When Stephen Colbert was named as David Letterman”s successor earlier this month, there were some suggestions that “Daily Show” alum John Oliver must be kicking himself for jumping to HBO a few months earlier, when he would have been a lock to succeed Colbert weeknights at 11:30 on Comedy Central.
Just don”t suggest this to Oliver, who sounds extremely happy with the deal he made with HBO, which will lead to the debut of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” on Sunday night at 11. (The first episode will include an interview with former NSA director Keith Alexander.) Earlier this month, I spoke with Oliver about his hopes for the new show, his experience filling in for Jon Stewart last summer as interim host of “The Daily Show” – including the origins of his Carlos Danger dance – his time as a recurring player on “Community,” and a lot more(*).
(*) Let me remind you of the blog”s No Politics rule. While making a larger point about the way he sometimes views American culture and politics differently given his country of origin, Oliver briefly discusses his feelings about estate tax laws. The comments are not the place to further discuss your feelings about those laws or Oliver”s argument. Thank you.
What can you tell me about the format of the show? Is it all locked down or are you still noodling between now and the end of the month?
John Oliver: No, we”re noodling, really. We did one last night. The idea is that the format will hopefully be flexible, so that we can let the stories dictate what we”re gonna do with them. It”s an odd thing: we”re writing jokes that are never going to get seen by anyone. So it”s more just building a machine which will one day make fun of stories that haven”t happened yet.
What was the structure of the one you did last night? What were the different pieces?
John Oliver: Last night, we did a couple of quick stories at the start, just fun things. We did something about the royal baby on tour, and something about the NSA's involvement in the Heartbleed bug. And then the bulk of the show was really about gender discrimination in the wage gap, and in the now 5-year-delayed CIA torture report. So that was the meat of the show. And then we interviewed Frank Rich about some of the CIA stuff at the end of the show.
In the promos, you joke about how difficult it is to do a topical show that”s weekly, and after your old pals at Comedy Central will have had four cracks at those particular topics. How do you intend to deal with that?
John Oliver: Well I think if there”s a story that they have done a lot then we won”t do it. I think that”s the truth. If something happens at the start of the week and it”s been picked apart then I think we”ll be gravitating away from that story and doing something else. Generally we might look internationally to stories. We very nearly did a big section on the Indian election this week that was the biggest exercise in democracy in human history. It”s a big deal, but not so big of a deal that you could tell from any coverage whatsoever over here.
Oh God. With our news, they”re still looking for the plane.
John Oliver: That”s true. It”s hard to overstate. More people are going to vote than voted in the last six U.S. elections combined, and yet there”s something about that tantalizing pinging plane that is pertinent to lazy journalism.
A few years back, the TCA gave “The Daily Show” an award for News and Information and Jon taped this whole acceptance speech thing where he asked if we knew they were a comedy show. And yet it feels like it”s almost left to the comedy shows sometimes to cover the stories that the actual news media isn”t bothering with.
John Oliver: I think that is a failing of theirs rather than any positive on our part. We want to make sure that our territory is comedy. It”s just intent to gravitate towards writing comedy about things that are interesting. And some of those stories are not covered by the news, which means that not only do you end up covering the story themselves but also on the lack of coverage of them.
Obviously it”s still early days, but in an ideal world, what percentage do you see this being a commentary on the news versus a commentary on the news coverage?
John Oliver: It”s a weird commentary on the news, I think, more than the news coverage. Now I don”t think this will be – this won”t be a news parody in the way that Colbert was a really disciplined, consistent parody of a news broadcast. Yet this will be about news. It”s just the coverage is so laughably and absolutely not laughably bad that it is almost impossible to cover stories without already dealing with the incompetent elephant in the room, which is that story”s being reported appallingly.
You mentioned Colbert, and I would be remiss if I did not ask this question. When the Letterman thing happened and then Colbert got the job a week later, was there any part of you that was thinking, “God, if I”d only waited six months to sign this deal”?
John Oliver: No, no, no. Because I think this is a chance to do something completely different. HBO on Sunday night is a tantalizing thing to try and do something with. I like the idea of trying to change my metabolism, which is so built around a daily production, which I loved and I think there is part of me that is gonna miss the kind of daily grind. But I”m really looking forward to working out how to use the extra time to do some things with higher production. You know, tackle stories that are incredibly difficult to do on a daily turnaround.
