstream TV show can promise such a thing, even one that, like both The Daily Show and Colbert, combines the practiced irreverence of Saturday Night Live and the deep-dish research of a 60 Minutes or Frontline. The Daily Show has been calling out Republican retro-yahoo policies and Democratic hypocrisy and blundering with hard evidence ever since Stewart took over, and that stuff is still the show’s bread and butter (the “interview with an earnest ninny who doesn’t know he’s being made fun of” segment used to be equally central to the show but hasn’t been in years). No, I’m talking about a combination of aesthetic and journalistic progress. Last Week is doing what media watchdogs (including the Peabody Awards) keep saying that The Daily Show does—
practicing real journalism in comedy form—but it’s doing it better, and in a simpler, yet more ambitious, ultimately more useful way. If Stewart’s show is doing what might be called a reported feature, augmenting opinions with facts, Oliver’s show is doing something closer to pure reporting, or what the era of web journalism calls an “explainer,” often without a hook, or the barest wisp of a hook. Sunday night’sseason-ending episode of Last Week included a lot of terrific shtick, including Oliver’s riff on a CBS Sunday Morning segment celebrating a “salmon cannon” that helped salmon swim upstream against a dam-induced current to spawn; this led to a dadaist gimmick with him firing fish (somehow) onto the sets of other TV programs, including The Daily Show’s.
Posted By F. Sheikh