I’ve been a fan of John Oliver since his days at The Bugle podcast, in which he discussed political topics with partner Andy Zaltzman. I am also a Late Night and political junkie. This year has seen seismic changes in the Late Night landscape: Stephen Colbert replaced David Letterman, James Corden replaced Craig Ferguson, Trevor Noah replaced Jon Stewart, and Oliver’s former colleague Larry Wilmore debuted his own show. Amidst all this change, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver saw increased viewership and influence during its second season, which aired through February to November of 2015. It became a social media phenomenon, thanks to its willingness to share its content on YouTube (a rarity for an HBO show). The show forged a reputation for itself as the thinking man’s late night show, eschewing talking head interviews in favor of hard data and lengthy exposition. That it manages to infuse its complex topics with great humor makes its success more remarkable. To celebrate the conclusion of its second season, we thought we’d look back at some of the year’s greatest moments:
Infrastructure is the perfect distillation of why Last Week Tonight matters, and how it succeeds in endeavors no other show would even attempt. At its best, the show highlights little-known topics of great consequence that are largely ignored by the media. Infrastructure is one of those topics. It doesn’t become sexy or interesting until a bridge collapses. If there isn’t a disaster photo op, infrastructure is rarely discussed. Nevertheless, maintaining the nation’s infrastructure is vital to public safety (as well as the economy), and recent assessments have shown how dangerously neglected our infrastructure is. John Oliver’s solution? Create a high-adrenaline trailer for a fictional movie starring Edward Norton, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Steve Buscemi. Perhaps if high-profile names are attached, people will pay attention.
Most of us have committed minor infractions over the course of our lives. They can range from jaywalking to loitering. If and when we’re caught, the resulting ticket/fine is an annoyance that is soon forgotten. But… what if you couldn’t spare $100? In this segment, LWT highlights how the poor are charged MORE due to their need to enroll payment plans. Add surcharges, court fees and other hidden costs, and the minor infraction becomes an insurmountable obstacle in the lives of the minimum wage workers, who may end up in prison as a result. The most brilliant part of the segment is how Oliver juxtaposes the plight of the impoverished with the experience of a privileged girl named Amber. Amber doesn’t realize how the system’s treatment of her differs from its treatment of the poor and people of color. That juxtaposition highlights the injustice of a system that is most punitive against those who are most vulnerable. If highlighting under-reported issues a testament to Last Week Tonight‘s superior insight, amplifying the voices of the downtrodden is its moral center. This is not a show that weeps for or fawns over the powerful.
In what is possibly its most ambitious and most talked-about segment, Last Week Tonight sent John Oliver to Moscow to meet with Edward Snowden, the infamous NSA whistle blower. Though initially tough on Snowden, Oliver did emphasize the importance of privacy, though he also noted how little Americans cared to protect it. After a depressing series of man-on-the-street interviews with American citizens who were unfamiliar with Snowden, Oliver tried to place the NSA wiretapping in terms Americans could care about: dick pics. To his audience, he planted the question: how comfortable are you with the government storing/viewing/tracking pictures of your genitalia? Though the issue of government surveillance gets more exposure than the other topics on this list, Last Week Tonight is one of the few shows that explored it from the perspective of overreach.
Last year, The Senate Committee’s Report on Torture was released to the masses, and the masses… didn’t really express an interest. Those who are into politics opined, but the vast majority of the American public was as disinterested in torture as they were regarding surveillance. In a desperate bid to draw attention to the subject, Last Week Tonight examined the details of the report, including the findings that prisoners died painful deaths in American custody without receiving due process. John Oliver also reminded us that there are no long-term restrictions in place to prevent torture in the future. He urged his audience to read the report, and to entice them, he recruited Dame Helen Mirren to read excerpts from it. With her considerable skill, Mirren hilariously tried to make the best of a very bad report. Thought the segment was released half a year after the actual report, and years after the events described within it, Last Week Tonight once again devoted some much needed attention to a subject that receives little time in the public discourse.
