While the return of live audiences to late-night talk shows has been greeted with a certain ambivalence—for one thing, the pandemic is staging one of its periodic, dumbass-abetted comebacks—John Oliver dove (metaphorically) right back into his old, audience-delighting schtick on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight. Sure, it’s been genuinely compelling to watch hosts get inventive (or not) when confronted with a yawning void where their eagerly appreciative live crowds were wont to be, but there’s nobody who can pitch his acidly precise asides to the cheap seats like Oliver, a mutual pleasure Oliver clearly relished in his rousingly petty attacks on Belarusian President-for-life (if he has anything to say about it), Alexander Lukashenko.
Dictators are the ripest plums for a comedian like Oliver to pluck and hurl about the place, what with their necessarily sweaty constant efforts to prop up their own vanity and an alternate version of reality in order to cling to power. And when one of the most mockable facts about the three-decade authoritarian leader is a top-down mandate that the government-controlled press can, under penalty of great personal unpleasantness, never, ever show the back of Lukashenko’s obviously balding dome, well, John Oliver is going to bring some fun to everyone in the studio. “Wait a minute!,” Oliver mugged in expert deadpan, “Hold on just a minute there—you’re telling me this guy is bald?” Cue a montage of Lukashenko headshots where it looks like “he grew his left sideburn into a rat-tail, and then shellacked it onto his bare scalp.”
Of course, there’s nothing shameful about going bald—unless you’re a posturing authoritarian demanding that the world ignore your sad, ego-fluffing, morning-consuming tonsorial and makeup routine so that your equally artificial he-man persona doesn’t collapse under the weight of public derision and layers of inadequately applied orange face-paint. And if Oliver never right-out mentioned the United States’ recent brush up against a preening would-be dictator-in-chief with an army of sycophants denying all hint of personal weakness on the part of their Glorious Leader, then he really didn’t have to. Going down the autocrat checklist here sees Lukashenko vilifying the press, claiming “fake news” over any poll indicating people don’t like him, calling the worsening COVID epidemic a hoax since it’s one thing he cannot control, grooming his own son to take over the family fascism business, hurling slurs at the usual scapegoats (Jews, gays), and even courting the affection of fawning has-been celebrities all too willing to squander what little fame they have left on behalf of a laughable fake populist with an elaborately tortured hairdo. Cue dictators’ go-to American D-lister Steven Seagal, eagerly pretending to enjoy chomping down on Lukashenko’s proffered raw carrot. (Not a euphemism.)
And if Donald Trump never actually imprisoned journalists critical of his own feints toward Belarus-style authoritarianism, it’s simply because the United States wasn’t quite as far down the road to fascism as he so desperately needed it to be in order to set himself up on the golden throne you just know he had commissioned. Oliver decried Lukashenko’s imprisonment of dissidents and torture of journalists, even as the host mocked a British reporter’s unnecessarily showy method of illustrating Lukashenko’s favorite go-to torture of locking stripped-naked critics in a freezing meat locker. (As Oliver noted, to the delight of his returned crowd, going full “cakes-out” really isn’t necessary on the nightly news when words are perfectly adequate to get the point across that Alexander Lukashenko is a dick.)
Naturally, Oliver greeted his eagerly returned audience with an HBO-funded stunt to back up his verbal mockery with action. Pointing viewers to the Last Week Tonight-purchased domain belarusbearforce.com, Oliver highlighted one of the most eminently ridiculous scandals of Lukashenko’s reign, in which the tonsorially challenged dictator went ballistic after a pro-democracy protester sent parachute-packing teddy bears wafting down over the Belarusian countryside. Telling his audience that he’s “in real shit” if he doesn’t unload all 20 thousand of the adorable little guys (for 20 bucks apiece, with all money going to pro-press and pro-democracy organization Global Giving), Oliver showed off the teddy’s T-shirt, emblazoned with an innocent arrangement of former farmer Lukashenko’s favorite produce. (Sometimes a carrot and potatoes are just a carrot and potatoes, people.) John Oliver spending some of business daddy HBO’s cash to actually do some cheeky good is always a crowd-pleaser.