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John Oliver Just Had His ‘David Letterman After 9/11’ Moment

On his final episode of ‘Last Week Tonight’ before going on hiatus, the Emmy-winning host delivered a pitch-perfect soliloquy about this anxious moment and the uncertain road ahead. Consciously or not, he evoked what Letterman did for America nearly 20 years ago.

The day after Donald Trump was elected, in the midst of my anger, grief and bewilderment, a single thought emerged in my foggy head: I guess we’re going to have to take care of one another now. I’m not even sure what the thought meant, but I guess I figured that if a man so sexist, racist and vile could become president, then that meant a lot of my fellow citizens were the same — or, at the very least, were fine with voting for someone who was. But I knew many people weren’t, and that they would need to be protected from Trump and his supporters. The rest of us were on our own, but we had each other — and we’d need to hold onto that fact during the dark years to come.

Since coronavirus has descended on America, as it has over so much of the globe, it’s been hard not to be reminded that Trump is the man who’s supposed to lead us through this crisis. And, as always, he’s been found wanting — he’s as cruel, petty and stupid as always. I’m a grownup and can take care of myself, but in times of uncertainty, it’s incredibly heartening to turn to a public figure who can lift your spirits, offer some guidance and provide assurance that we’re going to get through this. No surprise that Trump wasn’t going to be that person.

Sunday night, John Oliver stepped in to fill that void. It was to be his final episode of Last Week Tonight before going on hiatus because of the pandemic, and you could sense that the Emmy-winning host knew this wasn’t going to be a normal taping — and that’s not just because it was in a different studio than normal, and without his usual audience. Sunday’s show felt like Oliver sending out one last emergency broadcast to whoever could hear it. As always, he wanted to make us laugh. But he also wanted to encapsulate the way a lot of us feel right now — to make it official, to put it on the record. He wanted to let us know we’d be okay. And because Oliver was so terrific in the role, I certainly believed him.

It’s become customary to treat talk-show hosts as our modern-day Walter Cronkites: the comforting TV presence who addresses the nation, acknowledging the current trauma and speaking to our better nature. The most famous of these instances occurred on September 17, 2001, when a still-shaken David Letterman returned to the Late Show, mightily attempting to synthesize his feelings about the 9/11 attacks. He wasn’t aiming to be a statesman or an orator — he was just trying to keep from crying.

“In the past week, others have said what I will be saying here tonight more eloquently than I’m equipped to do,” he said near the start. “But if we’re going to continue to do shows, I just need to hear myself talk for a couple of minutes and so that’s what I’m going to do.”

What followed was a raw, rambling but emotionally piercing recap of what most of us were thinking. We were mad and shocked and stunned, and so was Letterman. “It’s terribly sad here in New York City,” he said. “We’ve lost 5,000 fellow New Yorkers, and you can feel it — you can feel it, you can see it, it’s terribly sad. Terribly, terribly sad.” Letterman talked about courage, and he talked about first responders, and he praised Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who wasn’t yet the complete cretin he turned out to be. And he told a story about a small town in Montana, which was going through economic difficulties, that nonetheless had bandied together to raise money for the city of New York. Letterman was near tears. “If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the spirit of the United States, then I can’t help ya.”

More so than the guy who was president at the time, Letterman got us through 9/11. And since then, talk-show hosts have tried to be Letterman during difficult moments, but none of them got close until John Oliver on Sunday.

It helped that he wasn’t at his usual desk. Informing us that their studio and their offices had been cleared out because of coronavirus, Oliver explained that he was filming in an undisclosed location with a skeleton crew. Others had also done final episodes before the quarantine — best among them Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert — but they were futilely trying to carry on with some sense of normalcy, doing their usual bits, except without an audience. You felt the silence in their studios — you couldn’t ignore what was gone. The hosts, by instinct, paused for laughs after punch lines, but there were no crowd to comply. Those other hosts’ send-offs were amusing, but not exactly comforting. By comparison, John Oliver subtly but utterly reinvented his show. It was remarkable, and incredibly moving.

Any fan of Last Week Tonight’s signature weekly set piece knows how they work: Oliver introduces a wide-ranging topic and then drills down, finding every funny and enlightening jewel he can from it. There are clever bits of business, inspired digressions and usually a spectacular payoff — they’re superbly executed and performed pieces. But on Sunday, Oliver wasn’t so much performing a script as he was just talking to us, catching viewers up on the moronic things Trump had said during his televised address and later at that disastrous press conference. There were really funny moments, except he never paused for a laugh he knew wasn’t coming. He just got on with it. Oliver aspired to do what Letterman had done, except not so much off-the-cuff. He wanted to speak for all of us who were freaked out about coronavirus — and about the unknown of what’s coming next. And then he said this:

“Look, I know things are currently very scary. And things are going to be weird for a while — for weeks and, honestly, more likely months. And the fact that this is true makes it even more important that, going forward, we’re gonna need to look out for one another. … This is going to be an unsettling and potentially lonely time, so think about calling older relatives or neighbors or just anyone that you know who may be vulnerable or feeling isolated.”

Suddenly, the thought I’d had the day after Trump’s election came back to me: I guess we’re going to have to take care of one another now. That wasn’t the first time since 2016 that the thought had occurred to me, but it rang louder in my head than it has in a while. Unlike Letterman, Oliver didn’t get teary while he was talking, but you could feel the emotion in his words — the sense of duty to be a voice of reason and calm, while possessing ample amounts of humility to signal to the audience, “Hey, I’m scared, too, and I don’t know what to do, either. But we’re still here.”

That’s what Letterman provided in 2001 during a very different moment in our history, and similarly, Oliver met this particular moment with the grace it deserved. I suspect that, like me, a lot of people needed that right now — and will probably revisit this episode in the weeks and months to come when we need that reassurance again. Over the years, John Oliver has made me laugh many times. Sunday was the first time he made me cry.