How Will ‘Last Week Tonight With John Oliver’ Break Through?

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When John Oliver opened up last evening’s premiere episode of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver by welcoming viewers to “whatever this is,” he wasn’t totally off the mark. The latest show to feature Daily Show alumni as a host (a year, give or take, before its most famous former correspondent, Stephen Colbert, moves on to an even bigger gig) had a strong first showing, but definitely has a long way to go. In theory, it all looks pretty good for Oliver: he wrapped up a great run filling in for Stewart as host of The Daily Show, and is now free to curse as much as he wants on premium cable, right after television’s best political comedy series,Veep, wraps up for the night. It really isn’t such a bad spot to be in, yet Oliver has a pretty massive mountain ahead of him before the show truly defines “whatever this is.”

There was plenty to enjoy in the first episode, most notably Oliver’s trashing Oregon for wasting millions of dollars to create Affordable Care Act commercials that might get Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein to decide that they’ve done all they can and the Portland culture they’ve lampooned on Portlandia has finally sucked itself into one giant twee hole:

The show had plenty of other good moments, and Oliver has already shown himself to be an apt host, yet shedding the notion that Last Week Tonight is basically a Daily Show spin-off on another network is going to be a difficult task. It’s one that I think Oliver and his writers know they have to undertake much sooner than later so they can really make the show a hit, but it won’t be easy. Stewart is an institution, his show is on every night of the week, and it has a special place in the hearts of every left-leaning viewer who has watched Stewart act as an antidote to the yelling and screaming on Fox News and the messy reporting of other cable networks. But maybe most importantly, The Daily Show got a lot of people through the Bush years. The show really made its bones at the start of the new millennium with its election coverage, then it went on to be a refuge during a really dark time for a lot of people. That’s why, as horrible of an administration as it was, if W. never stole the presidency, it’s hard to see The Daily Show becoming one of the most important and beloved shows on television.

SNL proved it was willing to go from the television screen to YouTube with its digital shorts, and if Last Week With John Oliver creates the same sort of viral buzz, getting more people to tune in on Sunday nights shouldn’t be a problem. When Oliver took a segment on the outright lies that food companies tell you on the boxes and bottles of their products, suggesting that maybe consumers should stick new labels over the old ones, then suddenly had those labels handy for people to print up at their Facebook page, it was a good attempt at guerilla marketing for his show, culture jamming, and an attempt to go viral. When you go to the Facebook page and find the images to print up you get this message along with it:

Here are the fake nutrition labels that we showed on tonight’s premiere. Print them out and tape them to food items you have at home. But please do NOT use them for hilarious acts of public vandalism. And if you do that, ABSOLUTELY DO NOT tweet them to us at @LastWeekTonight. That would be a crime. A very funny crime.

Obviously you can’t really tell all that much from a show’s first episode. What we got last night was Oliver trying a few things, which is something I assume will continue for a few weeks. There was some new stuff, as well as a lot of the old Daily Show tricks, but he also gave us new spins on those. His segment on the elections in India borrowed his old show’s lambasting of the media while also tried to educate viewers a little more on the subject. That particular part went a little longer than I think it should have, but it showed Oliver can keep a conversation going without having to make everything a gag, unlike Stewart, who sometimes rushes over the story to get to the actual punchline of whatever joke he’s building. And that is where he might find his sweet spot: viewers who want their politics and comedy just a little bit smarter. That isn’t trying to take anything away from Stewart, but Oliver has a real opportunity to do something different without doing a lot of surgery. The show can work, and I think it will; but it will have to figure out whatever it is first.