HBO’s Last Week Tonight is a show I used to watch in college. It was fresh at the time, funny, and had good stories. It eventually found its stride, but unfortunately, this meant following a format and repeating jokes, so I eventually stopped watching. Now, thinking about the show again, its repetitive format reveals some underpinnings I think to be concerning for viewers.
For those of who don’t watch or know about Last Week Tonight, it’s a late night comedy news program which recaps the major news stories of the previous week. Go figure.
The show highlights an additional main topic at the end of the program. This usually brings to light issues that are less about last week (while still being current), are bigger in scope, and are arguably the main draw to the show. Last Week Tonight also has its own YouTube channel where it uploads these segments which reach several million views each week. It is these stories/essays/segments and their format which present danger in their effects on the audience.
First and foremost, the show is entertainment. That part is obvious; it airs late at night, sometimes has celebrity guests, and is not without its gags and jokes presented by its host, John Oliver. But despite being primarily entertainment, it is not without viewers who also use it as a source of news. One could argue that this category of viewers is (or should be) small, given the clear comedic nature of the show. But, as mentioned earlier, these topics are often not bleeding edge and are sometimes out of left field. This leaves more viewers (informed about recent events or not) less acquainted with the domain. Already, there is some uneven footing and the show is catching the viewer a little off-guard. Even if the topics are more current, viewers may still enjoy a summary of what may be bits and pieces of news for them up until that point. A case could be made that this summarization process of disjointed information into a thoughtful story is the reason these segments are less bleeding edge and bigger in scope. Regardless, the viewers’ lack of depth of knowledge on the topic is likely to be a side-effect. In doing so, the show inserts itself as a source of news and has the viewer in their court.
These main stories set the program apart from others; the retelling of the previous week’s news is unremarkable and comparable to any other parody news program such as Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. The main story is saved for the end and once it commences, there is a noticeable shift in tone. The topics are often somber, such as corrupt elections, U.S. domestic/foreign policy, police brutality, immigration struggles, Donald Trump, and scandals. Through the introduction of the story, the viewer may experience a let-down: the oration of negative events can trigger one’s stress, nervousness, or aggression. At this point, the show can be largely characterized the same as ordinary news outlets: worrisome and exciting because they unsettle us. But while all of this is happening, Oliver is throwing in humor. The brain is now finding comfort in the comedy. We laugh and feel better. We are brought back up. The jokes soften the blow and, before we know it, we’ve found ourselves on an emotional roller coaster. The show has corrected course for us, but not before it has brought us down first. It has given us the poison and the cure.
This up-and-down/ebb-and-flow effect reinforces our experience to the humor. On its own, the jokes may be funny enough, but following a negative experience, the impact is more powerful. This could possibly be related to our negativity bias as well as other news-related psychological effects. This course correction also fortifies our dependence on this show. The story is told rather quickly and the viewer may not have much time to think about their stance in response to what is being said, especially if it’s the first time hearing about the story. As the negativity grows, the viewer may become uncomfortable with the news and want out. The show gets them out and the viewer subconsciously appreciates that. News is already a drug and Last Week Tonight amplifies the effect by cutting it with its own humor.
The story usually ends with some optimism, though. The production recognizes that something should be done about the problem and acts on it. That being said, the problem is usually large and the act of a TV show of its size is predictably small. Examples usually involve an official hashtag that the audience can use on social media as a call to action. While hashtags can be viral, they often aren’t and one could argue that this is more of a ratings poll for HBO than anything else. Nevertheless, in the viewer’s eyes, the problem is getting attention and, whatever the call to action may be, viewers may experience a false sense of contribution. This unpacks an additional concern with the show: its lasting effect on the audience. The show purports itself to entertain and inform viewers of big issues while also being a non-silent voice against them. However, one could argue that this is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The show teases activism but also achieves a level of comedy that actually quells the audience and any meaningful participation they might act upon. People have talked about passivity from watching too much news before, but Last Week Tonight’s brand of news—padded with jokes and empty action—sedates the viewers further.
I believe humor is a good way to make a point about a problem. If done well, it encapsulates the issue in a shrewd way without sounding snarky or abrasive. However, when big issues are being introduced at the same time, the comedy breaks them down, makes them less scary, and allows people to glaze over them because they can literally laugh it off. The show has a slant and its cynicism towards certain politics is often shared by its audience. However, glazing over these issues is not going to be productive if people want to change what they and the show are criticizing. I also want to note I’m not arguing that the negativity relayed by Last Week Tonight is bad; the news doesn’t need sensationalized television to be negative and viewers should not be afraid of cold water. But deceptively using the negativity as leverage to influence the audience should warrant caution and critical thinking.
Therein lies the main ‘danger’ in all of this: when viewers aren’t thinking critically and/or are using the show as a news source. But this is nothing new. The show is not only news but also a political cartoon and most of my arguments could share the same criticisms and warnings that come with those formats. However, I do think the show differentiates itself with the extra mile it often goes to act against issues (even if the call to action is small). It engages the audience further and I think has led to some misplaced idolization as a show of action in a time where talk is especially cheap. From there, viewers’ critical thinking faculties might start to break down and their biases, strengthen. Be entertained, but not to the point of blissful ignorance.