Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for November 12 through November 19 is “Episode 30,” the season finale of the third season of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
For its last episode of the year and first after Donald Trump won the presidency, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver ran an episode that was both atypical and completely representative of the series.
While Oliver usually opens the show with a selection of timely jokes followed by a longer reported segment on a single topic, he greeted his audience on November 12 with more urgency than usual, his owlish eyes blinking rapidly behind wired glasses.
“Let us begin with our first and only story: the 2016 election.”
Last Week Tonight’s signature segment is the in-depth exposé of obscure legal loopholes and institutional injustices, from a half-hour piece on “multi-level marketing” to an analysis of systemic rot in the criminal justice system.
But his focus on a much bigger and more “obvious” topic — the whole of the 2016 presidential election — was more than justified. There’s been no shortage of confusion, outrage, argument, jubilation, and fear in the aftermath of the election. And with so much to deconstruct and analyze regarding how we got to this point, with America deeply divided and Trump unexpectedly headed to the White House, Oliver wasn’t quite as happy to just sputter in despair as per usual.
Well, okay, he still sputtered about some things (see: President-elect Donald Trump, whom he likened to “a human What Is Wrong with this Picture”). But he also stared into the camera and turned the onus on both himself and his viewers. If his audience were to watch this episode and then go about their lives as usual without speaking out immediately against some of the dangerous policies that Trump has proposed, he said, “things will not be okay.”
Oliver has made calls to action before (see: countering Miss America’s dubious scholarship funds by asking people to donate elsewhere). But this was the first episode since Donald Trump won the presidency, and the host was clearly too rattled by the election results to let his audience be passively entertained anymore.
John Oliver’s particular brand of nerd rage has become a form of liberal catharsis
Since its debut in 2014, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has become a preferred destination for liberals who like their comedy both cerebral and outraged.
Though Last Week Tonight runs weekly and tends to get more into the policy weeds than The Daily Show ever did during its Jon Stewart years, both shows found their niches by highlighting political absurdity and presenting it to their audiences with an exasperated refrain of, “Can you believe this shit?!” In general, their viewers can absolutely believe that shit, because their viewers likely already agree with them on key political and societal issues (more on that below). Their angry, aggravated schtick provided angry, aggravated viewers with an easy way to validate their frustration.
But after Stewart left The Daily Show in August 2015 and Trevor Noah began to bring his own rhythm to the role of host, Oliver’s show became even more beloved amongst that angry, aggravated audience. Many left-leaning news outlets, including Vox, quickly developed a habit of writing about Oliver’s topic of the week deep dives as definitive mic drops.
Here’s the thing: Getting a lecture from someone, no matter how funny and informative, can be exhausting if you don’t already on some level commiserate. That Oliver’s audience — which one can reasonably assume comprises holdovers from The Daily Show, affluent HBO subscribers, and angry liberals swapping clips on the internet, among others — is ready to commiserate with him is pretty crucial to his success.
So it’s no surprise that Oliver bookended his first episode after the election — a season finale that he and many of his viewers undoubtedly expected to spend reveling in Hillary Clinton’s hard-won triumph — with shock (“That really happened!”) and the doom-filled conclusion that “2016 was the fucking worst.”
However, if you paid attention to everything Oliver said between those two statements, something else becomes clear. For as much as he appeals to and comforts his liberal audience, he would like to remind said liberal audience that simply agreeing with him on important issues isn’t actually enough.
John Oliver kinda hates the idea of himself as liberal catharsis
The most telling moments of Last Week Tonight’s finale came when Oliver took aim not just at Trump and the forces that put him in office, but at the limitations of his own show.
Introducing a segment about the media’s role in Trump’s rise, Oliver called out CNN’s tendency to live-broadcast every Trump rally as if the network was trying to will it into being breaking news. But he then pivoted into the polarization of news sources, and discussed where Americans are getting their information — including Last Week Tonight.
People can choose to get their news from echo chambers that validate their views. There’s nothing inherently wrong with shows that have a viewpoint; this show has a viewpoint. We fact check everything we say, but we don’t pretend to be neutral.
…But a healthy media diet has to be broader than that. And the way we see news now is micro-targeted.
Now, Oliver wasn’t at all saying that Last Week Tonight is on par with fake news sites or explicitly partisan sources that cater to one side at the expense of facts, like the ones BuzzFeed News studied or that President-elect Trump has publicized on Twitter. But the idea that someone might watch his show, agree with the content, and walk away feeling smug about how righteously they live their lives is one that Oliver clearly doesn’t love.
“I know this is all depressing,” he said a few minutes later, addressing his audience directly. “But it does bring us back to the important question: What the fuck do we do now?”
The answer, he emphasized, is neither to move to Canada, nor to let yourself believe that staying within your preferred partisan lane with blinders on will do anyone much good.
In 2017, get ready for Last Week Tonight to ask you to do more than share its clips
“We’re going to have to stay here and fight,” Oliver said. Why? Because, he explained, Trump doesn’t have quite as much of a professed interest in helping a broad swath of people as our outgoing president does. He went on:
We’re going to have to actively stand up for one another. And it can’t be just sounding off on the internet, or sharing think pieces or videos like this one that echo around your bubble. I’m talking about actual sacrifice to support people who are now under threat.
And then he rattled off a list of organizations “that are going to need help under a Trump administration” that he hopes his audience will invest in.
“If you care about women’s health, donate to Planned Parenthood or the Center for Reproductive Rights,” he implored. “If you don’t believe manmade global warming is a ‘silly issue,’ donate to the National Resources Defense Council. If you don’t think refugees are a terrorist army in disguise, donate to the International Refugee Assistance Project.”
Throwing up a picture of Trump and Mike Pence, Oliver underlined his point even further: “Oh, and given these guys’ track record, I would also recommend donations to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Trevor Project for LGBTQ youth, and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund.”
Basically: Oliver told people to put their money where their mouths are, if they agree with him so much.
Again, this isn’t the first time Oliver has asked his audience to pitch in and make a difference in his issue of the week. Midway through his first season, he encouraged viewers to flood the FCC’s website with comments about its controversial net neutrality proposals; the ensuing avalanche of messages crashed the site, and some observers credit Oliver with kicking off a public backlash those proposals might never recover from.
By and large, though, Oliver’s aim with Last Week Tonight has been to shed light on issues that’ve been left to collect dust in government file cabinets. He’s not as prone to luxuriating in rage or taking overt sides, like his former Daily Show co-worker Samantha Bee on Full Frontal.
But it seems the election of Donald Trump to the highest office in the land has caused a shift in Last Week Tonight’s alchemy. As Oliver described Trump’s win again and again: “This is not normal.” That’s why he devoted an entire episode to figuring out what America’s new normal under President-elect Trump might look like — and the result was much more active than ever before.
Oliver obviously loves and appreciates having a platform from which to spread facts and encourage change. But he knows that no matter how good, thoughtful, unique, and funny as his team’s segments are — and they are some of the best out there — their work will all be for nothing if his fans’ involvement with the show begins and ends with commiseration.
The first three seasons of Last Week Tonight are available to stream on HBO Go, with extended clips available on the show’s YouTube channel. Season four debuts Sunday, February 12, at 11 pm on HBO.