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With a Perfect Segment on Net Neutrality, “Last Week With John Oliver” Finds Its Voice

With a Perfect Segment on Net Neutrality, "Last Week With John Oliver" Finds Its Voice

The first reviews of John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” saw his weekly HBO show as a chip off “The Daily Show’s” block. But six weeks and five episodes into his run, Oliver has already succeeded in carving out a distinct niche for himself (and not just because you can’t show an old man’s penis on basic cable). It’s perfectly encapsulated in Sunday’s segment on net neutrality, whose call for viewers to comment on the FCC’s proposal to allow telecommunications companies to establish an internet “fast lane” was so successful that it crashed the government agency’s servers.

At first glance, Oliver’s net neutrality bit could easily pass for one of Jon Stewart’s more action-oriented segments: There’s the comically heightened exasperation bleeding into genuine despair, the metatextual frustration with trying to make a boring but critically important subject palatable to a mass audience, the constant use of pop-culture references to keep the audience roped in: Superman, Caillou, “Lizard Lick Towing,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “A Cry in the Dark,” Monopoly and Shrek in one 13-minute segment. 
But “Last Week Tonight” is fundamentally distinct from “The Daily Show” in at least one critical way. Where Stewart is the real anchor of a fake news team, Oliver is a solo act, one so engaging that the show could drop its planned interview segments from two of its five broadcasts without losing momentum. In that sense, “Last Week” hews more closely to HBO’s history of building shows around self-styled truth-tellers like Bill Maher and Dennis Miller. But Oliver lacks Maher and Miller’s aggrieved entitlement: He’s not an angry white man, more an exasperated idealist.

Like Maher and Miller, Stewart began as a successful standup comedian, and he still delivers the (fake) news like he’s in front of a nightclub crowd. Occasionally, he’ll work in a callback to his pre-show interaction with his studio audience, or turn to the camera to deliver the visual equivalent of an open letter, but for the most part, he’s addressing an anonymous collective, just like every other newscaster on the virtual dial. The set behind him mimics the ostentatious pageantry of the 24-hour news cycle, with bright colors and moving graphics suggesting the constant flow of information.

Oliver, by contrast, looks straight into the lens. The camera is farther back, but the feeling is more intimate, and the twilit backdrop behind him conveys a sense of quiet finality. Even when he’s plainly enraged, as he (rightly) is during the net neutrality segment, Oliver can still play it cool: “The internet in its current form is not broken,” he deadpans, “and the FCC is currently taking steps to fix that.”

Rather than inserting himself into the chaotic stream of breaking news, Oliver steps in at the end of the weekly news cycle and and bats cleanup: If “The Daily Show” is the front page, “Last Week” is the Op-Ed section — except that rather than mimic the stentorian authority of a daily newspaper, Oliver opts for the first-person intimacy of a YouTube video. (HBO has wisely been generous with posting episodes online.) And that feeling of direct address makes something like this week’s call to action especially powerful: The net neutrality segment went viral because it was funny and well-crafted, and because the FCC’s plan to rip out the heart of the open internet is truly appalling and under-reported. But it also spread fast and far because even though he’s another white man at a desk, Oliver’s doing something subtly but fundamentally different.  He’s not talking to The Audience; he’s talking to you.

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