In some ways, 2015 was a momentous year for the trans community. There was increased visibility, even celebration, through the accomplishments of Janet Mock and Laverne Cox. Caitlin Jenner’s announcement regarding her gender identity received front page coverage. As this segment points out, however, the trans community continues to suffer humiliation and discrimination in the workplace and in public spaces that elect to enforce bathroom policies that violate this community’s gender identity. Trans people are often the victims of violence and sexual assault. As John points out, “we’ve agreed to call this man Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, just Diddy and now Puff Daddy again – and most people don’t even like him!” So why can’t we have that courtesy for trans people? The trans community and its allies still have work to do.
America produces and consumes an incredible amount of food, but even more disturbingly, it throws away about 40% of its food, also. The reasons for this can be as ridiculous as the aesthetic quality of the food: a misshapen orange is just as nutritious as a beautiful orange. There is also a widespread misconception among grocers that they could be sued for giving food away if the food should turn out tainted. Beyond that, there are no financial incentives for small businesses to donate the food to pantries. On the contrary, it would COST money to donate the food. All of this means that each year, we could fill 730 stadiums with the food we throw away. Meanwhile, people go hungry, and the environment struggles to maintain such a production rate. As is often the case with the issues covered on Last Week Tonight, there is a solution: codify permanently into law the incentives that would drive businesses to donate the food. If we’re not feeding the hungry, it is simply because we as a society have lacked the will and the follow-through to do so.
One of the principles that Americans adhere to is equal opportunity. Unfortunately, a child born in one part of the country will receive a SHOCKINGLY different level of sexual education than a child living in another part. This means they will face entirely different prospects for their professional lives, which may depend on their ability to postpone childbirth. It also means that issues of consent are often and widely ignored or become muddled in the disarray of messages that young people are receiving. The sexual act itself is associated with misogyny, as when young girls are taught that their worth is lessened by the number of sexual partners they’ve had. Federal money is being spent to promote abstinence-only education, which doesn’t teach the specifics of birth control and sexual health. Last Week Tonight suggests that we replace the shaming, inaccurate sex ed videos circulating around high schools with the show’s own message of acceptance and sex positivity, starring fabulous people like Kristen Schaal, Laverne Cox, Megan Mullally, and Aisha Tyler. It is best for society to educate and promote a message of healthy, consensual sex and respect for sexual identities and choices.
Though we all assume it’s a given, the right to an attorney was not codified in the US until 1963. And while in theory, “if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you,” in practice, the right to ADEQUATE representation is not ensured. Most states under-fund and overburden public defenders, so that each lawyer can only grant an average of 7 minutes to each case. In order to facilitate the process, public defenders may negotiate for plea bargains for their clients, which means that for a reduced sentence, people may plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. This then affects them because it restricts their access to the social safety net, and custody battles for their children. In some states, people who use public defenders can be fined for using the system, in essence negating the entire essence of the right to representation. Once more, Last Week Tonight was able to hone in on an issue that is taken for granted by most Americans (as with the aforementioned infrastructure) and opens our eyes to the dangerous shortcomings in the system.
In my favorite segment of the season, aired before the terrorists attacks in Paris, Last Week Tonight made a prescient plea on behalf of refugees. Numbering in the millions, and fleeing abject conditions and violence in their native countries, people seeking refuge in Europe are subjected to further humiliation, racism, and a myriad of obstacles. The backlog for their cases can take years to resolve, during which they are not allowed to work. In a genuinely touching and heartwarming speech, John Oliver highlighted the plight of one particular refugee, Noujain Mustaffa, a young girl with big dreams. Noujain learned English watching her favorite show, Days of our Lives, and to ease her ordeal, just a tiny bit, LWT made some calls and created a segment from the soap, just for her. It’s not often that comedians get sentimental, but Oliver’s impassioned defense of Noujain and others like her was truly a sight to behold, and his seemingly ridiculous gesture brought a beautiful smile to a girl who had been through so much.
So, there is a taste of what wit you are missing out on of you don’t watch Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. If you subscribe you can find it on HBONow/Go or find various clips on YouTube. Look to us to confirm the show’s return this coming February with new installments.
Why Is This Still A Thing? Because it is great HBO content.