John Oliver Should Stick to His Longform Explanations of Science and Tech

The one-stop, longform format is perfect for explaining wonky topics.

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Jun 17 2014, 8:00am
Image: KAZ Vorpal/Flickr

John Oliver has fostered so much good will with his well-researched, hilarious, and definitive rants on science and tech's most important topics—so why did he waste seven minutes Sunday on a lazy, low-brow interview with Stephen Hawking?

With his new show, Last Week Tonight, Oliver, the 37-year-old Daily Show correspondent turned HBO talk show host has managed to bring science and technology's most important topics to the masses with his longform screeds. If Jon Stewart is the New York Times and Stephen Colbert is Politico, then Oliver is the New Yorker—a man able to take seemingly any topic and guide the viewer through something that's far more in depth than they ever knew they wanted. 

On climate change and net neutrality, Oliver has proven himself able to cut through the weeds with analogies (his claim that putting former telecom lobbyist Tom Wheeler in charge of the FCC to watch over the free and open internet is like "hiring a dingo" to be your babysitter was a stroke of genius), clear charts, and a no-bullshit style that has allowed him to turn out viral videos. 

Sunday's interview with Hawking, however, was fluff that was about as enlightening as something you'd find in Us Weekly. Instead of trying to foster any greater understanding of Hawking's theories and predictions, Oliver let himself get turned into a punching bag, with all of Hawking's jokes teed up. 

Oliver's line of questioning was juvenile, and he plucked most of the low-hanging fruit, asking Hawking if he'd have a chance with Charlize Theron in a parallel universe, questioning the physicist on whether or not he was "street smart," and joking about how Hawking speaks using the assistance of a computer. It was a chance to humanize Hawking, and, to be fair, Reddit ate it up, but the comedian has proven himself capable of much harder hitting, important work.

When Oliver's show launched in the spring, people weren't sure how he'd fit in next to Colbert and Stewart. He made his niche immediately clear, using the weekly format to research the hell out of one particular topic and take a deep dive into it, making people eat their vegetables (and enjoy it) on topics like net neutrality, FIFA corruption, climate change denial, and Europe's "Right to be Forgotten" at a time when the 24-hour news cycle threatens to bore the casual news consumer to death. 

Oliver has done for those topics what Colbert did for campaign finance rules, without making viewers tune in every day. That he has a particular propensity to cover the world of tech, internet policy, and science hasn't hurt his videos' internet virality, and it's exactly the sort of excavation that wonky science and tech policy topics have been begging for. 

This week, he blew it, and with just one show a week, the stakes are much higher than if he had a nightly show. Here's hoping he sticks to well-researched longform, continues to seek out techy topics, and leaves the dick jokes to someone else.