"Welcome to whatever this is," John Oliver said by way of introducing the premiere of his new weekly HBO show, Last Week Tonight.
And that's a good attitude to have, considering no one's quite sure what this show could be yet. What Sunday's first episode indicated is that it's a whole lot like Oliver's former boss Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, which Oliver temporarily hosted last summer while Stewart was directing a movie.
The weekly fake newscast even looks like and is structured similarly to the Daily Show, with Oliver rattling off punch lines behind a desk for most of the episode and conducting an interview at the end. (Perhaps the biggest difference is that Oliver is allowed to swear — and he takes advantage of that a couple of times in the first episode, particularly with a wonderful Pop Tarts retort.)
But the one thing Last Week Tonight desperately needs more of? John Oliver.
Not his presence (the premiere mostly consists of just him), but his sensibilities. The advance promos for the show have been making fun of its premise as a show that covers the news of the week on Sunday. But most people won't be watching to find out what happened in the news the previous week, they'll be watching for Oliver's passionate take on it, for his British-inflected incredulity of everything from the nutrition facts of cereal to the state of Oregon.
So, despite not being entirely original, the premiere was as entertaining as anything on Comedy Central. Oliver certainly seems confident and comfortable behind the desk — he's perfected his punch line delivery and faux ire. He also seems to be having a great time, breaking character a few times to giggle at his own jokes, and the energy is infectious.
He and his writers crafted plenty of smart, laugh-out-loud segments: making fun of Oregon's health care site with a spoof starring singer Lisa Loeb; a joke equating pope sainthood with a KFC sandwich; a particularly funny segment showing John McCain making the same joke six times recently. (It was "Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country," for use at your next cocktail party.)
Oliver ended the show with a taped sit-down with former NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander that had the exact look and feel of the Daily Show and Colbert Report's taped segments. Those often take on an outrageous tone (half the time the guests don't seem to know the interviewer is mocking them or being purposefully outlandish) that Oliver would be wise not to rely on. He strikes a serious tone with Alexander, asking some hard questions that actually get illuminating answers, but those serious points get lost as the audience is waiting for the next punch line.
Michelle Stark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at @mstark17 on Twitter.