Being on hiatus for the past few months, John Oliver said while promoting Sunday night’s first “Last Week Tonight” of the Donald Trump presidency, was like “being tied to a train track, watching the train coming."
“And then, of course, Inauguration Day is the train hitting you, and you’re thinking ‘Yep that felt pretty much how I thought it was going to feel,’ ” he said, speaking to Stephen Colbert on CBS’s “The Late Show.”
Sunday on HBO, the British comic whom America has learned to look to for perspective on our most meaningful national woes finally got to chime in on the 45th president using his own bells, his own desk, his own set and writers.
Their grand play? A fake medical ad running Monday morning on Washington, D.C.-area cable shows that will veer away from catheter talk to explain U.S. nuclear policy “in case you’re the kind of person that really needs to know that.”
That kind of person, of course, would be the president of the United States, a known morning cable watcher.
To say it was a blistering “Last Week Tonight,” though, would be an overstatement. There was too much to catch up on since the show last aired in mid-November, and in Oliver, like in many comics attempting to cope with Trump these days, you sense a kind of battle fatigue. Trump has only been in office a few weeks, yet the string of falsehoods and confounding or outrageous maneuvers has become almost a duty, rather than a joy, to satirize.
It’s gotten so bad, Oliver said, that when his phone buzzed with a news alert recently, he looked down and was relieved: “Oh, thank God, it’s just that Mary Tyler Moore is dead,” he recalled thinking.
He spoke of being jealous of Eddie, the dog from “Frasier,” because of his state of blissful ignorance: “He’s a dog, he’s fictional, and he’s almost certainly dead.” (Yes, in 2006.)
“Trump has made it clear that reality is not important to him,” Oliver said, citing a Politifact conclusion that two-thirds of what Trump said has been untrue. “We have a president capable of standing in the rain and saying it was a sunny day.”
While Oliver has been off the air, the late-night landscape has been shifting. Colbert and Seth Meyers, performing comedy that comes from a state of genuine alarm about the meaning of a Trump presidency, have risen in ratings and in popular regard. Samantha Bee continues to tattoo the president on her weekly show, and Trevor Noah and Bill Maher aim to do so too.
The comedy of urgency is carrying the day. The comedy of tousling Donald Trump’s hair — looking at you, Jimmy Fallon — seems naive, even a little dangerous.
So where does Oliver, a green card holder peering at us through a long lens, fit in?
The whole answer cannot come from one “Last Week." But the show, as I said, felt a little exasperated already, because it knows this battle will be long and tiresome and very likely repetitive. Sunday’s “Last Week” had the trappings of a comedy show, but it could be read also as news analysis, a PSA with high production values and a much better-than-usual timeslot.
After a video montage of Trump’s genuinely off-kilter handshake techniques, Oliver settled into the main topic. It wasn’t going to be one of the reported comic essays on the likes of tax-increment financing districts with which the show has made its mark. No, the subject would be the inevitable one: Trump.
Oliver’s goal, he said, was to answer four basic questions: How did we get “a pathological liar” in the White House? What is the source of those lies? Why do some people believe them? And what is to be done?
And so he laid out the answers, a refresher course for those who’ve been following things but perhaps an eye-opener to the folks who, um, only get their news from HBO on Sundays.
Oliver laid out the case that Trump gets news from cable TV and then from the likes of adviser Steve Bannon’s far-right Breitbart website and from Alex Jones’ bat-guano crazy InfoWars. He showed a clip of Trump telling Jones, “You’ll be very, very impressed, I hope” with what he is able to do.
People believe these things, the host said, because they’ve insulated themselves from conflicting news sources and because the White House keeps insisting that what the president believes to be true — that millions voted illegally, for instance — is a defensible position because it is what he believes.
“Faith and facts aren’t like Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton,” Oliver said. “When you confuse them, it actually matters.”
He showed a Texas congressmen counseling people to rely on Trump as their primary source for news without realizing the magnitude of such a statement. “Getting your news directly from the leader is basically the policy of North Korea,” Oliver pointed out.
As for what to do, Oliver suggested further protests, calls to legislators and lawsuits, yes. But his show, he said, was going after Trump where he seems to live: on a sofa during the cable news morning shows.
He showed the ad scheduled to air Monday morning, the host said, in hopes of getting through to the president. It featured a cowboy type in what looked like a cheap medical ad, targeting “catheter patients.” But then the cowboy explained what the “nuclear triad” is.
Other points that future such ads might make: “There are actually many non-you people,” and “You’re confusing climate with weather, podner.”
Most of the show’s jokes about Trump have been done, in one form or another, because he is being so carefully scrutinized by programs running more regularly. That’s not to say you don’t keep pointing out, say, the difference between the border wall candidate Trump promised and whatever it is President Trump will build.
But crafting an actual ad targeting Trump is an innovative response, the kind of bold maneuver that can continue to give "Last Week" a distinctive identity and help it fend off Trump fatigue.
The questions for Monday morning: Will Trump tweet about catheters or about the nuclear triad? And will the ad even be allowed to air, now that Oliver has made its satirical intent clear?