Seven things we learned at breakfast with John Oliver
When “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” premiered on HBO last spring, the satirical show quickly distinguished itself as the late-night home for deeply reported and entertaining segments on topics largely ignored by the news media -- think the Miss America pageant’s dubious scholarship program, the plight of translators in Iraq and Afghanistan, and net neutrality, to name a few.
At a breakfast with reporters Tuesday at HBO’s flashy New York headquarters, which Oliver likened to something out of “Scarface,” the British comedian talked about his show’s impact and hinted what’s ahead in Season 2. (Hint: More flying fish.)
Below are some highlights.
Oliver thinks that Americans have the attention span for his show, even though it has segments that run as long as 20 minutes and has no commercial breaks:
“You have to have a pretty intense level of contempt for the American people if you think people will only watch something if it’s two minutes long and it has someone being smashed in the [groin]. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy two-minute-long [groin]-smashing videos but there has to be more. There has to be protein along with dessert.”
HBO will continue to make much of the show available for free on YouTube:
“We don’t see it as giving away,” said HBO Chief Executive Richard Plepler when asked about the lengthy YouTube clips, many of which have gone viral. “We think it’s fantastic marketing for the show.”
Oliver agreed, saying that the online strategy helped extend the show’s reach “to people you think you could not get your show to.” He cited the example of a segment on corruption within FIFA that aired before last summer’s World Cup. “On more than one occasion someone who does not speak English has grabbed me on the street and started ranting and raving in Portuguese. ‘FIFA, FIFA.’ It is amazing.”
Oliver has no plans to cover the 2016 election ... until 2016:
“Right now I couldn’t care less. I truly believe that the 2016 election is what the news likes to think about when it doesn’t want to think about anything. There is no merit in it. Until you’re in the same year as the thing you’re describing it is a complete waste of breath. It is like a subject screensaver for the news.”
The show has ramped up its research staff, hiring a team of experienced journalists for Season 2:
Though “Last Week Tonight” is primarily a comedy show, it also stands out in the late-night arena because of the depth of its reporting. The show’s staff now includes four researchers -- up from just one last season -- all of whom have backgrounds as professional journalists. (Two came from the New York Times Magazine, one from the investigative reporting organization ProPublica, and one from Al Jazeera.)
“You can’t build jokes on sand because then they don’t work or they just wash away,” Oliver said of the show’s commitment to research. “You have to make sure that the story you want to tell is solid.”
Viewers can also expect more elaborately goofy bits like the salmon cannon that closed out last season:
Oliver explained that he and his writers always try to leaven darker, more depressing subjects with moments of silliness, a la the salmon cannon or dogs dressed up as Supreme Court justices. For Season 2, they are already cooking up more “long-term mayhem ... things we could spend two months doing that have no tangible value.”
Oliver is worried about disappointing fans:
When “Last Week Tonight” premiered last year, Oliver worried about letting down HBO and Jon Stewart. Now he has the added burden of keeping the show’s many fans happy. “It’s much easier to start a show when no one likes it.”
Oliver is a fan of “Serial”:
Asked by a reporter if he’d listened to the hugely popular true crime podcast, Oliver said he had and “really liked it,” inconclusive ending and all, though he said that “on a human level” he longed for more closure to the story. Stars: They’re just like us!
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