It’s taken only five episodes and I’m ready to declare it: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has surpassed The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Is it a better show? That I don’t really know, but I can tell you that since Last Week Tonight started, I haven’t watched a single episode or even clip from The Daily Show. I haven’t watched any Colbert Report either. That lad from across the pond has ably filled my weekly quota for media and political satire.
I used to watch both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert pretty religiously, and I still consider them the high watermark of the format. They created magic in an arena that too often went for the easiest joke or the silliest gag. Before those guys came along, this Canadian was stuck watching This Hour Has 22 Minutes and The Royal Canadian Air Farce. In retrospect, it was a dark, dark time. Stewart and Colbert offered a much more biting kind of comedy. There’s fearlessness in their approach, which has given them sustained relevance for more than a decade. And though that remains true, lately I have found myself losing track of both shows.
In some ways, the issue is one of time. I don’t have the time! It’s difficult for me to watch the shows live, so I rely on the web to watch later — if I even have time the next day. I’ve often found myself catching up on two weeks’ worth of The Daily Show in single sittings on particularly lazy weekends, and not even bothering with The Colbert Report. The problem is then compounded by distance. While many Daily Show segments will hold up well after a week or two, many of them are simply too topical. The impact is lost.
That’s where Last Week Tonight has shown its greatest advantage. What at first seemed like the show’s biggest handicap — that as a weekly show it would be stuck covering well-worn territory — has become its strength. While the show does cover events that have already had a week to get torn apart, it uses that extra time to add perspective. Airing Sunday nights, Oliver can look back at the week that was, giving fresh insight rather than in-the-moment snark. The show also wisely avoids putting all its cards in that super-topical basket. The best segments, such as the one on the Indian elections in the first episode, or last night’s excellent report on net neutrality, have played with a kind of infotainment that feels genuinely educational in a way that Stewart and Colbert’s shows only occasionally have the space for. Instead of having to play catch-up with Stewart, I now don’t even bother. I now turn to John Oliver’s single, rounded 30-minute show at the end of the week.
Of course, there’s also Oliver himself. The man did an incredible job holding the fort at The Daily Show when Stewart was away last summer, and he’s doing an even better job on his own show. There’s a special confidence Oliver has as a host, and it comes from his outsider’s astonishment and anger. I will often sit here in Toronto, looking at political and social issues in the United States, absolutely shocked and appalled at the things that go on. Oliver, as a Brit living in the U.S., clearly has that same feeling, only more so. The beauty of what he does is in how he channels that perspective right into his work, lending a special authority to his rage, where on Stewart the rage can often come off as whiny.
The best part is that Last Week Tonight is still new and has barely found its footing. It’s still a little rough around the edges. Some bits have worked better than others, and the show could use some more field segments. And yet every week, Oliver has grown more comfortable in his own shoes. The segments have better construction; jokes are becoming more and more on point. If the show is this good already, image how good it’ll be a year from now. I’m sure I’ll check in on my friends over at Comedy Central every now and then, but with Last Week Tonight kicking off my weeks, they just don’t seem as necessary.