There's no sense trying to explain the premise of John Oliver's weekly HBO series “Last Week Tonight,” because he certainly didn't. The most refreshing thing about the “Daily Show” alum's debut on his half-hour weekly news recap was the instant rapport he built with viewers without having to sell us on a wild new format. In fact, Oliver established a lot of great impulses on his Sunday debut. Here were the nine biggest triumphs of the evening.
1. He wasted no time getting to work.
Before you could quake in suspense wondering what comic tone “Last Week Tonight” would strike, Oliver eliminated all pretenses right from the get-go: “Welcome to whatever this is,” he intoned from behind the anchor desk, right before springing right into the news. “It turned out to be a rough week for unrepentant racists and recording devices.”
We're already used to Oliver's droll reportage, so why should he waste time setting up his new show with an explanatory preamble? He filled every second of his 30-minute debut with comic news, which makes the show an awesome, fulsome anomaly.
2. It was like “The Daily Show”!
Oliver borrowed the standard (and effective) joke format from Jon Stewart's mothership. He often began with a terse opening statement, showed a mockable news clip, and then followed up with a couple of jokes paired with goofy visual aids. It's an expected move, but there's no need to reinvent the one-liner when you've got quips about Donald Sterling like, “Who can stay mad at that racist face? He's like a walking 'before' picture.”
3. It wasn't like “The Daily Show”!
“The Daily Show” usually gives us one extended rant an episode. On “Last Week Tonight,” Oliver never seemed satisfied concluding a major point on a single string of punchlines. In perhaps the most provocative and unusual part of the show, Oliver damned American news media for not reporting on the Indian national election in which 850 million people will be voting. Showing a clip from Indian news media that very closely resembled the delirious badinage of Fox News shows, he managed to indict both American ignorance and the grisly side of American influence. Frightening!
4. He used a surprising celebrity cameo in a very cynical way.
The most purely enjoyable part of “Last Week Tonight,” a show that veers in and out of goofiness with surprising agility, was a cameo from “Stay (I Missed You)” songstress Lisa Loeb, who performed a short ditty mocking CoverOregon.com's unbearably twee ads that don't convey the ineffectiveness of the website. Loeb, the bespectacled darling of the “Reality Bites” soundtrack, used Deschanel-lite vocals to croon downright damning lyrics: “You stupid Oregon idiots / Human Pinterest boards / Your passion for cuteness might kill your whole state / So long, Oregon.” You can't hear it (my shock at Lisa Loeb's caustic turn), but I dooooo.
5. Oliver may be more comparable to Rachel Maddow than Jon Stewart.
Oliver's jovially frustrated delivery is in the same school as Rachel Maddow's, as the MSNBC anchor often seems as if she's going to conclude a segment by abandoning diplomacy and pounding her head on her desk in abject exasperation. Take for instance when Oliver announced where viewers could send photos of fake labels they affixed to misleading food items in stores; he snarked about the campaign, “I might be 99.7% responsible [for viewers getting in trouble], but my .3% innocence is my characterizing flavor.” That impish conclusion is actually dissimilar to Jon Stewart, who would be likely to end a similar segment with much sillier delivery. This Maddowian composure isn't as versatile as Stewart's delivery, but it is effective and fun.
6. His interstitial jokes were just as funny as his anchor material.
Instead of commercial breaks, Oliver threw to mostly great pre-taped bits. In one instance, he gave us a gag called “John McCain Tells the Same Joke Six Different Times.” That winning McCain quip? “Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country.” Ho, ho! That McCain and his TMB. (Typical Maverick Behavior.)
7. His interview was both funny and raw.
Oliver's pre-taped interview with former NSA director David Alexander was effective in that uncomfortably-confrontational-yet-funny “Daily Show” way, but the uninterrupted, extended style was a complete departure from, say, the material we're used to getting from Samantha Bee. In the future, Oliver's interviews will probably be the centerpiece of his show. The lengthy repartee was great, and his goofy, yet probing approach was actually beguiling. Alexander almost never knew how to react.
8. He showed a hilarious clip of football players accidentally tackling a cheerleader.
I had never seen that before. It is just shocking.
9. His pope joke killed.
The best single line of the evening? A jab at ol' Benedict, who canonized John Paul II and John XXIII on Sunday. “It cannot be easy to be the fourth most popular pope in a room, especially when two of the other popes are dead,” he quipped. Perfect.