John Oliver's Last Week Tonight

I’ve recently discovered this and have been going through it on YouTube; not having cable, much less HBO I don’t have a choice.

On his YouTube channel, at least, the format is one subject, like anti-vaxxers or taxpayer funded stadiums, running about 15 to 30 minutes. This seems like an odd format to me, gathering an audience and crew together for that, even if you tape several a sessions in one sitting. Is there more to the show on HBO itself like interviews or shorter segments to round it our to an hour or 90 minutes?

What you’re seeing is the main segment. Each episode will have other stuff going on - smaller comedic bits, videos, sketches, etc.

But the whole point of LWT is that its less-frequent airing schedule allows the showrunners to focus on a single subject. Those monologues are some of the smartest, best-researched, incisive stuff on television right now.

It’s a half hour long show. Usually there is a ‘quick recap of the week’ which is like 3 or 4 stories that he riffs on for a total 10 minutes, then a quick one minute humorous montage of something in cable news that week, and then the 15-20 minute long main story.

I think it’s a good amount of time. Any longer and it’d get dull, I think.

I believe it runs exactly 30 minutes, but extracted clips on YouTube may not be entire episodes. I think some episodes are all one theme but other topics may show up in the opening monologue or be broken into segments.

It’s been a while since I had HBO, but as far as I recall a lot of their filler content is movies that don’t fall neatly into timeslots. I’m not sure why a half-hour show would be considered such an unusual length, though the dramas HBO is more known for usually run a full hour.

Another thing with the economic model of HBO is that they will spend on a program if they think there is a market segment that will pick up, keep, or drop HBO purely because of that program - Last Week Tonight isn’t their usual fare, but if even a couple percent of their audience are dedicated fans of the program they may find it profitable to keep it going.

There’s probably a lot of overlap with the fan base for Real Time with Bill Maher. I know those two shows are the primary reasons we subscribe to HBO.

He does a few short segments (one to three minutes each), a few pretaped segments that are generally edited montages of News people being dumb that are about a minute each and then a “main story” which are the segments you have been watching and run about 15-20 minutes. The show is usually about 30 minutes long but often goes over. I think the longest was about 40 minutes (I DVR it so I notice the length).

The same kind of show is Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, but she can’t say “fuck” without getting bleeped by TBS. Together these two shows have taken over where Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert left off, although Colbert is back on a tear too. His interview with Oliver was a hoot.

In fact, Last Week Tonight presents some of the best journalism today in a succinct, accessible format. (I say “presents” because John Oliver makes it explicitly clear that he is not journalist and that they rely on journalist sources such as, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Oregonian, Al Jazeera et cetrea, for the bulk of their content, although they do original research and interviews themselves.) Not to slight The Daily Show and Trevor Noah, but the show is the spiritual successor to Jon Stewart, only in a depth that Stewart rarely had time to get into, and addresses some of the below-the-fold issues that nonetheless impact society as a whole. It is obviously a prestige project for HBO for which they are willing to put in a budget which the show cannot possibly justify (a fact that Oliver has alluded to in many instances) but the result is unbridled and multifaceted coverage of complex issues without reducing them to artifical dichotomies.

I have to disagree. I can’t stand Maher, who has pretensions about being an intellectual but too often turns complicated issues into simple talking points just to fulminate divisive arguments. Oliver is never reluctant to say, “This is a complicated issue…” and explain why there isn’t a simple solution. Maher, on the other hand, seems to look for simple divisiveness rather than address inherent complexity.

Samamatha Bee is fine if you like her schtick, but she rarely delves deeply into any issue, and presents a very feminist-forward view of any issue. She’s preaching to a particular crowd (and one that I largely identify with) but it is a very singular voice, and there isn’t much depth in the stories presented in Full Frontal. One can scarcely imaging Bee saying anything critical about Hilary Clinton, for instance, even in the context of saying that the balance of deception and distortion is grotesquely outweighed by the perfidy of the GOP in endorsing Donald Trump. And Bee is, self-admittedly, shrill and sanctimonious. She’s playing to a certain audience, which is fine as far as it goes, but her show is hardly groundbreaking and not terribly insightful. Gee, look: Trump supporters don’t know the difference between unfounded opinion and fact! That’s not exactly a revelation that requires a ten minute segment and face-of-the-crowd interviews on a weekly basis to appreciate.

Oliver is top of the heap in political comedy precisely because he’s willing to criticize anybody, and do it in a self-effacing fashion which demonstrates that he doesn’t think he’s morally or intellectually superior. And he’s willing to dispense with comedy entirely to make a point, which often serves to further highlight the absurdity of realpolitik that drives some of the horrifying things that we’ve seen in the War on Terror (indiscriminate use of attack drones, Guantanamo Bay detention), energy policy (dependence on hydraulic fracturing, the coal industry), and political machinations (gerrymandering, voter suppression).

But as Oliver often points out, it isn’t sufficient to simply be outraged; people actually need to step up and take a public stance, not just once in a while, but by supporting good journalism and political activism. Samantha Bee and Bill Maher feed on the outrage, but rarely encourage their audiences to actually do anything. Oliver frequently makes the plea to go out and take specific actions to challenge the status quo. Whether that translates into positive action over the long term remains to be seen (the so-called “John Oliver Effect” of viewers responding has yet to show a long-lasting effect on public policy) but he’s not just milking the audience for recreational outrage.


Oliver is doing some of the best work on tv now because he’s got the freedom to delve into other subjects than a steady diet of Trump, Trump, Trump, who provides so many outrages covered by so many outlets that a weekly show sometimes seems to be talking about a distant era instead of, say, Wednesday.

