Mid-way through the first episode of Last Week Tonight since November, host John Oliver made a statement that served as something of a wake-up call to the cottage comedy industry that has sprung up around the Trump administration. While everyone from Showtime to Comedy Central to S.N.L. is still trying to milk laughs out of impersonating Donald J. Trump, Oliver wondered: “Is anything about Trump funny anymore? I don’t know. Somehow the world’s most objectively laughable human has become a comedy graveyard where laughter goes to die.”
Admittedly Oliver has always been reluctant about covering Trump at all, let alone playing him for laughs, but as insult riddled tirades against and sloppy blond wigged impressions of Trump generate diminishing returns, Oliver decided to go in a different direction. Leaning harder than ever on his roots at The Daily Show, Oliver put three months of criticism of Trump almost entirely in other people’s mouths in a package on international media. In other words, Oliver is applying Trump’s “many people are saying” tactic with one key difference: Last Week Tonight has the proof to back it up.
Oliver’s Season 5 premiere opened with a segment on the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Instead of ranting about another mass shooting, as he’s done in the past, Oliver left the harshest condemnation of the president and gun control policies generally to the Florida students like 18 year-old Emma Gonzalez.
As Oliver himself pointed out, an angry Last Week Tonight rant would only be more of the same when it comes to the now-familiar cycle of reactions to mass shootings in America. Oliver, Gonzalez, and more are determined to shake things up and avoid the creeping Trump numbness most Americans feel over a year into this presidency.
But the Parkland shooting only took up one small portion of the show. A longer segment, which Oliver and his team had obviously been working on for some time, dealt more directly with Trump’s damaged reputation around the world after incidents like the “shithole” controversy (which was only last month). Once again, Oliver doesn’t angrily shout down the president here. Instead he shows how diminished both Trump and America have become on the national stage. But just when it all gets a bit too much, Oliver puts a classic Last Week Tonight button on his impressively incisive return. What do dinosaur suits, Batman beds, Smashmouth, and the Gay Men’s Chorus has to do with it? Tune in to find out.
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