Last night, John Oliver returned to HBO after nearly three months off the air. In that time, The Colbert Report ended, The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore premiered, and we witnessed a plethora of ridiculous news just begging to be torn apart by late night’s most unlikely hero. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver doesn’t yet have the reputation or audience of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (where Oliver cut his teeth). What is does have is a devoted, cultish following — largely because of the Internet — and the Season 2 premiere proved why Oliver is a champ.
The key to Last Week Tonight is its unique format. It has the benefit of airing weekly, on Sunday nights, allowing the writers a full week to write and hone jokes, and to produce hilarious, superbly directly video sketches, such as last night’s uncanny parody of prescription medicine commercials. The show also works because it’s decidedly John Oliver’s — unlike most late-night hosts, he rarely shares the stage with anyone else. He sits behind his desk for the full half-hour, uninterrupted by guests or awkward interviews, and talks directly to the audience, the viewers, in an elongated monologue that is funny, angry, clever, and educational, all at once.
One of the reasons why Last Week Tonight is so successful is because the show picks a single, heavily researched topic to explore every Sunday, rather than featuring a mix of the week’s news. Still, within this format, there’s room for digressions; last night opened with a Brian Williams joke and included a wonderful, expletive-laced farewell to Radio Shack.
But the comedic news program shines brightest during the long segments in which Oliver unpacks one single subject, bringing the world’s attention to a complicated topic that’s rarely explored on television, let alone with a humorous take. In last night’s premiere, Oliver decided to attack big pharmaceutical companies — a worthy adversary that certainly deserves to be exposed and knocked down a peg, but also an unlikely candidate for Topic of the Week on a news program that had been on hiatus for months. But this is just another reason why Last Week Tonight is so refreshing and successful. Sure, Oliver could have turned his attention to American Sniper or measles vaccinations, but thankfully we already have Wilmore and Stewart to guide us through that. Oliver doesn’t set his sights on the norm, the expected, or the overdone. Instead, he focuses on lesser-known targets that are equally deserving of scrutiny, and the result is a refreshing 30 minutes of comedy-inflected news you can’t find anywhere else on TV.
Last night’s topic — Big Pharma and the shady, unethical ways in which they influence doctors to over-prescribe medications to patients — was clearly heavily researched by Oliver’s staff. Instead of skimming the surface, the show dug deep to provide archival footage (a particularly charging highlight was a video of an Advair meeting: “There are people in this room who are going to make an ungodly sum of money selling Advair,” an executive proudly claims), reeling off facts, and generally crafting the sort of in-depth investigation that was previously unheard of in the late-night faux-news genre. What’s more is that Oliver always delivers these investigations with a healthy and effective sense of humor. “Drug companies are like high school boyfriends: They’re more interested in getting inside you than in being effective once they are there,” he jokes, in the night’s biggest laugh.
The entire segment is both brilliant and humorous, introducing viewers to the seedy word of Big Pharma while also keeping them amused and interested. It’s a tricky line to walk — educating while entertaining — but Oliver makes it seem effortless.