When did you and HBO first start having talks about this and what did they say that they wanted?
John Oliver: We spoke once Jon got back. He was back for a couple of weeks, and I hadn't really been in contact with my own manager, just because I wanted to get through the summer and focus on not letting Jon down. And then immediately after the last show on Thursday night of the summer, I went to Afghanistan for two weeks. I was out of contact with anything then. Then I came back, got Jon back with his legs under the desk where they belong, and then started thinking about what to do next. HBO had been in touch, and then we started talking then. They mentioned, “Well, what about Sunday night?” And that became instantly appealing.
Why? Because there”s something about the HBO Sunday with the dramas and everything?
John Oliver: Not so much that, other than the fact that I like watching TV on Sunday night. But I liked the idea of a show like this being on Sunday night. I couldn”t quite work out why there hasn”t been one other than people not wanting to work weekends. I can”t quite work it out, because we”re not really going up against anything. So to have a thematic look at the week is really appealing to look back on. Especially you”re offering people a chance to waste what”s left of their weekend in, you know, hopefully the most interesting and funny way.
What was your reaction when they said that you would be the one filling in for Jon over the summer?
John Oliver: Well he told me. “They” was he. He called me one weekend early last year and, you know, I knew that he”d been writing this script for a while. I knew he'd been writing the script for a while, and he said they had the money to do it and he was going to direct it. He said, “I”m gonna need to take a few months off. Would you host for me over the summer?” And I said yes without thinking about it really, because I”ll say yes to anything he asks me. And then he said, “We”ll talk about it in the next few months and that was it.” I hung up, and then my wife said, “What was that?” And it was only when I said it out loud to her that I realized what I”d just agreed to. I said, “I”m gonna guest host for Jon over the summer.” And she goes, (skeptical) “Really?” So there were some initial waves of panic, that”s for sure. And then it was just months of doing my regular job, which doesn”t really give much time for thought about other things. And then it all happened very fast. He left on Thursday and the Edward Snowden story broke the next day. So there wasn”t much time for my feet to hit the ground, which is probably a good thing.
You really were blessed in terms of the stories that summer. Snowden, Carlos Danger, everything a topical comic could want happened that summer.
John Oliver: It was amazing! The summer is a bad time for news, especially when there is no election happening – which in America, is so little of the time. Normally there”s an election happening somewhere. And so all we knew that we could build the summer around is we knew there was gonna be a couple of big Supreme Court cases. There was gonna be gay marriage and the voter rights act. We knew there was gonna be that. We knew there was gonna be a royal baby at some point. That gave us, we thought, three shows. So we only had three months of other stuff to do around that. And then it just kept going. The NSA thing took such a lot of unpacking that that ran for weeks. Carlos Danger was inexplicable on every level – that that would happen again. So that was pretty fun to do. Paula Deen, she gave us a fun day. We were very lucky. We had a lot of things fall into our lap. And then we also had some big serious stuff to look at, like the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict. There was a lot more going on that summer than we were expecting. And then even when things were quiet, then we got to do stuff you wouldn”t normally do. We did a whole act on Detroit, a whole act on Goldman Sachs fixing the prices of aluminum, which is not something you naturally gravitate towards as a comedian – not like aluminum pricing. That writes itself.
With the Carlos Danger thing, given Jon”s connection to Weiner, it”s like karma was deciding that this would happen then and only then.
John Oliver: It was amazing. I couldn”t believe it. Yeah, that kind of removed the awkwardness from the connection.
How did you come up with using the song and doing the dance?
John Oliver: I can”t remember. I think when the name Carlos Danger came out obviously there was a certain amount of excitement around the office. (laughs) Our reaction was that we were going to have a full dinner of just three courses of dessert this evening. And I think what happened was, Ramin Hedayati, who works in our footage department, is a purveyor of Mystikal”s music and I think he played that sting, and then every time I said the name he just played this music. I figured we”d just play the music, and I am not someone naturally prone to rhythmic movement in any form. But there was something about that music which throws my hat in. The dancing was not really planned and the music was just a joyful extension of how fantastic it is that he calls himself Carlos Danger. It”s so great. It”s so great.
