HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has become the Sunday night refuge for liberals hoping to make sense of the current state of the world, with its charismatic and self-mocking host regularly doling out viral-worthy takedowns of corporate scrooges and occasionally giving away a giant train to an unsuspecting local news station.
This is possibly because host Oliver holds steadfast to several beliefs. One is that Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen are most certainly the same person. And another is that his audience is so fond of him because they are educated themselves.
“Do they now?,” Oliver asked incredulously on Wednesday when a journalist asked if he felt that his was the only news source his audience was absorbing. He argues no, of course not—otherwise, how would they get his jokes?
Oliver was speaking in front of journalists at HBO’s Television Critics Association press day in Beverly Hills, Calif., where he was asked to remark on this and several other things he’s learned in the five seasons of making his Emmy-winning program. Here are some of other highlights.
Do the amount of Trump jokes he does on his show have diminishing returns?
“We try and compartmentalize him on our show to the extent that we’ll talk about what he’s done that week in the first ten minutes, ideally in the first couple of minutes,” Oliver says of poking fun at POTUS’s political decisions and other guffaws. “We try to be weary of cannibalizing the show, so we try to protect our main story from him as much as possible.”
Last Week Tonight has a penchant for jokes involving animals (or at least people dressed as them). Is there any animal he would not want to use?
“I guess I’d like someone to impersonate a hippo and be honest of their true intentions,” he says, adding that he sees the animals in his young son’s children’s books and says it’s hard not to tell him that “these are monstrous animals that charge not for food, but just to see someone die.”
Oliver delights in segments that find the humor in our obscure laws and suppression of those in financial need.
He’s particularly proud of an episode on debt collection that ended with the show absolving strangers’ debt and another one that culminated in their invention of a fake church.
“It’s one thing to say that a church is tax exempt and they can promise you anything and demand money,” he says. “It’s another thing to say I’m now a church. Please send me money. We will cure your Lupus.”
Oliver has put on his reporter hat a few times during the show’s run, most notably to interview Edward Snowden in Russia and the Dalai Lama. When does he feel like this is worth the switch?
“It all depends,” he says, adding that talking to Snowden in Russia was a “production nightmare,” most notably because HBO didn’t know they were doing it. He says he may do it again if subjects agree.
Does Oliver plan to expand on his international coverage?
“America is going through a lot, so it’s easy to think we just can’t take on what you’re doing [in say,] Italy, right now,” he says. “But it doesn’t mean that it’s not fascinating or consequential. ... Whether as a main story or in just little glimpses of international stories, or like international leader profiles at the start of the show, we try and cast our net wider than just fishing from the American pool of sadness.”
As for his mockery of Canadian prime minster Justin Trudeau ...
“It felt like that Indian trip, he had overshot the runway of his own popularity,” Oliver reflects. “It felt like for the first time, he singed his fingertips on people going, ‘You’re not quite that charismatic to pull off a trip like that.’”
The show has become famous for buying obscure items at auctions. What is the process like for bidding on things like Russell Crowe’s jockstrap from Cinderella Man or life-size replicas of U.S. presidents?
“Innately, you’re thinking of the most indefensible waste of HBO’s money,” Oliver laughs, adding that “We just did [these gags] in the first place because it felt stupid and it was stupid.”
In the case of the jockstrap, he says it was one producer’s job to be up at 4 a.m. and bid on it.
“It was interesting to see that she just wanted to get to bed because you’d hear bids for $200, $400 and then this telephone bid for $5000 and that was her saying ‘I’m tired. This is a ridiculous way to be living my life’,” he says of his poor, abused employee.
Is this a sign that perhaps HBO has given Last Week Tonight too big of a budget?
Oliver says they’ve also continued to invest in the show’s staff, such as researchers and producers.
Crowe’s jockstrap currently lives at a Blockbuster in Alaska. What will happen to it now that that store is closing?
“We’re in the process of working that out,” Oliver says. “They’re selling some things from that store and I don’t know what is happening to the jock strap yet.”
He says that perhaps that jockstrap will move to another business in need.
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Esquire, Elle, Complex, Vulture, Marie Claire, Toronto Star and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son and very photogenic cat.