The world we live in can be an odd, awful, surprising and bemusing place. ‘News’ media has become just as polished and processed as an endorsement-laden Michael Bay film. No one is above this, though, as we the masses are equally ridiculous in our own universe, the internet. As a society, we take ourselves quite seriously, often missing out on the absurdity of it all.
Enter Last Week Tonight & @Midnight. Sure, I am being hyperbolic leading you into a post about these two shows with that philosophical word vomit. However, these two shows, though different in structure and topics covered, hold a certain tone welcome in the television landscape. Both are amusing ways of turning a lens on our world in incredulous, hilarious mockery – from Scotland to Selfies.
Let us start with @Midnight and our eventual interweb czar, Chris Hardwick. Folks plugged in to any variety of means (podcast, shorts, Talking Dead etc.) have exposure to Mr. Hardwick. He and his Nerdist brethren have been hilariously taking over pop culture for years now, and @Midnight proved to be a success. I realize I am heaping on factual praise somewhat late in the game.
The show’s setup should clue anyone unaware into the level of nonsense and ridicule one can experience: a ‘game show’ where 3 comedians (and often hilarious/weird guest stars) ‘compete’ by making fun of all things internet. What ends up happening is a delightful, razor-sharp demented commentary on all corners of our digital world. In case you’ve missed it – the internet is a truly bizarre place. Chris Hardwick should wear thin on people – he’s EVERYWHERE it seems to those of a certain age and/or dorky inclination (hand raised). However he has this pleasant goofy charm that calls more to a kid making quips with his buddy in the back of class rather than egocentric center of attention. Hardwick serves as the axis on which the show spins because it most often is he and his friends/colleagues/like-minded funnypeople riffing on the absurd things our increasingly interconnected and online world allows people to do.
The genius of @Midnight lies in the way it not only mocks, but harnesses the power on the internet. All their games spill over to the viewer, with “#hashtagwars” a particular, popular favorite. While one could (validly) argue the show feeds into the very culture it mocks, I see the undertaking as more of a game. There is a passion, a true fandom for all pop culture at the heart of @Midnight. The internet has revolutionized what fans can do with their passion (let us never forget: Fifty Shades of Grey is just Twilight fan fiction. Hence the prose reading like a 5th grader’s secret journal.). The internet is weird. We as people do weird, dumb things. However, the internet is also a great place for collaboration of creative, goofy people. The show merely helps focus the lens, very finely, and invites you to play along and laugh with everyone.
The show, its’ host, and the ‘contestants’ never seem to take themselves too seriously, and are often visibly gleeful at the opportunity to show off some quick-moving wit – at anyone and everyone’s expense. A groan is as good as a laugh when the points are made up! We are all part of this web of silliness. “Yup, this is absurd. Oh yeah, and it’s all real,” the show says, “we can’t change it, let’s run with it. Life’s too short not to make fun. Also, #butts.”
Last Week Tonight has a similar tone and sharpness from writing to host, but has transformed into something far greater (heck TIME magazine wrote him up, they have at least double the reader we do!) than any of the similar shows on Comedy Central could feasibly pull off.
The show started as a sort of Daily Show summary with profanity. John Oliver’s run on Stewart’s show was beyond eye-opening (and not just for goofy British dance moves). For 32 episodes, Oliver showed the world he had learned from the masters Sensei Stewart and Jedi Master Colbert. Oliver, with some help from Anthony “Carlos Danger” Weiner, basically proved he could no longer be contained nightly on Comedy Central. Stewart told him as much, supporting and pushing him to spread his wings. With the departure of Colbert, one assumes the folks at Viacom are strategizing how to stay involved in Oliver’s rise.
