John Oliver’s most reliable punch line is “and this is true!” He delivers it with an incredulous chuckle, to serve up facts from the absurd to the horrifying. The national animal of Scotland–this is true!–is a unicorn. A small-town police department in Georgia owns a tank, which it showed off in a video on its website, scored to the song–this is true!–“Die, Motherf-cker, Die.”
This also is true: on Last Week Tonight the British comedian has proved that you can still do new things with the fake-news show–including finding actual news.
When Last Week debuted on HBO in April, it seemed at first a lot like The Daily Show. The anchor desk. The topical jokes. And, well, Oliver himself, whom HBO poached after he spent the previous summer filling in for Jon Stewart.
But Last Week Tonight developed a form that suited its format by asking: What can you do with a pay-cable news-comedy show that no one else can? Well, you can swear. More important, HBO has no sponsors to alienate. So Last Week Tonight takes on commercial culture with as much gusto as its Comedy Central predecessors do politics. (In August, for instance, Oliver lambasted native advertising, or content paid for by advertisers and published by news companies, including TIME’s parent company, Time Inc.)
Beyond that, Last Week took its seemingly biggest liability, its weekly schedule, and made that its biggest strength. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are as beholden to news pegs as the 24-hour media cycle they expertly satirize. Last Week Tonight can’t be, so it’s free to dive into anything: police militarization, drones, civil forfeiture. The usual question of The Daily Show is, Why is the media obsessed with this story? Last Week Tonight’s is, Why isn’t the media obsessed with this story?
And Oliver has the luxury of obsessing, productively, at length. Last Week Tonight is a full 30 minutes–remember, no ads–and his lead segments run half that length or more. They’re not riffs but symphonies, building themes and callbacks, tension and release, detail and data, absurdity and outrage, until climaxing with a bizarre gesture (singing about mandatory prison sentencing with puppets) or call to action (urging online trolls to deluge the FCC with comments in favor of net-neutrality rules that protect equal-speed Internet access).
Oliver has successfully bet on his audience’s intelligence and against its apathy. As TV news digests itself into ever smaller bites, Last Week Tonight assumes that a comedy audience will watch 17 minutes about predatory lending. It does actual investigative journalism; in one stunning report, it dug up tax documents to prove that the Miss America organization was awarding far less scholarship money than it implied. And for all his puppet jokes and English self-deprecation, Oliver is not shy about taking sides and showing genuine, unironic, R-rated outrage–as compared with the eye rolling of The Daily Show or the built-in irony of Colbert’s devil’s-worst-advocate satire.
Oliver’s serious-funny advocacy seems like a cultural baton passing, from truthiness to truth. His earnestness may be better suited for our social-media era, when passion is more shareable than sarcasm. Maybe after years of authorities’ failing and fat cats’ gaming the system, it feels good to have someone to get mad with. Maybe it reflects a weariness with weariness itself. It’s a new take on old news. Yet at its heart, Oliver’s show relies on one of the hoariest principles in comedy: it’s funny because it’s true.
This appears in the October 27, 2014 issue of TIME.
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