Other than not having the awkwardness of the personal connection on that one story, what would you say differentiated the way you were doing the show from the way that Jon has done it before and since?
John Oliver: Well, I”m working with a much lower skill set, so that differentiates itself straight away. That”s a hard question to answer, because I was working with his machine. I”m driving his car. I guess it”s just a personality thing. You”ve got to gravitate towards things in a different way.
Well, Jon will certainly get angry, but it seemed as if there was a more regular sense of frustration on your part, maybe as someone who is not from here and is more easily able to say, “All right, everyone”s just screwing this up right now. Why aren”t you doing something about it?”
John Oliver: There were certain times. There was one particular day when I really felt Jon's absence more than usual, which was that George Zimmerman verdict. There are certain times when people turn to Jon to help them process incredibly painful things. And that felt like one of those times, and I could feel how much the audience missed him that day. And we tried our best to do a show. I still think it would've been better if he had been around that day. There is a certain earned authority when you're dealing with that kind of toxicity. But we stayed away from Fox News for most of that summer because there were other things to talk about. But there was one day, it was the fast food workers minimum wage protest, and it was so mean-spirited, the coverage of it, and it was punching down in the worst way, and it really really annoyed me. We did an act on minimum age, that I guess was an exercise in processing some visceral anger. And there were also a couple of Goldman Sachs investigations which came to nothing, which was pretty infuriating. So I don't know. I got given this three month window to play with the most amazing toys, and so you want to make it count. He's given me the keys to this car, and you occasionally want to see how fast it can go. So yeah, there were probably moments where we were gravitating towards stories that were particularly infuriating. And then punting back with an update on Carlos Danger too.
One of the running gags of the summer was segments where the other correspondents were bitter that you had gotten this gig. In real life is there any sort of hierarchal jealousy there or was everyone just sort of relieved that it was you and not them?
John Oliver: If there was you couldn”t do those jokes. No, that had to be a joke. Otherwise it”s just mean! They were amazingly supportive over the summer. Absolutely amazingly supportive. I think we ended up topping and tailing the summer with those brutal takedowns. And it was so fun just to sit there and be a punching bag for thee and a half minutes.
On your last day on the show, Jon surprised you with this clip reel of your best moments, and you got very choked up.
John Oliver: I was completely blindsided. And I'm British. I don't really have access to my emotions on a daily basis. It was a tough day. I was not ready to leave that show. I knew I should. But there was no real reason to leave, in my heart, because it was the happiest I've ever been in a job. I just knew that I should do something else. I should take the skills that I'd learned and use them in a different capacity. So it was a very very difficult day. Then he sprung this surprise on me in playing these clips. I was still alright. I don't know if it was actually audible, after the last beat, he could see I was getting upset, he leaned in and said, “Are you okay?” And that just finished me. And that just finished me. It was such a microcosm of how caring he's been to me over a decade, and always checking in about how I'm feeling and if I'm doing okay. Even over the summer, when he had no time – he's on the other side of the world directing a movie – he still checked in just to make sure that I was feeling okay with everything and to give advice. It was a really, really emotional day. I was not planning to cry like a little girl, although I did.
Besides not having regular access to your emotions, in what other ways do you think being British informs what you did on “The Daily Show” and now what you”re going to do here as a stranger in a strange land?
John Oliver: I think it helps for comedians to be outsiders in any way – social outsiders, whatever. And I think the fact that I sound like an outsider, that I sound like I don”t belong here, that probably helps as well. We have a slightly different perspective on things. And I usually play pretty fast and loose with saying “we” and “you” now. I”ve lived here for a decade, and I married an American, and even the last few years on “The Daily Show,” I was regularly playing it both ways referring to America as “you” or “us,” depending on the situation. In general I think that sense of being an outsider usually helps in comedy.
In your time on “The Daily Show,” were there times when certain stories would come up and you would find yourself having a wildly different reaction to it than everybody else was?
