As I see it, the purpose of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight is foremost to educate, then to advocate, and finally to make its viewers laugh at the absurd antics of everyday media and politics.
Take last Sunday’s episode, in which the ignorant comments of an Alabama state judge prompted Oliver’s summary—and subsequent takedown—of the manner in which judges are elected in this country. Instead of spending the segment skewering the Alabama judge (as the Daily Show would likely have done) or bringing in two pundits to debate whether the Supreme Court has the right to override a state (as most nightly news segments would), John Oliver spends 13 minutes incisively commenting on how super PACs, campaign donations, and public pandering are undermining our supposedly independent judiciary.
There’s an element of satire of course, as Oliver riffs on a series of horrendous and hilarious campaign ads, but the search for comedy is grounded by a greater commitment to distilling complex information. Oliver presents well-sourced material (he cites academic studies and the Citizens United ruling) that effectively supports his ultimate point that: “Sometimes the right decision is neither easy nor popular, and yet campaigns force judges to look over their shoulder after every ruling.”
According to some, this type of self-serious sermonizing has no place in a comedic environment, particularly coming from (gasp!) a foreigner. But Oliver’s chummy schtick shouldn’t diminish the fact that what he’s doing is hard-hitting, long-form journalism. While his kernels of wisdom may be sandwiched between Green Giant dick jokes and absurd clips of banjo-strumming judges, his ability to engage and inform viewers should be taken very seriously.