It's getting as hard to predict the fake news these days as the real news. Who could have guessed just a month ago that Stephen Colbert would be leaving “The Colbert Report” to replace David Letterman on CBS’ “Late Show,” freeing up the post-“Daily Show” slot on Comedy Central?
Probably not former “Daily Show” correspondent and summer host John Oliver, who likely would have been a top candidate to succeed Colbert – if he hadn’t signed up for a new comedy news program on HBO.
Oliver’s "Last Week Tonight" debuts Sunday, testing not only his appeal, but whether there’s any room left in the fake newsroom.
He arrives on HBO amid a crowded field of news-fueled satire, nearly 40 years after “Saturday Night Live” hatched "Weekend Update," turning Chevy Chase ("I'm Chevy Chase – and you're not") into the program's first breakout star.
The slot remains a launching pad for the show’s top talents, including Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers, who now bookend NBC's late weeknight lineup. Meyers’ monologues are loaded with jokes he easily could have delivered during his previous gig (Cracking wise Tuesday about the opening of a “cat café,” he observed, "It’s a great place to meet people who don’t want to meet people”).
“Weekend Update” is still going strong – as is Jon Stewart, who reinvented and reinvigorated the fake news game when he took over "The Daily Show" in 1999. Colbert, who will drop his conservative commentator character for CBS next year, is gaining a bigger platform for his topical humor. Oliver's new HBO neighbor, Bill Maher, offers a news-centric mix of talk and satire on his long-running Friday night show "Real Time with Bill Maher."
While the news provides comic fodder for many, there’s no guarantee of success, even for the strongest of entertainers. The weekly “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell” got off to a promising start in 2012, but didn’t last long after the show went daily and moved to the less visible FXX last year (memo to Comedy Central: consider Bell for Colbert’s slot).
Oliver needs to distinguish himself from the pack on the one night of the week that, until now, has been free of funny fake TV news. He also faces the challenge of going on at 11 p.m. at the end of the week on what is usually a slow news day – a position cheekily acknowledged in the show’s cheeky tagline: “Breaking news on a weekly basis.”
Still, Oliver brings his own brand of smart and energetic humor to the genre, beyond his British outsider’s perspective. While filling in for Stewart last summer, he infused the “The Daily Show” with a sense of buoyant exasperation as he mined Anthony Weiner's self-immolation for laughs (Weiner is "the man whose name is so perfect for the scandal he was caught up in, it rekindled my faith in God,” Oliver declared).
As Oliver gets ready to make some news of his own, check out a promotional video below:
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.