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John Oliver Does His Best 'Daily Show' Impression For HBO

John Oliver's new show, <em>Last Week Tonight</em>, debuted Sunday on HBO.
Eric Liebowitz
John Oliver's new show, Last Week Tonight, debuted Sunday on HBO.

Fans who worried that John Oliver's new HBO program might somehow diminish his legacy at The Daily Show can rest easy.

Because apparently he's decided to copy it.

That doesn't mean Sunday's debut of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver wasn't funny, because it was. Sitting behind an expansive desk with a city skyline at his back, Oliver uncorked a relentless load of telling barbs about the dysfunctional collision of media and politics, lambasting cable networks for speculating endlessly about 2016 presidential elections instead of covering the largest election in human history underway right now in India.

But it was also a half-hour of the wisecracks-on-news-coverage-made-to-look-like-a-newscast that The Daily Show has perfected.

We all knew Oliver was hired by HBO after his stellar stint filling in for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show last year. And in Last Week Tonight, it appears that HBO has pretty much bought that program, right down to the in-your-face pre-taped interviews guaranteed to make the subject look like an uneasy participant in a joke where they're not quite sure of the punch line.

The honor of inaugural patsy went to former National Security Agency head Keith Alexander, who faced questions from Oliver about the agency's controversial spying programs, like: "Do you think the NSA is suffering from a perception problem with the American people ... bearing in mind that the answer to that is yes?"

Alexander eventually played along gamely, agreeing they could rebrand the NSA as "the only agency in government that really listens." There wasn't much information to be had here; the interview was mostly just a platform for Oliver to launch finely tuned barbs, the same way he did for seven years on The Daily Show.

Indeed, the HBO show's format mirrored The Daily Show's pacing, with comedy bits from behind the desk interspersed with pre-taped gags. These pre-taped bits — one featured Sen. John McCain telling the same joke about Russia being "a gas station masquerading as a country" in six different media interviews — often seemed placed where commercials would normally fall if it aired on a basic cable channel. Like, perhaps, Comedy Central.

Another plus for Oliver on HBO: Along with the lack of commercials, there's a lack of censorship. So the f-word appeared in its full, unbleeped glory several times not only in Oliver's copy, but in a sign held up behind singer Lisa Loeb while she performed in a parody music video lambasting Oregon for spending $248 million on an Obamacare website that doesn't work. ("We flew in Lisa Loeb to tell you to go f - - - yourselves, Oregon," Oliver crowed.)

But the bit also revealed a telling secret: Sometimes bleeping the curse words is even funnier than hearing them.

Still, Oliver presented a consistently entertaining half-hour that took shots at everything from Sunday's elevation of two popes to sainthood ("The papal sainthood equivalent of a KFC double down.") to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling's racist tirades against his girlfriend for taking selfies with black people ("Genuinely shocking: An 80-year-old man knows about Instagram.")

But some of us fans couldn't help a little disappointment that the talented British comic didn't come up with a different showcase for his talents that reinvented a bit more of the formula developed by his ex-boss.

Because, as much as some Daily Show junkies might welcome a weekend edition on Sundays, what late-night TV really needs is a fresh way to tell a few new stories.

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.

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