Review: Last Week Tonight offers consistency, comfort during COVID-19

The HBO show hosted by comedian John Oliver takes a humor-filled look at current events.



John Oliver, host of “Last Week Tonight” is returning to Portland for two stand-up comedy sets.

Naomi Hofferber, Senior Reporter

“Hello there,” comedian John Oliver began on his March 15 show. “Well, well, well. This is weird.”

While usually filming on an elaborate set, Oliver now sat in front of a plain white wall, monologuing to a camera, explaining how their studio was potentially infected with COVID-19.

John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight, which has aired on HBO since 2014, has had to make immense adjustments following the COVID-19 outbreak, in line with late night comrades Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert, and Jimmy Fallon. Due to social distancing and shelter in place recommendations, show hosts have now been forced to work with paired down sets, many recording on their own at their homes.

Unlike other late night shows, Oliver doesn’t Zoom guests in to fill time. Instead, he attempts the herculean feat of pulling off a comedy routine to a non-existent audience.

While his jokes are met with an eerie silence, laughing alone in the kitchen while watching it makes for an almost intimate exchange; rather than feeling like one of the audience members, you invite Oliver into your home. You either laugh at his jokes or simmer in the silence thinking about it’s painful accuracy.

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Despite the change of scenery, Oliver provides a sense of normalcy and consistency. The in-depth reporting, the sharp wit, the increasing exasperation in Oliver’s voice as he gets to his final thesis of his comedic report all harken to easier times, when the main story of the night didn’t have to be COVID-19 related.

The most powerful aspect of Oliver’s show is how he makes current events actually palatable, even as the majority of social media and cable news feels utterly stomach-churning to sit in. Over and over, posts and tweets and video clips about coronavirus misinformation, horrifying statistics, or angry posts on either side of the social distancing debate circulate in a pool you have to wade through when checking any social media.

Oliver takes the most important aspects of the news, and breaks it down into acceptable bites of information, with humor and sarcasm peppering every clip. Oliver’s reaction to the news he delivers is part of what makes it so watchable; if he’s showing a clip that seems outrageous, he’ll say so. If something makes no sense, he’ll call it out.

Oliver’s show eliminates the frustration that comes from wild, frustrating, or misleading news being presented as normal, hard fact news. In a time where fake news is presented as truth, and when reality can be stranger than fiction, it’s refreshing to see someone with the journalistic efforts and fact checking on par with major publications, paired with real, human reactions.

His reactions are biased, and the result is a more authentic feel; despite the fact that he presents news from both sides of the political aisle, Last Week Tonight is not a news show. It’s more in line with Oliver’s alma mater, The Daily Show, or even Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show.

While the nation remains stuck in social isolation limbo, Oliver will continue to provide a slight sense of reprieve, every Sunday night — or Monday morning, on YouTube — for the foreseeable future.