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.