John Oliver: Oh, that”s an interesting question. Yeah occasionally. I mean I”ve lived here for nearly a decade now, so I think I”m probably culturally assimilated to an extent, but there are still moments that make no sense to me. I think there are certain kinds of legislation that are campaignable issues – it”s very strange to me. Particularly things like the estate tax. Which doesn”t make sense to me. But here”s the innate American hope for the future where people think, “Well, I don”t want there to be tax on estates bigger than ten million dollars because one day I”m gonna have an estate of ten million dollars and I don”t want it to be taxed.” And that is a fundamental difference. That hope becomes kryptonite in a sense then, because it kind of stops any good legislation from getting passed for the greater good. But a British person has kind of given up a bit. How on earth is it the popular thing to do to not tax the richest people in the country? How do they get away with that? You need to understand the people think that”s going to happen to them. So it”s ending their future hypothetical earnings. And, you know, you don”t want to come across like a British talent show judge, but you don”t want to say, “Yeah, but it”s not gonna work out.”
Well speaking of British talent show judges, but also someone who worked briefly in the American news media, Piers Morgan caught a lot of crap for being not from here and daring to criticize the way we do things. I don”t think that”s the only reason his show failed, but it was certainly one of the ones people talked about a lot. Is that something you”ve ever experienced or been conscious of?
John Oliver: No, not really. Like you said I don”t think that was the only reason he caught crap, either. He”s a bombastic man and, you know, he often uses a sledge hammer when a scalpel is required. And he has done that for his whole “journalistic” – and let me put the word journalistic very much in quotes -career. So I”ve not found that. Even in doing standup around the country, in the South or in conservative parts of the country, I”ve found people being completely welcoming of it as long as they”re confident of where you were coming from. I think it”s pretty clear that I already love this country in that I”ve married a member of it and I would like to stay. Obviously, this my home. And so in standup, generally I”ll criticize myself and my country first, just so it”s clear that this is not gonna be a diatribe delivered in hate. It is delivered in love. Does that make any sense?
It does. And, of course, it also reminds me of one of your first lines on “Community,” where you talk about your love of both America and chalupas.
John Oliver: (laughs) I forgot about that, yeah. That”s true.
There was that period of a couple of years where you weren”t on that show. Was it just the scheduling thing? Did they just not reach out to you for a while?
John Oliver: That was election year. So they”re always really good about working around my “Daily Show” schedule, but in an election year I had no real time off. I couldn”t do anything that year. And then we”re in season 4, right?
We”re in season 5 now.
John Oliver: That”s right. I”m not sure I did anything in season 3 because I think that was that time when I was incredibly busy. And then in season 4 Harmon wasn”t there, so I had no real desire to go back. And then when he came back I”d just finished the summer, so I did a few of the episodes this year.
You”re in seven of the 13 episodes and they”re basically treating you and Jonathan Banks as regulars in terms of being at the study table. Did it feel different because you were around more frequently?
John Oliver: Not really. I hadn”t gone through that emotional roller coaster of not having Dan Harmon around. So it kind of felt like I”d left it, really – just without Chevy. It actually felt pretty normal. I loved it. I love that show. I wish more people watched it. I”d never done a pilot before. That”s the only (acting) part I”d done. And I was always under the assumption that pilots don”t get made, so I just did it because I like Dan Harmon and I like Joe (Russo). I thought it would be fun to see what America sitcoms are like – just like a glimpse into that world. Then it got picked up. I think it”s a really funny show. And I think it”s much more accessible than people think. I just wish more people watched it. It”s such a shame.
With the new show and your schedule and everything, if NBC should order a sixth season, are you going to have the ability to go back, or will you not have the time?
John Oliver: It depends when. If I do have the ability, then I”ll definitely go. It depends on when. And that”s the weird thing. Literally since the pilot the tone of the conversation has been exactly that. That”s the perennial conversation regarding Community: “If they dodge death yet again…” “If the charismatic cockroach once again scuttles out from under the NBC shoe…,” then, yeah, I”d love to do it. I”m really proud of that show even though I have barely any contribution to it.
As someone who is now out of the fight because you have this job that you”re very happy with, what would you like to see Comedy Central do with that 11:30 slot that”s going to be open in a year?
John Oliver: I have no idea. Those are some tough shoes to fill though. That is a tough job for everyone concerned because it is pretty hard to do what he did for a decade in that slot. I”ve no idea what they”re gonna do.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com