His long-form takes are often very good, for reasons Stranger gives. Their flaw is that he doesn’t fully trust his audience to stay with them over that length. He lards them with so much silliness that he often kills his own momentum.

Stranger seems to not have watched Samantha Bee this season. She’s tossed the “face-of-the-crowd interviews” and most of her correspondents for more incisive rants. More of the late in the show segments are designed to get people active and involved, exactly what he likes about Oliver. Her show is sharper for Trump’s being in office, while Oliver’s is not: he always seems like he’d rather go after Trump and not waste all the good jokes his staff came up with.

They’re both still very good in an era where a weekly show is oddly a handicap, something totally outside of comedy experience. Seth Myers and Colbert and TDS are better suited to catch the immediate outrage and work that into narratives that give context for understanding the levels of horror involved. Bill Maher throws out a hundred jokes. Six are killers; the rest aren’t. He’s better live, where he groups the jokes and lets them build properly.

SNL will be running Weekend Update specials in prime-time in August. I’ll be curious to see if the added time available gives them room to get deeper or just adds mush.

The show’s need to insert safe low brow humor in the middle of serious segments creates a cheap dissonance. Doesn’t help that Oliver has like five jokes. The show vaguely criticizes capitalism and abuse of power of local government officials more than most mainstream lib comedy shows, so there’s that.

Drumpf is a Russian stooge with small hands and wants to bone his daughter also he’s orange LOL XDDD

Trump really does ruin everything.

Actually, Oliver doesn’t focus that much on Trump, especially when compared to other hosts. He talks about him, of course, but Trump is the president and it’d be pretty weird to do a political show and not talk about the president.

Take this week’s episode for example, Oliver did a few minutes on Scaramucci, a few minutes on Trump and then a deep dive into Alex Jones’ television and marketing empire. He’s also done long segments on poultry farming, the militarization of the US police, the bail system and DC statehood.

Okay, that makes sense then, one big researched segment with small fillers on what happened that week to fill it out to a half hour. Still a bit weird, though. Game shows are usually shot a week at a time so, with breaks and all, a session lasts five or six hours. Even with setups and all I can’t see a LWT session lasting more than two or so. I wonder what the craft union rules are about minimum hours.

So, you don’t actually watch the show?

Are you seriously comparing a political humor series with often deeply researched and extensively fact-checked stories on often esoteric or ignored issues to a game show?


No, I’m comparing the mechanics of gathering a crew, talent, and audience together in a studio to tape the thing; content was not mentioned.

I love the fact that he focuses upon some really important things in the long segments. It IS important to recall that he has an editorial bent (liberal) in how things are presented. But he does tend to at least make nods to arguments that can be made against the proposition he’s presenting. His long pieces are certainly more insightful than most of the pieces on a 60 Minutes show. And they are a great starting point for learning about an issue. They often cause me to spend a good couple hours chasing down stuff on Teh Intarwebz.

He is from the Jon Stewart school, in the sense that he believes that the “correct view” is not to be declared to be so by fiat, but should be able to hold up the questioning and examination, even, in fact, especially, if he himself holds it. Stewart never failed to call out the bullshit on “his side”. Neither does Oliver.

Compare with Noah. His interview with the Head of Planned Parenthood was basically a 10-minute segment of him fawning over her. If he has at least challenged her, probably the message would have been strengthened. Samantha Bee (who I love and who is who is funnier than all save Colbert and Oliver when he is trying to be funny) does not even pretend to give a critical lookover.

They really must have an insane budget considering some of the stuff they do, and in particular the recent refusal to kowtow to Bob Murray in their Coal report, even knowing that a lawsuit would follow, took some big balls and a bigger bank account.

I rarely disagree with your usually well-informed posts, Stranger, but I’m going to disagree with this assessment. I’m sure Maher would fully acknowledge the complexity of most of the issues he comments on and jokes about. Perhaps he can make simple statements about them because he knows that his audience is intelligent enough to understand the complexities and nuances, too. You accuse him of divisiveness and simple talking points; I tend to see it as cutting through acknowledged nuances for the sake of clarity and making a strong statement, and one that is often very funny.

Both Einstein and Feynman are reputed to have made statements that are variants of the adage that “if you truly understand something, you ought to be able to explain it simply”. Few things are more intrinsically complicated than the earth’s climate, for example, yet one can make simple and accurate statements about the impacts of fossil fuels and the wrongness of the denier crowd. Health care is also a very complicated issue (“who knew?” ;)), yet one can make simple statements about the moral imperatives of a civilized society and the impracticality of relegating it to free markets.

In the same spirit of simplicity, I think maybe the best response to accusations against Maher of being overly simplistic and divisive is his trademark slogan “… but I’m not wrong!” Because most of the time, indeed he is not. HBO is respected for the quality and innovation of its programming and Real Time is part of the reason for that, not an exception to it. It’s been nominated for a primetime Emmy as an outstanding variety or talk show or for outstanding writing almost every year of its existence.

Don’t you think that the kinds of informed discussions that Maher encourages on his panels of qualified participants are an important element of good journalism? I’ve certainly felt more informed after watching some of those discussions than I was before. You don’t have to guide people by the nose or incite them to specific actions in order to be influential and make a difference.

I stopped watching Real Time specifically because the informed discussions were constantly being derailed by stupid comments from Maher himself. Oliver gets away with his puerile comic digressions because he’s only interrupting himself, whereas Maher would frequently completely break the flow of a very interesting discussion between a panel of intelligent people with a diverse range of views just to get in a cheap zinger. Really fucking annoying, and that’s before you get into the whole religion/pot/vaccine thing.