I did not start following the news until my junior year of high school, and I only did so then because I had to. In my small, insulated town, being detached from politics was a point of pride for most of the residents; the only reason I started paying attention to current events was because my English teacher had instituted a weekly news quiz. Luckily, CNN mobile notifications gave me most of what I needed to know, and watching clips of “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show” online allowed me to get a good grade.
Then, one day, YouTube suggested a video starring John Oliver (or, as I knew him, the British professor from “Community”) and I never looked back. I began watching “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” religiously, even using my classmate’s HBO Now password so I could watch full episodes. Through the show’s comedy and interesting takes on important and rarely discussed issues, I became engaged with politics and current events, an interest that eventually developed into a “New York Times” subscription (which I highly recommend) and a constant urge to tell people that they should really be more concerned about Russian aggression in eastern Europe.
So, in the hopes that this list might inspire college students to get informed about more than just President Trump’s latest tweet, here are the top three reasons you should watch “Last Week Tonight.”
1. It Critiques All Parties
It is difficult, especially now, to find any news that is unbiased, or, at the very least, admits its bias. “Fox News” is notoriously conservative, MSNBC is well-known for being liberal and it seems that all the op-eds written in major newspapers now refuse to make concessions. I don’t know about you, but I was taught in my eleventh-grade AP English class that making a concession strengthens an argument rather than weakening it. Nuanced critiques of politicians on both sides of the aisle are hard to find, and an unbiased, in-depth look at important issues is even rarer. So, logically, I turned to an HBO comedy show.
Before continuing, I should stress one thing: “Last Week Tonight” is not actually a news program. It provides a comedic take on current events and larger issues, often drawing from news outlets and investigative reports to do so, but the HBO program itself is not investigative journalism. That said, the show provides a relatively nonpartisan approach to politics and political issues. It helps that John Oliver, the host of “Last Week Tonight,” is British, and is thus able to view the often ridiculous and always-exhausting proceedings of American politics with the eye of an outsider, prepared to point out flaws wherever he sees them, on both the left and the right.
Saying that “Last Week Tonight” offers up critiques of both Democratic and Republican officials and policies is not to say that the show doesn’t have some sort of bias. It is impossible to be completely unbiased, after all, and partiality tends to become even more obvious through comedy. The important thing is that John Oliver acknowledges his bias (he is, among other things, anti-prison privatization and pro-net neutrality) and that “Last Week Tonight” never shies away from criticizing anything or anyone.
2. It Chooses Depth over Breadth
How much do you know about gerrymandering? If you’re a normal person, probably little to nothing. If you’re a bit of a history or politics buff, you might say “some.” After I watched the “Last Week Tonight” episode that focused on gerrymandering, I can safely say I know as much as I’ll ever need to know about the subject—probably more, to be honest. That is the beauty of “Last Week Tonight”: It delves deep into subjects most people don’t usually think about, much less become actively involved in.
John Oliver and his team have researched and presented videos on subjects as far-ranging as the media’s obsession with dubious scientific studies, the dearth of comprehensive sex education in many American states, multilevel marketing, infrastructure and dozens of other subjects, most of which tend to be overlooked. Sure, there’s been the obligatory Trump episode (or two, or three), but on the whole, “Last Week Tonight” shirks off the rehashing of every middle-of-the-night presidential tweet in exchange for in-depth coverage of important, rarely discussed topics.
The “Last Week Tonight” team thoroughly researches all the topics it discusses, sometimes going extraordinarily far to do so. The “Televangelists” episode, for example, required host John Oliver to spend seven months and $319 in correspondence with televangelist Robert Tilton, all simply to provide material proof that his ministry is built to take advantage of vulnerable people in desperate straits. For the same episode, John Oliver and his team started their own church in order to test tax laws and the legal limits of televangelist-style “seed faith offerings” (the church, by the way, was called Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption). This kind of willingness to go to extreme lengths for both comedy and investigation is a perfect example of why “Last Week Tonight” is a show worth watching.
3. It’s Funny!
What is politics without humor? Boring, probably. Depressing, definitely. Comedy is even more important when talking about topics as wildly interesting as, say, standardized testing. Or, as John Oliver would say, “standardized tests: the fastest way to terrify any child with five letters outside of just whispering the word ‘clown.’” Look, I’m not going to beat around the bush. It’s generally true that millennials have short attention spans—I have on more than one occasion looked at a Buzzfeed quiz and said aloud, “This is way too long, I’m not doing this, who cares what Disney villain sidekick should be my BFF.” So, if I’m going to spend twenty minutes watching a British man with a parrot face talk about a tedious-sounding topic like retirement plans, it has to be funny.
And luckily, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” is hilarious. Frequent analogies, over-the-top reactions and jabs at oft-ignored countries make even the driest subjects bearable. Better yet, the humor is merely a Trojan horse to get viewers to care about the deeper issues at stake. I never would have started watching “Last Week Tonight” had I not stumbled across a clip on YouTube, laughed out loud and decided to seek out more clips. The show’s brilliant sense of humor is what pulls you in, but its thorough and insightful explorations of underreported topics are what will keep you watching.