“Thank you for coming,” John Oliver told a room full of reporters who gathered this week at HBO’s midtown headquarters to query him about “Last Week Tonight.” “I realize the Westminster Dog Show is on today. The fact you're here and not there means a great deal.”
Such self-deprecation is typical for the British comedian, yet as “Last Week Tonight” heads into its fifth season Sunday on HBO, even Oliver would find it hard to deny his cultural cachet. His show has won a slew of praise, including back-to-back Emmys for variety talk series, and perhaps even more remarkably, gotten Americans fired up about such seemingly bone-dry subjects as net neutrality and civil asset forfeiture.
Maintaining the show’s focus on overlooked subjects amid a non-stop cycle of all-consuming Trump-related news has been challenging, Oliver told reporters. “It’s such a firehose of ... That's the tricky thing. There’s so much low-hanging fruit, you can end up eating too much.”
But so far, “Last Week Tonight” has figured out a way to cover Trump without piling on the day-to-day firestorms — a good thing for a show that has been on hiatus since November, meaning it’s missed out almost entirely on material about Stormy Daniels, Rob Porter or Judge Roy Moore.
Last season included reports on gerrymandering and dialysis, for instance, but was book-ended with big-picture looks at Trump’s influence on American democracy. “Lots of times the main story we talk about is pretty irrelevant to the week,” Oliver said, “but pretty relevant, we would argue, to the concept of being alive.”
After the breakfast, Oliver sat with The Times to talk about the show’s labor-intensive creative process, Dustin Hoffman, Alec Baldwin and how fatherhood has influenced his comedy.
So you’re heading into your fifth season. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far about putting on the show?
The big lessons are less about the show that you see than the machine that produces that show. How you staff up, how you keep people interested. Those are the harder tricks. It's running the thing underneath the show that is the steepest learning-curve part of it and how each little decision can affect the product that comes out at the end of it.
The punchlines at the end of each episode — the stunts you use to drive home the main story — seem to have gotten more elaborate over the years.
It became clear that what [the production team] can do is so beyond our expectations that we were able to elevate the ambition of what we could think of. We've had some pretty dumb ideas that I would have immediately dismissed a few years ago because you think, that's not going to be possible. The longer we can give them the better it will turn out. They pull things out of the fire at the last minute. Occasionally after the show, we'll say to [executive producer] Liz [Stanton], that was amazing what they did. And she'll say [weary voice], “Yeah, we're getting pretty close.” Occasionally there's still paint on the set.
You haven’t been on the air since November, but you’ve been working most of that time. I am guessing the ratio of stories that get killed versus what makes it to air is pretty high. Can you talk a little bit about that process?
The thing that no one sees is the depth of things you don't see in a story. We research and check stories beyond what I think most people would assume so that we're usually calling and contacting people in each clip to make sure the story is being presented accurately. We speak to every company that we're talking to at length, repeatedly, just to make sure there's a dialogue in place so that we can run what we're going to say by them so they can dispute it and have their say. There are whole stories that you then don't see because something you might have fallen in love with, there's inaccurate reporting on it, or the story has shifted and there are multiple reasons why we might not be able to do it.
In December, you made news when you asked Dustin Hoffman about the sexual harassment allegations against him during a panel discussion about “Wag the Dog.” Afterwards Alec Baldwin criticized you and Stephen Colbert on Twitter, saying you’ve turned your talk shows into “grand juries” — never mind that Hoffman wasn’t appearing on your show. What did you think of what he said? And as a host with a prominent platform, do you feel any responsibility in the wake of #MeToo?
I think it's a personal decision. I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I can only speak for myself and that one example. There was a fully reported out sequence of stories [about Hoffman]. I knew that others were coming. I just don't feel like there was an option not to bring that up. A grand jury in [Baldwin’s] analogy is the journalism that takes place before the story comes out. I don't want to litigate something which is incomprehensible, because there’s no point. But yeah, that is an absurd analogy. Those stories had come out, [Hoffman] had dodged red carpet questions [at the Gotham Film Awards the week before]. I couldn't believe he was turning up to a conversation about a film about sexual harassment being covered up. I just cannot envision a world in which you don't think it's going to come up. Like, that's insane to me. And, again, it's kind of insulting. You think I’m not going to bring it up?
You did a segment last year about vaccines that ended with you talking movingly about the decision to immunize your son, who was born prematurely. Has becoming a parent affected your outlook at all?
I was absolutely in awe of what [Jimmy] Kimmel did [in talking about his infant son Billy’s health] because it was so funny, so honest and something that I was physically incapable of doing. My wife had a really difficult pregnancy, my son was in intensive care for a while afterwards and it was very difficult and I just buried it.
When we did the piece about vaccines, I didn't want people to feel like I was just throwing information at them. I wanted to be sure there was some kind of emotional engagement in how scary it can be to have a child anyway. It felt like it was worthwhile ... [takes a deep breath] to kind of walk the walk as well as talk the talk and say look, not just that I had vaccinated my child but we vaccinated him despite the fact he didn't have an easy entry into the world. It wasn't easy to do, right? But it felt worthwhile because it was kind of acknowledging the vulnerability that you feel and yet you should cling to the stability of science on this.
It did not come naturally and it was not easy. But it's part of the reason why I personally found [Jimmy] Kimmel's thing so cathartic, aside from the broader points that he was making. I was in absolute awe of him doing that and being able to make it funny. It was immensely valuable for me to watch him render his emotions publicly because I hadn't really rendered them privately. I will forever be in awe of him. It was incredible to watch that.
You’ve got to spend a lot of time immersed in the news. What do you use as a mental palate cleanser?
The honest truth is that I don't have much. My family would be a palate cleanser. And watching English football. That's probably it.
Do you get back to England much?
We went back for the first time for a week over the holidays. That was the first time I'd taken [his son] Hudson back to see England. I think he thought it was grayer than he was used to. Lots of Paddington Bear merchandise, the second movie was coming out so Paddington was ubiquitous to a genuinely creepy degree. You'd think Paddington was a monarch there.
‘Last Week Tonight With John Oliver’
When: 11 p.m. Sunday
Rated: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)