I love The Daily Show. Since I discovered its brilliance three years ago I have yet to miss an episode, because no one walks the line between mock outrage and genuine I’m-scared-for-the-future-of-my-country outrage better and more perfectly than Jon Stewart. Along with the hilarious skewerings of overreaching public officials, the spot on parodies and satires, and the laugh out loud field reports from the show’s talented team of correspondents, The Daily Show will often deliver much needed moments of serious reflection about the current state of affairs, and some of my favourite moments of the past three years have been when Stewart uses his platform to deliver pointed commentaries about the system and its many flaws.
Of the correspondents, my favourite by far was John Oliver, a British comedian whose field reports were often the highlight of many an episode, including such gems as his report on Australia’s gun control laws and his segment blasting the US for cutting off UNESCO funding. There was also the time that Stewart cut his wrist on a prop gone awry, and Oliver managed to seamlessly and hysterically incorporate it into their bit. However, my favourite John Oliver moment was easily his report from the final space shuttle launch in 2011, because his unabashed glee and excitement over witnessing the take off is truly a sight to behold. Because of all this, I was thrilled when Oliver took over as host of The Daily Show for three months last summer, because I believed it would be the perfect opportunity for him to really shine. Turns out, I was right, because not only was Oliver amazing as the guest host, but he was so amazing that soon after his stint ended it was announced that he would be leaving The Daily Show to host his own show on HBO. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver debuted two weeks ago, and after only two episodes, I’m convinced that John Oliver is one of the most talented people working in television today.
For anyone who may doubt that claim, I urge you to check out last week’s episode, during which Oliver dedicated over a third of the episode’s running time to discussing the death penalty’s use in the United States after the botched execution of Oklahoma death row inmate Clayton Lockett the week before. Not exactly the kind of material normally associated with a comedy program, but Oliver acknowledged this fact up front, promised viewers a video of a hamster eating tiny burritos as a reward for making it through, and proceeded to launch into a poignant, thoughtful, and yes funny, but appropriately so, discussion about the death penalty, and questioned whether or not it is morally right for a country to allow legal executions.
I already knew that Oliver is a brilliantly funny comedian, but as I watched this segment unfold last week, it became clear to me that not only is he brave enough to take on topics that most people would shy away from, but he is talented enough to do so in a way that is both intelligent and constructive to the greater conversation about these topics. At the end of the segment, during which he acknowledged his own country’s horrific history with the death penalty and outlined the many issues associated with its modern incarnation, Oliver managed the impossible task of offering his own opinion on the matter without judging those who may feel differently. On the contrary, he recognized that this deeply complicated issue will invariably elicit a wide range of responses, and in light of recent events, perhaps it’s time to encourage further discussion on the matter, however difficult that may be.
Comedy has long been used as a tool to discuss difficult issues and subject matter, and some of the best social commentary on record has often come from gifted comedians. John Oliver is no exception, and I’m thrilled that by landing at HBO, he has been given the freedom to do precisely that, because not many people would have the guts to devote so much time to such a decidedly unfunny issue only two episodes into a brand new show. In the end, it is this willingness to take risks that will most likely be what sets his show apart from the myriad of other late night offerings, and I know I will remain an avid viewer of Last Week Tonight for as long as it’s on the air. And now, here’s a video of a hamster eating a tiny burrito.