Stephen Colbert opened “The Late Show” last night with a joke about getting more than 30 seconds into his monologue without mentioning Donald Trump, but guest John Oliver, of HBO’s consistently brilliant “Last Week Tonight,” faces no such pressure to mention the businessman, entertainer, and poll-leading Republican presidential candidate. “I couldn’t give less of a shit,” the avuncular Brit told Colbert. “I don’t care until we’re in the same year as the thing that I’m supposed to care about.” (Watch the full interview here.)
The conversation between two of late night’s leading figures offered a glimpse into the way that networks and formats, not just much-ballyhooed hosts, shape the content and character of each entry in the genre. While Colbert has attempted to bring his political acumen to bear in interviews with the likes of Jeb Bush and Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel, his running Trump gag is an acknowledgement that producing a talk show five nights a week sometimes means playing into the inane churn of the news cycle. The same goes for new “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah, whose uneven first week has added little more than a sleek new set and “younger”-skewing pop culture references to Jon Stewart’s familiar news satire.
Of course, Colbert and Noah will need time to settle into their new roles—as is often said, late night is a marathon, not a sprint—but in retrospect Oliver developed his essential deep dives on current affairs rather quickly, and now in his second season he continues to fire on all cylinders. “We’re on half an hour a week, so we don’t have to care about the election,” Oliver told Colbert. “It’s a privilege to not care.”
Instead, he and his team of writers have ample time to prepare extended, informative, ruthlessly funny examinations of Europe’s refugee crisis and taxpayer-funded stadiums. That goofy church he set up to expose the (entirely legal) malfeasance of America’s televangelists? It’s also one of the year’s finest pieces of service journalism, and Oliver clearly does give a shit about that.