Last August, three months into John Oliver's turn as substitute host of The Daily Show, the British comedian was being being tabbed by Vulture as Jon Stewart's obvious successor. But just three months after that, Oliver was gone to HBO, where he has now found something even better: his own show that is a much funnier version of the one he left.
It's only been two episodes, granted, but in that hour of television Oliver has proven himself to be an antidote to Stewart's current brand of humor. Perhaps more precisely, he is what Stewart himself used to be: an outsider who presented the absurdity of politics and the hypocrisy of powerful blowhards while guffawing along with the audience.
I don't watch the Daily Show much anymore, because it feels like a burden, both to consume and, seemingly, to produce. Stewart has a recurring trope called "Bullshit Mountain," which is what he calls Fox News whenever he does a segment about the network, which is often. Fox—and cable news generally, but mostly Fox—has long been The Daily Show's foil, but there was a time when Stewart wanted to make fun of Fox, instead of trying to beat it. But that was a while ago, before he started debating Bill O'Reilly in public and organizing rallies to counter Glenn Beck (remember him?). Instead of standing at a distance and laughing at "Bullshit Mountain," Stewart has spent years trying to climb atop it, and as such his show has taken on a sad Sisyphean quality, not in the least because Fox will certainly outlast him.
Stewart seems exasperated and angry now, fixated on culture wars—good media versus bad media, Democrats versus Republicans—that are ceasing to exist. Last year was a horrible one for cable news—all three major networks saw viewership declines, including Fox, whose primetime viewership in the 25-54 demographic dipped 30 percent. Millennials, more than any other generation, don't categorize themselves under the umbrellas of political parties. The entire worldview of The Daily Show is starting to become fossilized, a point made clear by Stephen Colbert, who is shedding his shtick as a conservative satirist in order to replace David Letterman.
With Last Week Tonight, Oliver has designed a show for viewers who still identify with the tone of The Daily Show's golden age but who have moved on from caring about Fox and Republicans. The show's first episode made a passing mention of Cliven Bundy, but only to joke about him doing an interview while cradling a dead calf. It critiqued mainstream media, but through the lens of India's upcoming presidential election, which, Oliver argues, has been poisoned by the country's television news networks modeling themselves after our own. The second episode spent 12 minutes talking about the death penalty, but presented cable news clips only to illustrate a larger point about America's infantile approach to discussing capital punishment at-large. That episode's second segment was about the Sultan of Brunei.
But even more than its scope, the appeal of Last Week Tonight is Oliver himself. He has picked up some of Stewart's mannerisms—namely hunching over his desk—but Oliver carries no ego. He affects the same surprise and chuckling resignation that he means to evoke in the viewer, helping to give his show the same undercurrent of camaraderie that Stewart's once had. As a result, the points made by Last Week Tonight shine through the jokes without smothering them, or you.
Though I once watched The Daily Show religiously, the lasting image I have of Jon Stewart is of him in some sort of permanent sneer. This bothers me not because Stewart's subjects deserve his humanity, but because, as Tom Junod once wrote, the sneer assumes his own importance. Oliver, once considered a lock to slip into Stewart's seat permanently, instead chose to shuffle off to 11 p.m. on Sunday nights on a premium cable network, a place where assumed importance could never work even if he wanted it to.