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Niles North High School | Skokie, IL

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Last Week Tonight: The magic of John Oliver

John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, has got this. (More or less.) Image from (formerly Twitter).
John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, has got this. (More or less.) Image from (formerly Twitter).

Late-night comedy series Last Week Tonight, hosted by acclaimed British-American comedian John Oliver, began its eleventh season on February 18th. The series centers around Oliver explaining a specific main topic of note every episode. It is available on HBO, with a YouTube channel where the segments about its main topics can be viewed.

In the late-night comedy pantheon, Last Week Tonight stands out as unique. Other series simply make fun of the headlines, like Late Night With Seth Myers or The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. The Daily Show, currently hosted by Jon Stewart, pauses to explain stories a little more, but still doesn’t fully go in depth. Last Week Tonight, by contrast, dedicates an entire show to covering one central topic, informing the audience about what it is and why it matters.

These can be matters that are already on people’s minds (like the Israel-Hamas War); or topics that people don’t think about, but that still make sense to discuss (like the harmful effects of solitary confinement in prisons). And then there are the stories you could never have seen coming, like the sinister underbellies of everything from homeowners associations to dollar stores. As Oliver put it in a 2017 interview with NPR, “Lots of the issues that we’re attracted to are relatively timeless…They’re not necessarily issues that have been thrown up that week” 

In fact, the well-researched series is incredibly informative. Oliver once joked about people thinking that he “is school” on the show. Last Week Tonight’s researchers meticulously comb newspapers and news broadcasts, government documents available to the public, and other sources to prepare for each episode. Oliver has occasionally conducted interviews with such luminaries as Monica Lewinsky, Edward Snowden, and even the late Stephen Hawking for useful perspectives on each installment’s issue-at-hand. In a more recent 2023 NPR interview, Oliver illustrated that the LWT production process was to “take…stories and have them rigorously researched with fascinating footage and with absolute, utterly silly jokes on top of it, hopefully making the whole thing go down easier”.

To his point, what saves Last Week Tonight from, as Oliver puts it, “being school”, is the fundamental fact that this show is a comedy. Oliver’s explanations of issues are bolstered by his often mockingly-serious delivery of what are perhaps the most creative jokes in current late-night television. The series frequently pokes fun at major public figures, institutions, human practices, and even–more frequently than you might expect–its own parent network, AT&T. Only the LWT writers could use a scene from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic to illustrate their critique of police interrogations. (“Tell me what you want me to say and I’ll say it! I kidnapped the Lindbergh baby! Are you happy now, you pink psycho?!”) 

In fact, Last Week Tonight goes the extra mile, using outrageous stunts to round out its stories. In one particularly over-the-top example, Oliver finishes an episode about televangelists and their shady business practices by revealing that the LWT team has incorporated the show as a church, and facetiously implores the studio audience to send him donations.

Those of a more sensitive constitution might take umbrage at the swearing, sexual humor, and other adult elements of the show. For hardier viewers, however, swearing and sex jokes are LWT’s lead-in to informative, important discussions of poverty, dictatorship, and other real-world problems. Good comedy makes the audience laugh, but great comedy makes the audience think as they laugh. Last Week Tonight might as well have been grown in a test tube for that specific purpose.

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About the Contributor
Reed Larson-Erf
Reed Larson-Erf, Reporter
Reed Larson-Erf is a Junior at Niles North, joining North Star News for the first time this year. He enjoys reading, writing, watching Doctor Who and Arnold Schwartzenegger movies, and any chance he gets to make his friends laugh.

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