On Last Week Tonight, the Jokes Are Beside the Point—Literally

Well, it looks like John Oliver has missed his chance to fix the Supreme Court—or at least eliminate one source of what he has described as its pervasive corruption.

Despite Oliver’s generous offer of $1 million a year for life, plus a $2.4 million luxury motor coach, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has not responded by signing a contract saying he’s resigning—and as Oliver noted last night on his HBO show Last Week Tonight, the offer expires in just 48 hours.

As late-night stunts go, this was a classic, in the same league as David Letterman trying to deliver a gift basket to new NBC owners, General Electric, and receiving for his generosity a GE handshake (that is, a hand quickly snatched away before any physical contact was made).

Letterman at least got some response from his target. Oliver heard nothing from Thomas, or the wider Supreme Court; and probably, like every other effort to enforce some kind of ethical standard on the court, some scintilla of accountability, or even morsel of shame, this one fell on legally deaf ears.

That doesn’t mean Oliver didn’t put big points on the recognition board. His plan, which he initiated on his show February 18, gained some genuine traction in other corners of the media, although not for long. After publicizing Oliver’s bold play mocking Thomas’s propensity for accepting lavish gifts (including the forgiveness of a loan for the previously owned motor coach he already drives), the idea and the fun it generated sort of melted away, what with other outrages being pummeled nightly in other corners of the late-night world.

That was one reason why it was greeted with such enthusiasm by Oliver’s audience last night when he revived the offer to Thomas in the final moments of his Sunday night show: One last glimpse of the glowing beauty of that big-ass bus with the king bed and massive “residential-size fridge.”

Of course, the stunt got Oliver a lot of laughs as well as attention, but as the host himself professed: the offer wasn’t really a joke. There was a real contract involved, vetted by lawyers, who, to Oliver’s surprise, told him that offering to buy a Supreme Court justice off the court with money and a vehicle was “somehow legal,” though Oliver himself agreed “it really feels like it shouldn’t be.”

He made another point about it not really being a joke, which was a sly commentary on what kind of show “Last Week Tonight” really is:

“If you watch our show, you know jokes aren’t really our thing.”

No, points are really their thing: eye-opening, wow-I-didn’t-really-know-that, points.

A lot of late-night shows make serious subjects the target of their comedy: politics, of course; public corruption; health care sometimes; air safety, and the like.

“Last Week Tonight” deals in all that too, but not for a few jokes here and there—for 20 minutes or so per topic. Last night the focus was student loans, and if you paid attention you learned a lot. Even if you, yourself went through a decade or so of paying them back.

Was it funny? It was occasionally, in jabs and asides mostly. But it was certainly pointed, delineating (what other late-night show delineates anything?) the outrageous costs of college, and the infuriating rules and procedures that make paying the loans back a scandal worthy of political response, despite dismissal by the grievance-addicts who hate any idea of government helping people they like to sneer at.

Making fun of those people was where the bulk of the laughs came in, with special servings of comeuppance delivered to Jesse Watters of Fox News, who was on tape going defcon-1 aggrieved because some neighbor’s “dumb daughter,” who might have gotten an advanced degree in anthropology, backed her car into his and didn’t leave a note—and he sure wasn’t going to be on the hook paying for her student loans.

Oliver was amazed Watters even had neighbors, lived in a community with other people who see him on the street and “yet he thinks someone hit his car by mistake? And there’s only one suspect? That’s absurd. The whole town probably takes turns driving into his car.”

That was big-laugh funny. But another peculiarity in Oliver’s show is that he doesn’t really allow the audience to laugh very long because the show is packed with things it wants to say—and Oliver has to say them veryveryquickly. And usually pretty loudly.

It is a hybrid show—one part 60 Minutes, one part Frontline with a dash of The Daily Show—but usually a compelling one, even if there aren’t many real jokes and the subject can be a little arcane.

Those elements account for why it has won so many Emmy awards; it seems like several thousand at this point. Until the categories were changed this year, the other late-night shows were a bit aggrieved themselves to be in the same category because they made 4-5 shows a week to Oliver’s one.

That was a fair argument, which in no way diminished the work Last Week Tonight does, nor Oliver’s ability in delivering it.

Oliver, like many other comedy talents, headed by Stephen Colbert, came out from under Jon Stewart’s overcoat. When Stewart took a break from hosting The Daily Show, Oliver was given a shot to fill in for six weeks and he killed it.

So much so that he seemed destined at the time to be Stewart’s natural successor. Unfortunately, Comedy Central had failed to put a little rider in Oliver’s contract securing him for the network before he was put in Stewart’s chair for that run.

That enabled HBO to swoop in and steal him away. One of the top executives in television told me at the time, “that was single stupidest decision in the history of entertainment.”

Maybe, but it facilitated the creation of a different, one-of-a-kind, late-night, comedy-investigative journalism-lecture-series-with-cuss-words original, that Clarence Thomas surely never watches.


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  1. henry kane says:

    john oveis mildly amusing but not very clever he takes the obvious and spins them just abit he can be so much funnier if the show would let him do his own riffs

  2. Ken Harwood says:

    A marvelous review of a usually-marvelous show! And the staff sometimes actually responds to its emails. During the pandemic haitus from the studio, when Oliver was presenting from a home studio, the audio levels were shockingly low. I wrote the show asking why such a fine show would allow such poor audio. I got a very nice personal response from a producer and — lo and behold — the sound problems were quickly fixed! Nice, indeed.