When “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” launched last April, the show’s influences were pretty clear, and while well-executed, it was easy to write off as “‘The Daily Show’ with swears.” But in just six months, the HBO series has evolved to a new plane of existence — one to which other shows might aspire, if they check out this Internet thing that’s all the rage these days.
Last night’s episode is a perfect encapsulation of that, as John Oliver took action to make Supreme Court coverage more interesting by creating dog avatars with human hands to represent the justices.
It’s a funny bit, riffing on everyone’s favorite piano-playing feline, Keyboard Cat, but it then ascends to the heavens thanks to some key audience interactivity — the “Last Week Tonight” team has unleashed (rim-shot!) 10 minutes of audio-free footage for people at home to use in creating their own Supreme Court coverage. At least one person has already risen to the challenge — hopefully more will follow.
What’s interesting about the Supreme Court bit is where it falls in the context of the full episode — it’s the final segment. What came before? Well, the bulk of last night’s “Last Week Tonight” was devoted to a savage rendition of the way that the United States has failed to properly protect and support translators working with the military in Afghanistan and Iraq.
After 12 minutes breaking down the deeply flawed visa application process that prevents these translators from escaping the countries where, by virtue of having worked with Americans, their lives as well as their families are in serious peril, Oliver then interviewed a translator who had successfully made it to America, but whose family would never be the same.
It was a heartbreaking scene, handled beautifully by Oliver, and thanks to the freedom from commercial breaks granted by HBO, it’s the perfect sort of story for this show to take on — under-reported, but vital and human, with time and space for the angry, disgusted comedy that’s become Oliver’s signature. “Our main story tonight is going to end with you getting extremely angry at a donkey,” Oliver promises at the beginning — a moment that’s funny and also accurate.
It’s what “Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” also aspire to achieve — spreading awareness and creating change through comedy — and “Last Week Tonight” of course owes those shows a huge debt. But it’s slowly also becoming its own beast, largely due to the way it embraces lesser-known topics and goes out of its way to create new ways of discussing them.
Delving into problems most Americans don’t even know exist, and taking the opportunity to educate viewers, is emblematic of one of the great things about how the Internet has changed our culture. The random moments and unreported stories have a real chance of rising to the surface now — and spreading as easily as video of dogs wearing judges’ robes.