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HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver sparked with some brilliant material that should be given a little more time to breathe


John Oliver at the start of HBO’s new Last Week Tonight. Photo: Ed Bark

His material was mostly first-rate. John Oliver seemed to have no interest in savoring it, though.

“Welcome, welcome, welcome to whatever this is,” he said without any further ado at all on Sunday’s premiere of HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. “Let’s get started straight away.”

Which he did while also seemingly being intent on waylaying prolonged outbreaks of laughter or applause. Oliver seemed just a bit impatient with any of that. “No, no, no, no,” he said more than once while also laying down a little drumbeat on his desk in an effort to seemingly stay in joke-telling rhythm. An appreciative studio audience, never shown on camera, might have in turn appreciated a quick ad lib or a chance to let its collective reaction wash over the host. But Oliver wasn’t having any of that, even though the show was pre-taped and seemingly not on a super-strict schedule. This is, after all, HBO, where episodes of original fare routinely are allowed to run a few minutes past an appointed hour.

Oliver quickly came to prominence last summer as Jon Stewart’s fill-in host on The Daily Show while he took leave to make a movie. As it turns out, Comedy Central almost assuredly would have offered him Stephen Colbert’s post-Daily Show slot had the network known he’d be leaving to become David Letterman’s successor sometime next year.

But HBO struck while the Oliver iron was red hot. So for now, his half-hour <>Last Week Tonight will be seen just once a week on Sundays.

Oliver launched right into the prime targets at hand -- old-line bigots Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy. “It turned out to be a rough week for unrepentant racists and recording devices,” he said deftly.

Those were the easy ones. But Oliver set himself apart with an ingenious and lengthy look at the election in India, whose 814 million eligible voters are in the process of picking a new prime minister. The two frontrunners currently are telegenic young Rahul Gandhi and elderly Narenda Modi, with the latter considered the favorite, Oliver said. Still, American TV newscasts remain more interested in handicapping the 2016 presidential election, Oliver scolded.

“If this story isn’t worth covering, then nothing is worth covering,” he said of India’s election, which has all of the juicy ingredients that usually interest U.S. cable news networks. Instead they’ve devoted more attention of late to a “Leopard on the Loose” in India.

Oliver also had a fine time with a very funny segment blasting products that make phony claims about improving health, prolonging life, etc. He reached a crescendo with, “F#@% you,” after viewers were treated to an ad for Frosted Pop Tarts.

The show also included a taped faux salute to the NFL as “Workplace of the Week” and Oliver’s previous interview with accommodating former National Security Agency head Keith Alexander.

The host then zoomed right out of there, thanking those involved with the show before it instantly vanished.

Last Week Tonight probably needs to towel off a bit and present a more relaxed half-hour next Sunday. The premiere outing nonetheless showed considerable ingenuity and a willingness to take on topics that haven’t already been parodied to death. India’s elections, for one. That was a brilliant segment, and more than enough to elevate the first edition of a show that doesn’t have to be in quite such a rush. Enjoy yourself a little more, John Oliver. Take your foot off the accelerator and stop speeding.

GRADE: A-minus

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