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Why John Oliver's HBO Show Is Such a Huge Hit

Viewers are finding in the "Last Week Tonight" host a figure more interested in making sense of the world than in making them laugh.
 
 
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It’s been something of a shock — and a joyous one — to see how quickly John Oliver’s HBO program, “Last Week Tonight,” has gone from an awkward up-and-comer to an outright hit.

Not only is the program wildly popular with critics in the big markets, it’s being hailed in plenty of smaller regional venues. It’s pretty safe to say that landing an extended rave in the Auburn Citizen — circulation 10,000 — means you’ve broken out of the New York City media bubble.

The significance of the show’s surging popularity goes beyond its various laudable, and widely lauded, elements (the more diverse writer’s room, the commercial-free format, and so on). What the success of “Last Week Tonight” suggests, on a deeper level, is that American television viewers may finally be tired of the frantic bombast generated by the Stimulation Media.

What’s more, after years of making do with the therapeutic jibes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, they are finding in Oliver a figure more interested in making sense of the world than in making them laugh.

This is not to say that Oliver isn’t funny. He and his writers and guests have come up with some uproarious bits, most recently an infomercial supplied by comedian Sarah Silverman urging Americans in dire financial straits to do anything other than borrow money from a predatory payday loan firm. “People will pay you to pee on them,” she confides. “That’s true. Doodies too! Doodies are more. Like double.” But a bit like this is not the point of the show. It’s merely the scatological kicker to a much larger story, one about the rapacity of an industry dedicated to exploiting our most economically vulnerable citizens.

Oliver spent more than 15 minutes detailing what payday loans are, how the industry targets desperate consumers with misleading ads, conceals its draconian fees and dodges regulation. It was a tour de force of explanatory journalism. After eviscerating the obvious targets, Oliver even took aim at those consumers who fail to use common sense in dealing with their debt. Everyone involved had to shoulder some blame.

This was precisely the kind of story that would never appear on a fake news show. First, because it’s not part of the idiotic news cycle that most of those shows wind up aping (i.e., there’s no “hook”). And second, because it happens to be about the segment of our population most underrepresented in the media: poor people.

As much as Oliver has been praised for his radical decision to cover stories about people other than Americans — the election in India, Uganda’s state-sponsored homophobia, Singapore’s gambling problem — the most striking aspect of his editorial vision has been his willingness to turn his gaze away from our shiny temples of wealth and power.

Instead, he’s offered viewers a long, thoughtful disquisition on income inequality, an impassioned deconstruction of the death penalty and, more recently, a cri de coeur about the prison industry, which ran nearly 18 minutes. That’s almost as long as an entire “Daily Show.”

Not only did Oliver point out that America has more prisoners than any other country – nearly 1 percent of the population — he explained the historical reasons for this, the racism inherent in our criminal justice system, and the profound corruptions of privatization. He sprinkled jokes throughout this epic rant, most of which landed. (A clean-cut Brit who favors boxy suits and skinny ties, Oliver exudes the goofy charm of a substitute teacher, which often masks the subversion of a first-class wit.)

 
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