Since it debuted on HBO in 2014, “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” has stood out in a crowded late night field by largely eschewing the 24-7 news cycle in favor of deep-dive reports on un-glamorous and under-reported subjects (Think: infrastructure spending or chicken farming).
Don’t expect that to change when the show returns for a much-anticipated fourth season on Sunday, the first since Donald Trump was inaugurated Jan. 20.
Even though the president’s still-very-young administration has created a nearly nonstop flow of headlines and controversies in the course of a few weeks, creating a veritable cornucopia of topical comedy, Oliver plans to continue looking past the dominant stories of the day.
“We’re very anxious not to make it all Trump all the time,” the British comedian told reporters at a breakfast Monday in Manhattan, “just on both a level of interest and on the level of what the human soul can sustain.”
Still, the early days of the Trump presidency have felt strangely personal for Oliver, who has lived in the United States since joining “The Daily Show” in 2006. With a grim sense of irony, he noted that many of the executive orders issued by Trump were directly tied in one way or another to a segment from “Last Week Tonight."
For example, the travel ban affecting people from seven majority-Muslim nations directly related to a powerful 2014 piece on the plight of Iraqi translators, and Trump’s order potentially rescinding the fiduciary rule brings up issues covered in a report on retirement savings from last year.
“This is becoming a depressing pattern,” he said. “By pure chance, or by the fact that we might be diametrically opposed to the president’s instincts, lots of our stories in the last three years have become very relevant."
Oliver’s press breakfast has become something of an annual tradition, and each year the host nimbly deflects questions about the increasingly blurry lines between journalism, comedy and “fake news."
This time around, Oliver spoke about the rigorous fact-checking that goes into each episode of “Last Week Tonight,” but also looked puzzled when asked if he’d ever been asked about taking on a more traditionally journalistic role, like Jon Stewart, who was approached by NBC regarding “Meet the Press."
“I’m unqualified, and unlike Betsy DeVos, I’m not afraid to say it,” he quipped, referring to Trump’s nominee for Education secretary.
For now, Oliver remains focused on comedy. Many observers have wondered about the nature of political satire under the new president, whose administration continues to generate headlines seemingly ripped from the Onion (see: the “Bowling Green massacre”). Some see Trump as a gift to comedians — he’s certainly been a boon to “Saturday Night Live” -- but Oliver thinks the new political landscape makes his job harder.
“There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit with administrations like this,” he said, “and you kind of need to reach past that.”
Despite the turbulence Trump has created in a few weeks in office, Oliver said he has no plans to move to Canada, and especially not back home to the United Kingdom, which is gripped by uncertainty as it prepares to exit the European Union.
Oliver, who argued strongly against “Brexit” in a “Last Week Tonight” segment last year, said the ripple effects of the vote to leave may be “impossible to overstate,” he said, noting the upcoming election in France.
Asked about which he thought was worse -- Trump or Brexit -- Oliver suggested that was like a choice between horse and donkey excrement. “There’s an aesthetic similarity, but they’re bad for you in different ways."
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