Why I Stopped Watching 'Last Week Tonight'

The first year of the reign of Trump of Orange was a gift to comedians, but now it's a curse

"Last Week Tonight with John Oliver." His "Stupid Watergate" segment has been running even longer than the original Watergate scandal with Nixon.
Eric Liebowitz/AP

For a while there, I thought I’d found an antidote.

For pretty much the first year of the reign of Donald of Orange, I began every day by laughing at him.

It wasn’t hard: There was no shortage of court jesters on late night television, all willing to provide the punch lines for the set-ups he had so guilelessly provided for them with his dumb tweets or self-congratulatory rallies that even Kim Jong Un might have considered a little OTT.

Hosts such as Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah and Conan O’Brien were thrilled to feast on the latest morsels the president had carelessly tossed their way – crumbs from the rich man’s KFC-laden bedsheets.

And, of course, there was so much to go around that the weekly news satire shows with John Oliver, Samantha Bee and Bill Maher were still able to gorge themselves on the leftovers.

For 12 months or so, President Donald Trump was good for the comedy business (the only wonder is that he didn’t try to slap a tariff on it).

Colbert’s “The Late Show” got its highest ever ratings by gleefully going after the president, and while many black performers were taking a knee, Noah was one of the few to actually get a leg up from the president, helping him transition into Jon Stewart’s seat on “The Daily Show.”

In March 2017, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” introduced the world to a very funny segment called “Stupid Watergate.” As Oliver explained at the time: “The relevant question isn’t so much, ‘What did the president know and when did he know it, as it is, ‘Is the president physically capable of knowing things at all?’”

But here’s the problem: When Oliver’s show returned after a brief hiatus last month, it kicked things off (yet again) with “Stupid Watergate” – or, as Oliver put it this time, “Something with the potential gravity of Watergate if the entire White House was on bath salts and Nixon was a raccoon with his head stuck in a jar of peanut butter.” In other words, a very labored joke because the show had exhausted itself and its supply of jokes about the president.

Trump has been a punch line for – let’s be generous – well over two years and, to quote Morrissey, that joke isn’t funny anymore. (On a side note, the only pleasure to be gained from the ex-Smiths front man’s apparent body swap with a far-right extremist is that, somewhere in England, there’s now a UKIP member espousing the joys of Oscar Wilde and vegetarian burgers.)

Of course, “The Trump Show” stopped being funny when we realized he wasn’t actually going to be impeached after a couple of months; that he was going to pander only to the basest of his supporter base; and that he wasn’t going to quit because of all the paperwork (tweets and signing executive orders being pretty much the extent of those duties).

And for those of us who thought he would soon grow bored and want to return to his old life, we failed to recognize that this is a man who thinks ennui is a service you get in a Moscow hotel suite.

And it absolutely stopped being funny when he realized he was able to dictate the news agenda with a single tweet, manipulating the media at will with his petty point-scoring. Thus, a formula was established in which the president did something spiteful/stupid/surreal – sometimes all in one tweet – and the late-night TV shows responded like Pavlov’s pooch upon hearing a bell (or often in this case, a dog-whistle).

Ironically, it was a comedian, Michelle Wolf, who nailed the problem best in a recent sketch on her weekly Netflix show “The Break,” looking at how the late-night shows are responding to Trump.

“This is the time of the show where we do a viral segment, and since this is a comedy show in 2018, you know one thing for sure: This comedy segment is going to be sincere and angry,” Wolf said. “And you can also tell that it will be funny because I’m sitting down, there will be graphics and facts, and it will feel a little bit like school.” She was right, apart from the funny bit.

Subtle as a bullhorn

You can’t blame comedians for responding this way – as Wolf herself notes, they feel the need to tackle the president when so much of the media is simply going along for the ride in the Trump clown car. But they are also being forced to forgo the comedy and instead become America’s moral guardians – and who needs a comedian for that? Bee started off brilliantly on “Full Frontal,” but a year into the Trump presidency, fatigue had set in: It was like being addressed earnestly by someone with a bullhorn.

The other problem is that by being forced to focus so exclusively on Trump, there’s a whole world that is passing us by. When “Last Week Tonight” first aired in April 2014, the first few shows featured subjects as diverse as the Indian election, the death penalty, climate change denial and Russia-Ukraine relations. Sure, it wasn’t exactly a PBS documentary, but you still felt you were gaining fresh insight into world affairs. Without John Oliver, for instance, I would not have been introduced to the joys of the “dancing zebras” on Bolivia’s crosswalks.

But the U.S. president is now officially the only game in town – so much so that, after four loyal years, I stopped watching “Last Week Tonight” earlier this year because every episode began, “But first, President Trump.”

We all need a Trump-free zone in our lives, and I decided to make television mine. I can read about Trump in the papers and online, but I’m damned if I’m going to suffer those smug features on my screen anymore.

Is it a coincidence that the popularity of true crime TV has peaked in the age of Trump, with people seeking refuge from the horrors of everyday life with another form of real-life horror and shows such as “Making a Murderer,” “The Keepers” and “The Detectives”? (Wolf has a great sketch about them, too.)

We want something that’s drawn from reality, but not the one that’s presented to us daily by CNN, Fox and Co. Still, despite saying that, I am still convinced the presidency will end on live TV, with Trump driving a white Bronco along the freeways of D.C. while being pursued by federal officers and Robert Mueller.

There is one Trump-related thing we can still laugh about on television, though, and that is Trump supporters – a point perfectly demonstrated in Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who is America?” show.

I’ve already written at length about the comedian’s Israeli character, Col. Erran Morad, so won’t elaborate further here – suffice it to say that the Trump followers in the show are both laughable yet scary, with their cartoonish hatred for immigrants and anyone who isn’t a white American with a red neck.

Funnily enough, I have also learned how to enjoy “Last Week Tonight” again – like the brilliant segment Oliver did recently on Facebook losing over $120 billion in a single day and a hard-hitting piece on workplace sexual harassment. The secret is simply to fast-forward through all of the references to Trump and Stupid Watergate. Now all I need is to find a way to fast-forward to the 2020 elections.