Not Yer Momma’s Comedy Show

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It took me three weeks and a whole lot of not getting my hopes up to get tickets to a live screening of Last Week Tonight. After scrambling to get my name down on the list at exactly 3 pm on Wednesday afternoon for four weeks in a row, I’d received nothing but radio silence until, in the aftermath of a particularly long Friday night, my phone bleeped. It took a while to register: a nondescript, spammy-looking email had made it to my inbox, politely asking me if I would like a spare pair of tickets to the weekend’s show. Apologies for the short notice, bring whoever you want, don’t wear bright colors or flashy patterns, please reply before midnight on Saturday.

I sent in three separate RSVP emails to be sure. The automated email list, perhaps just as excited as I was, wrote back almost immediately. Great, so thrilled for you to join! See you at 5:30 pm at the broadcasting center under the Last Week Tonight awning (careful: if you reach the main entrance, you’ve gone too far). It was like that scene in An Affair to Remember where Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr made plans to meet up on the Empire State Building, only better. Last Week Tonight had been my rock all of last year: I’d watch it between grueling p-set sessions, make plans with friends to catch up over an episode, and even use up my precious free time reading up on episode reviews and recaps and think-pieces on political satire. It was my way of taking a break from everything glaringly STANFORD, and it was anything but an affair. And now? Now it was coming full circle. I was actually going to see John Oliver perform live.

It’s one of those things that I’ve known for a while but actually fully realized as the hour-long show taping was underway: John Oliver is, quite possibly, my favorite active comedian. As is probably the case with most of his other fans, this can almost certainly be attributed to his many creative projects: his The Bugle podcast, a stint on The Daily Show, and, of course, Last Week Tonight. Last Week Tonight was very, very quickly and very, very enthusiastically embraced by a target demographic of young liberal cynics (read: me) that were initially drawn to Jon Stewart’s dry and biting wit throughout his tenure on The Daily Show, as well as Oliver’s run as TDS’s Senior British Correspondent. 

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But as critical and impactful as time on TDS was in his evolution as a comedian, Oliver isn’t trying to fit into an existing Stewart-shaped mold. That was never, it seems, the plan for LWT, and with good reason. John Oliver would be doing himself no favors becoming a watered-down recast of Jon Stewart, so he opted to make his own mold instead. This makes for a few key differences between the two shows and styles. When he was still behind the (fake) news anchor desk, Stewart ran though his subject matter, editorializing and lampooning and stinging at breakneck speeds — that was all Stewart, purveyor of those classic, no-holds-barred buuuurns that we all loved tuning in to see. The aim of his show was to parody the news, to criticize the state of modern media over actually replacing it. Oliver operates more methodically than that. He covers significantly less material but at a much deeper, nuanced level — that is, and perhaps without intending to, he’s actually taking on the role of pseudo-journalist; he’s reporting socially conscious news through a comedic lens and whistleblowing till his lungs run out of air; he’s making sure that his audience understands exactly what it is he’s talking about before gleefully ripping it to absolute shreds on HBO’s many broadcast and streaming platforms.

Because of this approach, Last Week Tonight is a show that doesn’t underestimate the intelligence of its viewers — with the way it’s structured and written to inform, the program actually depends on it — and the script actively makes an effort to refrain from condescension as it tackles some really big ideas and social taboos. Income inequality? Net neutrality? Prisons, death penalty, corruption, food production, beauty pageants, transgender rights, sex ed? Last Week Tonight’s got you more than covered on that, it’s got you schooled.

This brings me back to the live taping. It’s one thing to watch Last Week Tonight from your laptop screen, half-distracted by the rest of the Internet, your chatty roommates and the thought of relaxing after a long day at work. It’s quite another to literally become a part of it (even phones were required to be tucked away and turned off, so there was nowhere else to look). That degree of concentration and exposure is what helps you appreciate exactly what’s happening here: a smart, hilarious and astoundingly impactful piece of pop culture in the making. Extra points to the LWT team for masterfully making a very difficult endeavor look effortless between peals of enthusiastic laughter.

The taping was done by 7 pm. At most, I had an hour in the studio. I’d somehow managed to snag a prime seat two rows from the front, smack dab in front of the Last Week Tonight desk, and I was so anxious and excited that I actually started to fidget, all clattering teeth and tapping toes like a living cliché.

As audience members, our job was to provide the show’s energy. The cameraman told us to follow his lead and cheer on cue, and to cheer as loudly as possible. “You guys have the hot ticket right now,” he told us, “you’re in New York City, and you’re here at Last Week Tonight, so on my mark—!” The first signal was a practice cheer. As were the second and third. There was no announcement, no indication, no nothing but a fourth signal when John Oliver ran out onstage. The cheering went from loud to up a few more octaves as the crowd jumped to its feet to welcome him. He smiled, waved, answered a few questions and slid into his desk chair, spinning around a few times as the theme song played and perfectly recomposing himself in the few seconds before the camera cut to his face.

Oliver appears much taller in person than you’d expect. In person, he comes across as harmless in his checkered shirts and crooked smile. He likes to dance between takes, has to stifle his laughter like the rest of us at some especially funny jokes, and more than once used the word “awkward” to describe himself that evening. But as soon as he sits down behind that desk, the guy becomes, first and foremost, the human embodiment of his show: smart, confident and hilarious, a comedic and cultural force to be reckoned with. As the opening theme song runs its course, you can see the pieces fall into place, his persona created. It is, for lack of better word, pretty freaking awesome.

The show began before the audience realized it. “Hi, I’m John Oliver,” he said to the camera lens, bouncing in his seat with a wide, slightly manic grin, “and welcome to Last Week Tonight!” Then, like seamless, magical, pop cultural clockwork, Last Week Tonight assembled itself right in front of me, delivering on the promise of its opening.

It is not a promise to be either the next Nightly News or Comedy Central fodder. It is not a promise to usurp the role of the news media, nor is it a promise of thirty minutes of cheap, mind-numbing gags. It is, simply enough, a promise to be earnest, to be clever, to be entertainment that transcends the two-dimensionality of a television screen — and actually, possibly, maybe if they’re lucky, that promise will spark a domino effect of sorts in the world beyond the Last Week Tonight desk. That afternoon, we were the lucky few who experienced it in person, but even without front row seats one can tell that this — this is something rare, something to be celebrated.

And what more could you ask for from your Sunday night television?


Photo courtesy of here and here.

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