NEW YORK – Usually, a comedian promoting an upcoming season of his show would throw a few tantalizing tidbits to whet viewers’ appetites.
Not John Oliver.
Last Week Tonight, HBO’s Emmy-winning satirical weekend nightcap, returns for a fifth season of 30 new episodes Sunday (11 ET/PT), and its host isn’t spilling.
Would you, if you were trying to gin up interest by touting deep-dive segments that often run 20 minutes or more on topics such as Brexit, health care reform, net neutrality or coal mining, all covered last season? (Although, in fairness, that last one prompted a defamation lawsuit from a coal executive Oliver mocked as a “geriatric Dr. Evil.”)
“It’s a bit of a sales job,” he said in an interview Monday, to lure viewers and only then demonstrate “the scale of the problem and the human collateral” in a way that keeps them from getting bored by the seemingly dry topics.
Over four seasons, “we’ve built up a certain amount of trust so that people, when we start talking about something, will think it’s worth listening to, even if we’re talking about flood insurance.” Seven Emmy awards, 6 million cumulative viewers and many YouTube clips later, the British-born Oliver, 40, has succeeded, and the show recently was renewed through a seventh season in 2020.
How has the show evolved from its early days, when Oliver's main objective was to set Last Week apart from The Daily Show, where he worked as a correspondent for six years?
Patience. “On our second show, we thought we were taking a really dumb but inherently funny risk by talking about the death penalty for 12 minutes,” he recalls. “Now, we never talk about anything in as short as 12 minutes. Now we would talk about it in a very different, granular way.”
Although it doesn't involve our current president as much as fans might expect. While the top of the show reliably features a few jokes at Donald Trump's expense, just the first and last of 2017's main segments focused directly on him. (A third explored his daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.)
Rather than tackle an “avalanche of nonsense” that emanates from the White House each week, he says that in one upcoming report “we’re trying to show one small thing” Trump said, and explore its radiating impact. It’s one of several segments Oliver and his team have been working on since the show’s last episode aired Nov. 12.
“We’ve been banking a bunch of stuff just to make sure the foundations that we’re building stories on are solid,” he says.
Also on his vacation calendar: A memorably tense (and quickly viral) December sitdown with Dustin Hoffman, at a panel promoting the 20th anniversary of political satire Wag the Dog, shortly after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced against the actor. Things did not go well, especially after Hoffman quickly followed his mea culpa with a denial.
“He’d had his publicist-written tacit apology,” Oliver says, and “because that was a de facto admission of certain kinds of misbehavior, I felt you can’t step backwards from there, but that’s what he did. To go from there to ‘this is all lies’ is the one thing I was not anticipating. Also, it’s in a room of his fans. It was not a fun evening.”