John Oliver: The New King of Late Night

John Oliver is killing it.

Before signing off for a one month hiatus, the host of Last Week Tonight had one of his strongest episodes yet. He skewered Ryan Lochte, charter school corruption, and of course, Donald Trump. Oliver delivered an epic takedown of “America’s back mole” in which he urged Trump to drop out of the presidential race by taking a page out of the children’s book The Kid Who Ran for President.

It’ll be a long month without Oliver’s savage commentary on America’s political landscape. It seems unlikely that a British man that looks like “a mix of a Pokemon and child molester” would become the voice of reason during one of the most insane elections in history. But with Oliver’s quick wit, patented takedowns, and investigative approach, Oliver has become the new king of late night television.

Okay, I know Jimmy Fallon probably holds the crown. The Tonight Show consistently averages over 3.6 million views in comparison to Last Week’s Tonight roughly 1 million average. In fact, Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, Seth Myers and James Corden all consistently get more viewers than Oliver (suck it, Carson Daly!) But these are the late night wars! Much like the War of the Five Kings, normal rules don’t apply. Here’s why Oliver is the one true king of late night.

Viral Clips

In the good ole days, late night hosts like Jay Leno could crap out a 10 minute monologue with a couple of lazy Paris Hilton jokes, chum it up with a celebrity guest, and call it a night. But this is 2016.  Viral clips are as important if not more important than ratings. You need to get people talking, or you’ll be exiled to TBS (Sorry, Conan).

Post Letterman and Leno, late night television is increasingly reliant on viral clips. Think about Jimmy Fallon. He’s become America’s beloved man child by cranking out SNL style skits. He can’t get through an interview without his patented giggling, so he plays beer pong with Betty White or Egg Roulette with Bradley Cooper. James Corden’s kept his job solely through the gimmick of Car Pool Karaoke. And that one time he had Ross from Friends on for a rap battle. Even Kimmel throws in the Baby Bachelor and his Matt Damon feud to keep himself relevant.

Surprisingly, Oliver’s long-form segments have become YouTube staples. In a time when our attention spans are shorter than a chimpanzees, it’s incredible that Oliver’s 20 minute pieces have been able to get such traction. His monologue on charter schools has over four million views just days after airing. His segments on FIFA, beauty pageants, Brexit, and  televangelists all have over 12 million YouTube views. It’s like he picks the most boring topic imaginable and somehow spins it into comedic gold.

Then there’s his glorious “Donald Drumpf” clip. The 22 minute takedown  has over 28 million views on YouTube and quickly became the most watched viral clip in HBO history. This from a network that once showed Bob Saget taking bong rips. Truly impressive.

With so much contempt for the status quo and a general feeling of helplessness by the public, we need a guy like Oliver. He’s become the guy we can rely on to call out the bullshit. That’s why he’s a lock to get millions of YouTube views and trend on Twitter every Sunday night.

The True Heir to Stewart

Since Jon Stewart left The Daily Show, things have not gone well. For all I know, Trevor Noah is a serviceable host. But he hasn’t been able to gain the same cult following. In fact, he’s lost about 35 percent of Stewart’s audience. Worse, Colbert’s successor Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show was cancelled in the face of dismal ratings.

Yes, Colbert has his own network gig. But he hasn’t been able to keep the momentum from The Colbert Report. For a man with his own legendary takedowns and impact on legislation, Colbert’s Late Show has been a disappointment. In trying to appeal to the masses, The Late Show has essentially become a watered down version of The Colbert Report. There’s still time for Colbert to steer out of the skid, but for now Oliver is the king of political comedy.

With all due respect to Trevor Noah, Oliver is the heir apparent to Stewart. Oliver was a fan favorite on The Daily Show as Senior British Correspondent. He even filled in as interim host in the summer of 2013 and knocked it out of the park.

One of the advantages for Oliver over his competition is his platform. Last Week Tonight airs every Sunday night on HBO.  On paper, it seems like Oliver would be at a disadvantage in an era of Twitter and 24 hour news cycle. Oliver even joked about it in his show promos.

However, Oliver has thrived by taking advantage of his lack of restraints on HBO. He’s taken the Stewart model of focusing on calling out “bullshit mountain.” But instead of having to rush together four shows per week and poking holes in every issue he can find, Oliver hones in on a few topics with much more in depth pieces. He also takes full advantage of HBO’s liberal swearing policy, because sometimes calling someone a “douche” doesn’t have the same pizazz as calling them a “fucking asshole.”

Oliver may not be as omnipresent as Fallon, Noah, or even Guillermo, but he’s carved a niche for himself with faux news and his program is must watch TV.

His Pieces Matter

John Oliver has the most influential show on late night. His rants have brought a lot of ignored issues to our living rooms and in doing so is holding those in power accountable for their actions. Despite his humility, Oliver’s impact has become hugely important in a time when journalism is struggling.

In bringing these issues to the forefront, Oliver has forced legislative change. Often referred to as the The John Oliver Effect, his show has sparked movements nationwide. He’s exposed corruption in everything from televangelists and high interest loans, to less sexy topics like predatory lending and mental health. His coverage has sparked nationwide outrage and has even caused real change in policy to take place. After he encouraged trolls to comment on net neutrality, the FCC’s website crashed and they eventually adopted new regulations. He exposed the issues with civil forfeiture disproportionately affecting the poor and months later Eric Holder placed major restrictions on the laws. Hell, he gave away $15 million in debt forgiveness live on his show. When he’s pissed off, it matters.

Even though Oliver doesn’t consider himself a journalist, his show is important. We live in a time that increasingly relies on the 24 hour news cycle and hysterical coverage. He’s able to balance between Fallon-esque humor and Stewart-esque ranting. He may be our last hope. Not bad for an unfunny live action beaker.



3 thoughts on “John Oliver: The New King of Late Night”

  1.  pioneered the format of comedy news into something to be taken seriously, giving anyone stepping into his place huge shoes to fill. Stephen Colbert played the yin to Stewart s yang to perfection, and the next steps in their respective careers mark the end of an era. But it also begins the era of John Oliver as the go-to voice of sanity in an otherwise insane world.

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