@Midnight takes having fun poking fun to a new, and surprisingly creative/nimble level. Chris Hardwick will rule the internet, because he loves it and all its’ quirks like a little brother, teasing the missteps, while loving, embracing and reveling in the insane, creative, and wacky community. John Oliver has positioned himself as something more… aggressive (with the help of what has to be one of the best writing/production teams around). Both shows have a “Can you believe this is true?!” incredulous tone. Hardwick’s show remains tightly focused and decidedly silly incredulity on the pop culture around us. LWT has pogoed itself to something more.
LWT has stunned me by making consistently confident strides. John Oliver has taken the baton from Colbert and Stewart and sprinted with it. Trolling society, calling us out on our obsessions, oversights and stupidity, all in a Python-esque voice and ‘are you F$#^$#%$ kidding me’ anger masked by a grinning, head shaking host. John Oliver and his team are legitimately shaking things up with news. Whereas The Daily Show and Colbert delight in the day to day mockery of news and news minutiae, Oliver and crew have a week to gather ammunition and the freedom of HBO to get their hands dirty. LWT not only wants to shine a light on how crazy things are, but push us to dig deeper and maybe even DO something. The show has lambasted the Miss America pageant with some old-fashioned investigation. Regularly, Oliver will accent a segment with a cheeky bit of rebellion, from FDA ‘helping’ stickers one could print out and post on food to sites to visit, harass and spur to action. The show has realized it does not need to be a televised, dirtier version of The Week, but rather can dive into the muck of a story we may have only skimmed the surface of and missed the facts. And do so with bold, smart-aleck glee.
Oliver’s command of his schtick is a wonder. Similar to, if not even more so than, Jon Stewart he has a likable quality almost immediately. He has a sharp wit and an eye for poking the bear. Married to an Iraq War veteran and an American citizen despite his often hilarious British-ness, Oliver has a unique worldview clearly supported and expanded by a creative team of similar-thinking individuals. One of the most brilliant, telling aspects of the show lies here. That’s a link to Last Week Tonight‘s Youtube channel, where you can see just about every bit and segment they air. Oliver’s show wants to get their message out. They are just like you. They are funny, they are baffled and they are a little bit mad.
The show has a personality both relatable and absurd, reflective of its host. When Oliver delivers a line, exasperated by a story he has reported, his head shaking disbelief echoes his viewers’. He reacts as anyone would react to absurdity, and he has the platform many others do not. I am glad he has seized the opportunity to be a mouthpiece.
I in no way mean to put the shows in the same category, just that they have the same underlying incredulous core, and appeal to much the same audience. Hardwick and his merry misfits are all smart. They see how nuts everything can be around them. Most are comedians, that lot have chosen to watch it all, poke fun and laugh (likely to keep from crying). Oliver and Last Week Tonight have hit their groove and realized just what they can do. “Can you believe this?!?” or “Why are we not talking about this more?!” the show asks you through the sillier moments. With a broader scope and longer leash than @Midnight, Oliver’s show pushes back on the world, and the creative ways his team pushes – all without over-stepping their bounds. Everything on LWT has a coat or two of humor layered on (here’s Nick Offerman as a helpful Home Depot employee in a fake ad), from segments, to interviews of truly remarkable people to “clips of…” (supercuts of things like ‘Politicians telling us what they are NOT’). The show is meant to make you chuckle. But when the show is over, when you have a quiet moment to think, there is a very probing core. How can we believe some of these stories? Oliver wants to actually report on the news a little bit, make you more aware, maybe a bit prertubred about something you just uncovered.
Oliver knows he cannot change the world with one show. But he can keep making the materials available.
Hardwick and his friends know their game is more of a clubhouse in which everyone can bond and be funny.
With a laugh, a grin and a lovable goofiness, both shows shine a light of ridicule on what must be ridiculed. Last Week Tonight’s light happens to be less focused, and a bit farther reaching. Oliver’s team has taken the mission of the Daily Show – broaden the horizons of many viewers to a new layer of absurdity in the world – and taken a next step. With a chuckle and a head shake, LWT wants us all to open our eyes a little wider…
…. because we just continue to get weirder…