Oliver and his staff seem to recognize that the vital ingredient isn’t the gags, but the capacity to tell large and disturbing truths about these broken institutions. In contrast to the fake news programs, he doesn’t much rely on punny graphics and rapid-fire video montages. In short: He appears to have evolved past the point of shtick.
Instead of relying on tried and true shticks, he takes risks. On his second episode, Oliver eased into a segment about the death penalty by acknowledging the ludicrousness of the idea. He quipped, “I know what you’re thinking. You’re not really going to do a comic take on the death penalty? It’s your second episode! I’m not even sure I like this show yet.”
He also takes action. After explaining the "evil" that is net neutrality, he called on his viewers to leave comments on the FCC website. His simple appeal prompted Internet trolls to leave over 45,000 angry comments that subsequently caused the FCC website to crash.
And though he denies it, Oliver delivers real investigative journalism. As the Daily Beast pointed out, when the Miss America pageant claimed to provide $45 million in scholarships, Oliver responded: "'That is an unbelievable amount of money -- as in, I literally did not believe that,' Oliver said. So he and his team obtained a large pile of documents and tax forms, and determined that the $45 million figure was, at best, misleading spin." If that isn't investigative journalism, we don't know what is.
Oliver maintains: “It's not journalism, it’s comedy -- it’s comedy first, and it’s comedy second.” Yes, Oliver makes us laugh (Dogs reenacting Supreme Court deliberations? Come on), but more importantly he commands our attention. He doesn't shine a single spotlight on uncomfortable (prison rape), boring (payday loans) and foreign (Uganda's homophobic laws) topics; he strategically uses every spotlight, bell and whistle, so that we're left with no choice but to fully engage with each issue that he chooses to tackle.
We could go on about the genius of "Last Week Tonight," but the show's best takedowns really speak for themselves. Check out our favorite segments to see what makes John Oliver a such a powerful force in comedic journalism. See you in February, John!