Not Just Comedy

‘Last Week Tonight’ Does Real Journalism, No Matter What John Oliver Says

The HBO host insists he’s not committing random acts of journalism. He’s wrong—and that’s exactly what sets his show apart from “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.”

09.29.14 9:45 AM ET

“It’s not journalism, it’s comedy—it’s comedy first, and it’s comedy second.”

That’s what John Oliver told me when I spoke to him about his HBO news/satire program, Last Week Tonight. I asked him whether he saw a journalistic element in his new comedy show, which spends a half-hour each week covering what host Oliver and his staff have deemed the top stories of the past seven days.

His answer was a categorical “no.”

“It’s a comedy show, just about things that we’re interested in,” Oliver said. “So, yeah, we’ll kind of look off the map a little bit, which will mean we’ll end up looking at Supreme Court cases and foreign elections and international issues just because they’re interesting and people don’t joke about them much, and there’s fun to be had there…There might just be a single serious point wrapped up in 35 stupid jokes.”

I call bullshit.

When I interviewed Oliver back in May, Last Week Tonight had aired just three episodes. But even then there were signs that he and his team were—in their own intelligently goofy way—chasing down stories. In the second episode, Oliver discussed the implementation of Shariah law in the sultanate of Brunei. As Oliver pointed out, the Obama administration had been largely silent on the issue. So the Last Week Tonight crew called up the State Department for comment, but got nothing. (Two days after the episode aired, the State Department told reporters that the U.S. ambassador to Brunei had conveyed their concerns.) When I mentioned to Oliver that the call for comment sounded like the work of a reporter, he laughed off the suggestion: “That is some low-scale reporting, though; that is only one step above a prank phone call,” he insisted. “[It was] literally a single phone call to say, ‘Hold on, is there any statement on this at all?’ and having them say, ’No, who’s this?’”

Oliver’s show is generally placed in the same “fake news” subgenre of television that includes Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report and his former employer The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. But more and more often, the HBO newcomer looks, sounds, and feels like real news.

In a widely covered and praised segment that aired on September 21, Oliver performed an impressive takedown of the Miss America pageant. The Associated Press dubbed it investigative journalism, with Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, calling the show “investigative comedy.”

The Miss America segment dug into the Miss America Organization’s bold claim that it makes $45 million in scholarships available to contestants every year. “That is an unbelievable amount of money—as in, I literally did not believe that,” Oliver said. So he and his team obtained a large pile of documents and tax forms, and determined that the $45 million figure was, at best, misleading spin.

“The segments come off as journalistic to me, in many cases,” Erik Wemple, media reporter at The Washington Post, told The Daily Beast. “The pageant thing scarcely qualifies as anything but journalism, what with all the tax records and following up on fishy-sounding information…Hell, the beauty pageant thing even featured the staff crashing on deadline. That sounds like reporting to me. It’s an impressive production all around.”

Andrew Beaujon, media blogger at the Poynter Institute, echoed Wemple. “I don’t know what else you’d call that kind of digging through public documents except journalism,” he said. “Maybe it’s a more iterative, bloggy form of journalism, but I think it’s inarguably legit.”

Last Week Tonight also has run pieces on the shady practices of for-profit universities (which included Oliver’s staff reaching out to Corinthian Colleges Inc. for comment), the Assad regime in Syria (which featured Right Said Fred performing a special anti-Assad version of their hit song “I’m Too Sexy,”) net neutrality, the death penalty, imperiled Russian space orgy geckos, the Indian general election, American political attack ads (which included an old, wrinkly, terrifying penis that was supposed to represent Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), and, most recently, the Obama administration’s drone wars and the psychological effect of living under the threat of U.S. strikes. It’s this sort of range that led Mediaite to describe the show as “the Al Jazeera America of late night.”

Hell, the first episode ended with an exclusive interview with retired Gen. Keith Alexander, the first TV interview he gave after stepping down as director of the National Security Agency. To prepare, Last Week Tonight’s senior news researcher Charles Wilson —an alumnus of The New York Times and The New Yorker who now works as the program’s “journalistic fact-checker,” in Oliver’s words—reached out to journalist Shane Harris, who profiled Alexander for Foreign Policy magazine late last year. (Oliver & Co. will often reach out to journalists or experts to provide deeper insight, and the show’s staff includes other former journalists, such as ex-Vanity Fair blogger Juli Weiner.)

Wilson emailed Harris on April 17—just 10 days before Last Week Tonight’s series premiere. “[Later], we talked for an hour on the phone,” Harris recalls. “I joked with Charles at the end that he was doing a more thorough interview of me than most journalists [on TV or radio] who would interview me about surveillance. It was almost like an interview for a print publication…There was no indication at any point during this interview that they were gathering information for satire…It was like talking to a news reporter.”

Yet Oliver and his staff will invariably continue to deny that they are engaging in anything other than a premium-cable comedy show. After all, the moment you admit you’re committing random acts of journalism, you have to assume the responsibilities and standards of a journalist—something no comedy writer is particularly eager to do. That’s understandable. But Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is clearly, at least in part, a journalistic enterprise. Oliver and his staff should own up to it. Even if they don’t want to, they’ve earned praise from one of the country’s most visible media reporters.

“Some journalism is being done by Oliver and his team, even if it’s not being done on purpose,” Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s Sunday media affairs program Reliable Sources, and the network’s senior media correspondent, told The Daily Beast. “What’s most important is that he’s making people pay attention to long, nuanced explanations of politics and policy. To all those who sniff that viewers won’t watch that, well, he’s providing a counterargument, isn’t he? On the other hand, I do have doubts about how well his model would translate. It may be working precisely because it’s just once a week, for half an hour, and it’s one of a kind. Can it be duplicated? I don’t know—but I bet I’m not the only cable news anchor who’s wondering.”