The late-night television host is on the endangered species list. Once considered one of the most powerful positions in entertainment, major stars keep departing and the future has never looked bleaker.
The news of Trevor Noah announcing that he will step down as the host of The Daily Show dropped last week, and it was a bombshell. Viewed in isolation, it was significant because he took over the Comedy Central show in 2015 from the widely popular Jon Stewart. Viewed in a larger scope, it seems like a part of a disturbing trend following the breakup of Desus & Mero and the cancellation of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.
Late-night TV used to be the place many would go to catch up on current events and catch a laugh. Conventional news can be so depressing. If you’re going to spend time being informed, why not be entertained? But as viewing habits have changed, fewer people are tuning in for linear broadcasts.
That can be a problem for networks paying expensive hosts. The Jimmys (Fallon and Kimmel) and Stephen Colbert must be a little worried about their futures. This makes you wonder about the one guy who might be best equipped to withstand this recession.
Will John Oliver be the last of the late-night TV kings? HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is in its ninth season, and no one knows how long its run will continue. But Oliver undeniably has certain built-in advantages that could sustain him in this environment.
First, his show runs weekly with new installments debuting Sundays. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver delivers 30 episodes a season. That’s considerably less work than most late-night shows which have to come up with material daily. Second, Last Week Tonight doesn’t have guests constantly coming on to plug their latest movie, show, or album. The only time you see celebrities is when they’re used in skits.
Third, and perhaps most important, Oliver seems to have more power over his show than most. Oliver runs Last Week Tonight fearlessly. He speaks truth to power even when it’s his own corporate boss. That kind of bravado hasn’t been displayed regularly since the heyday of David Letterman.
Last Week Tonight is a creation unlike others because it’s topical without feeling dated while also remaining binge-worthy. You can thoroughly enjoy shows from years ago. That’s a credit to Oliver, as well as his talented writing team. The show has a basic structure: Oliver talks directly to the camera about topics that interest him for 30 to 40 minutes. He mixes in several jokes. That’s it. Both easy and difficult for one man to talk that much.
Oliver is so gifted that his show didn’t miss a beat during the height of the pandemic, even without a live audience. Most hosts lean on in-studio sidekicks, guests, or spectators. Not Oliver who did some of his best work in 2020 and 2021. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has won 26 Primetime Emmys, including for those seasons.
Fallon, Kimmel, and Colbert all have their unique styles. But Oliver is younger (45), more clever, and is at the height of his game. He could outlast them all. Unless HBO pulls the plug or Oliver grows bored, he can seemingly keep doing Last Week Tonight as long as he wants.
One of the ways Oliver has separated himself is through his ingenious stunts. One of the most memorable is when he bought Russell Crowe’s jockstrap from the movie Cinderella Man for $7,000. That’s hilarious. What made it funnier was that Crowe donated the proceeds to an Australia Zoo wildlife hospital. That ward was renamed The John Oliver Koala Chlamydia Ward.
Bill Carter, a media analyst for CNN and formerly of The New York Times, wrote that late-night television’s golden age is over. That may be true.
If so, we should celebrate Oliver, who’s doing TV better and smarter than everyone else.