How John Oliver Torpedoed the Reassuring Tropes of Fake News

The “Last Week Tonight” host isn’t interested in offering a balm for tough times. He wants you to pay attention.

Steve Almond

It’s been something of a shock – and a joyous one – to see how quickly John Oliver’s HBO program, “Last Week Tonight,” has gone from an awkward up-and-comer to an outright hit.

Not only is the program wildly  popular with critics in the big markets, it’s being hailed in plenty of smaller regional venues. It’s pretty safe to say that landing an extended rave in  the Auburn Citizen – circulation 10,000 – means you’ve broken out of the New York City media bubble.

The significance of the show’s surging popularity goes beyond its various laudable, and widely lauded, elements (the more diverse writer’s room, the commercial-free format, and so on). What the success of “Last Week Tonight” suggests, on a deeper level, is that American television viewers may finally be tired of the frantic bombast generated by the Stimulation Media.

What’s more, after years of making do with the therapeutic jibes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, they are finding in Oliver a figure more interested in making sense of the world than in making them laugh.

This is not to say that Oliver isn’t funny. He and his writers and guests have come up with some uproarious bits, most recently an infomercial supplied by comedian Sarah Silvermanurging Americans in dire financial straits to do anything other than borrow money from a predatory payday loan firm. “People will pay you to pee on them,” she confides. “That’s true. Doodies too! Doodies are more. Like double.” But a bit like this is not the point of the show. It’s merely the scatological kicker to a much larger story, one about the rapacity of an industry dedicated to exploiting our most economically vulnerable citizens.

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