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Taking a Break from the News by Watching the News- but does “Last Week Tonight” Count?

Acutely funny and always well-intentioned, Last Week Tonight has a lot of heart for a satirical-news program.

With the year we’ve had, there is more personal and external pressure than ever to constantly keep up with the news cycle. Current events, as they often do, seep their way into all aspects of media, with leisurely viewing incorporating all sorts of pressing topics into their plot lines.

Doing our due diligence in keeping up with a perpetual influx of new information can be exhausting; there is always so much to learn, to fact-check, to diversify our perspective on. While attempting to stay on top of it all, to be a responsible global citizen, I found myself making content like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver part of my weekly viewing. I definitely have an appetite for a show that can make me laugh while simultaneously bolstering my awareness. I ended up posing this question to myself: is getting up-to-date some current affairs via comedic news programs slacktivism or is it a clever way to avoid information fatigue?

Last Week Tonight has been running for eight seasons. The format usually consists of a brief update of the latest news, peppered with on-point humor to call out the powers-that-be, followed by an in-depth analysis of one well-researched topic. While these topics might not always be directly tied to what’s making headlines at the moment, they are always relevant. Episodes so far this season have covered Pandemics (not this one, the next one. Thanks, John), Meat Packaging Plants, and Police Raids. As the deliverer of information, Oliver has a knack for getting under your skin with the facts while still managing to break the mounting tension with well-executed zingers as well as running bits that stretch out over the course of the whole season.

John Oliver himself admits that his deep-dives are not journalism, and that is an important distinction to maintain going into the show. He stresses that the main story is “aggressively researched” primarily for the intention of providing a solid foundation for his jokes, supposing the secondary reason is to inform. While multiple information-verification sites lend his stories credibility, it is crucial to remember that a neutral position is never (ever) taken on the issues that are being presented.

Screenshot from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 7 Episode 1

The temptation to be in-the-know while doing as little work as possible is always present, which is why it is important to stay mindful and critical about where our information comes from. Last Week Tonight has a lot to offer in terms of invoking a meaningful conversation within the household and exposing little-known details about a variety of common-place institutions and their practices, but the show never claims to be portraying the full picture. Taking Oliver’s words to the letter definitely isn’t an effective way to stay cognizant. Nonetheless, there is a lot to be said for challenging the perspectives of those who are not directly affected by the complex stories being covered.

Acutely funny and always well-intentioned, Last Week Tonight has a lot of heart for a satirical-news program. While John Oliver is a fantastic host and decidedly fills a void in the landscape of this genre with his impassioned pleas for reform where other programs favor a lighter tone, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that caucasian men do over-saturate this vein of media. Trevor Noah and Samantha Bee also provide very noteworthy contributions to this funny, well-informed take on the day-to-day. And since none of us can sleep at night anyway, give them all a chance to make you laugh.

Originally published March 10, 2021.