John Oliver does it behind a desk

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John Oliver
  • Eric Liebowitz
  • John Oliver
"Welcome, welcome, welcome to . . . whatever this is," John Oliver said at the beginning of his new HBO show, Last Week Tonight. At the risk of diminishing the very funny Daily Show correspondent's solo effort, "it" is, in a lot of ways, a less-frequent version of The Daily Show on which it's OK to say "fuck." And that's great. Oliver proved his anchor chops when he filled in for Jon Stewart last summer, although it's more fun to imagine he got the job on the merits of his performance as Dick Pants in the canonical Mike Myers smash hit The Love Guru.

When Oliver left The Daily Show late last year, Stewart and company put together a really funny retrospective that brought Oliver to tears—so also really heartwarming—and highlighted some of the comedian's most memorable moments as the show's Senior British Correspondent. He was leaving, of course, because he was becoming the anchor of his own show, but the recap was nearly devoid of clips of him behind Stewart's desk. Maybe—well, probably—it's because that represented just eight weeks of his seven-plus-year tenure, or maybe it's because Oliver's at his best when he's in the field.

All of The Daily Show's best correspondents, past and present—Jason Jones, Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, Oliver—excel at charmingly, earnestly encouraging interviewees to say blatantly stupid or racist or contradictory things about a nanosecond before they realize what a-holes they sound like. In Oliver's case, it's like an English accent makes baiting imperceptible to middle Americans milling around Republican conventions. Of course, we're laughing at these people, not with them (not even a little bit), which would seem mean-spirited if there's weren't some greater truth being revealed in the process.

Oliver does eventually get out from behind the desk on Last Week, which is good news, but a week's worth of news is a lot to cram into a half hour, even if he doesn't have to contend with commercial breaks. Not that he attempts to cover it all or for any extended period. The double coronation at the Vatican was worth one joke—"That's the papal equivalent of the KFC Double Down"—while the Indian presidential election that's been otherwise ignored by the American media got more loving care and Photoshops. (If you're not familiar, the crux of that story is that the front-runner is Narendra Modi, a pro-toilet man of the people who was in power in Gujarat when 1,000 Muslims were killed by rioters; he later said his biggest regret was that he hadn't handled the media very well.)

The inaugural show wraps up with a prerecorded interview with former NSA director Keith Alexander. Again, Oliver is at his best away from the desk, as the two spitball marketing campaigns that might improve the NSA's public image. It's funny when Oliver suggests they adopt a mascot called Mr. Tiggles, a tiny kitten in a boot, but it's funnier when Alexander suggests the NSA change its slogan to "The only agency in government that really listens." He said it—but Oliver got him there.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, HBO, 10 PM Sundays

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