John Oliver on ‘Last Week Tonight,’ Turning Down CBS, and ‘Nauseating’ American Politics
The newly minted host of HBO’s ‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’ sat down to discuss his new gig, the strange state of U.S. politics, and more over coffee.
“I’m still getting used to this whole interview thing,” says John Oliver. “I guess I’m not jaded yet.”
We’re seated across from one another in the second-floor cafeteria of HBO’s New York headquarters, just a stone’s throw from Bryant Park. It’s a disorienting pastiche of pastel green and pink booths separated from the buffet area by wavy metal dividers; like Edward Hopper meets an “Under the Sea” themed ’80s prom. And then there’s Oliver, dressed incognito in a gray pullover and Mets cap obscuring his forehead. He looks like any other thorny New Yorker—until the 37-year-old opens his mouth and proclaims his Britishness.
The two of us are huddled together with our Starbucks mugs on this gray Manhattan day to discuss his new HBO show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which premiered on April 27. Its tagline is “Breaking news…on a weekly basis,” and the debut saw The Daily Show alumnus skewer everything from the Foxification of Indian talk news to a hilarious interview with former NSA Director—and four-star general—Keith Alexander, suggesting that the mysterious intelligence organization do a bit of “rebranding” in the wake of the Snowden leaks and inherit a cute kitten named “Mr. Tiggles” as their mascot.
Over the course of our chat, we touched on everything from his disdain for talk news—CNN in particular—his attraction to political satire, the parting advice he got from mentor Jon Stewart, and much more.
I enjoyed the first show. Critics are very tough on premiere episodes. How do you think it went?
Well, it’s just good to get one in the bag. I’m more concerned about next week now! I was hoping it would not be a disaster, and I think it probably wasn’t a disaster, in which case it’s fine. I’ll judge how we’re doing six months down the line. The whole staff did a great job just to physically get something on the air. The premiere involved a bunch of things, including me going down to D.C. to interview Gen. Alexander. The process is going to change week-to-week, though. If it doesn’t… then we’ll be in trouble! We have a lot of creative control on the show—kind of a weird amount, actually. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop… or to walk into a room and there are plastic sheets everywhere Goodfellas-style and I’ll say, “Oh yeah, of course! TV doesn’t get made like this… of course you’re about to shoot me in the back of the head!”
There were rumors that CBS had courted you prior to you signing with HBO…
…And that you’d been offered The Late Late Show.
That’s not true. It never went that far. They were among various people who had expressed interest, so I talked with some of them, and when HBO suggested, “Do you want to do a show about the week on Sunday nights?” that stopped everything else. So nothing ever went that far with CBS.
Where do you lean politically?
My lean is usually being doubled-over, dry-retching into a waste paper basket. I find politics in this country completely nauseating.
What do you find most nauseating?
The fact that there’s so much money in it that they’re so deeply compromised. Super PACs and lobbying are very bad, and on top of lobbying, the fact that 50 percent of the Senate become lobbyists? That revolving-door thing is a cancer at the heart of American democracy. Fifty percent of senators become lobbyists! That’s a huge problem. The fact that districts are gerrymandered—and this is a problem that the Democrats are far more responsible than the Republicans just because of the timing during which the borders were drawn. There are deep-rooted problems outside of the bloviating people on TV.
I enjoyed your Fox News bit, and the Foxification of Indian talk news.
To even hear them say that, “We have adopted the model of Fox News,” was wild. The disease of cable news has become airborne and has crossed an ocean.
What’s your take on Fox News? I know Stewart’s slammed them a bunch on The Daily Show for being the least accurate news network.
I’m not even sure that’s true anymore! What CNN are doing at the moment is more baffling to me. At least Fox are efficient at what they’re trying to do. But I find that whole world very dispiriting. With eight years at The Daily Show, imbibing cable news on that scale is like injecting poison into your body that’s going to take years to process.
What do you find most dispiriting about the current talk news climate?
At least Fox seems to be trying. I might not like what they’re trying to do, but at least there’s visible effort. The laziness elsewhere is horrifying at times. I think it’s really supposed to be a time-filling thing, or just reacting to everything.
There is this cult of moral outrage that exists today, where people turn even the slightest indiscretion into a huge scandal.
Because it’s easy, and there’s no time for thought.
Take the Donald Sterling thing. Racist old guy, with a mistress…
…in a league which has tolerated this, systemically, over a decade—and not just from him, but other asshole owners. If you’re attracted to owning a sports team, there is something very sinister about you. There is a much deeper problem. It’s pathetic.
It’s odd to ask you this in the bowels of HBO HQ, but why did you decide to work for HBO?
Because I love the idea of deserted canteens like this. But I just thought it would be a challenge. With HBO, you get a lot of freedom. The ability to curse is always a boon. And I thought it would be fun to try to do a different kind of difficult, and Sunday night really appealed to me—the idea of doing something at the end of the week. I wasn’t sure why nobody had done that before, but I think it has to do with the idea of not wanting to work on weekends… and now I’m seeing that.
Was the lack of corporate constraints also appealing? If you went to a primetime network, you might not be able to trash certain companies because of ads, and HBO doesn’t run ads.
It certainly helps. It helped us a little bit on Sunday when we did a little thing on the Supreme Court hearing oral arguments in the POM Wonderful vs. Coca-Cola case because it was nice to not even have to think about who you need to ask. Nobody said, “Oh, Coke is our sponsor.” Although Jon Stewart crashes through those anyway.
You did a very nice job hosting The Daily Show in Jon Stewart’s absence. Do you think that’s the big reason why you’ve got this cool new HBO gig?
I think we can honestly say it’s the only reason. Before then, there wasn’t much in the way of people banging down the door. But it was incredibly fun. And incredibly tough. I did not want to leave The Daily Show. It wasn’t quite like passing a kidney stone, because it was a kidney stone you quite wanted to have in your body. There was no reason to leave, really, other than I knew I probably should, and it was going to take something completely different—something where you just think, “Oh, that would be insane to turn down.” This ended up being that. I talked to Jon about it and he was of the same mind. He said, “You would be an idiot to say ‘no’ to that.”
How did your talk with Jon go when you said, “You know, HBO offered me this…”
It was much more than that. Before he left for the summer, he said, “Listen, when I get back we’re going to have to talk about what you want to do next,” and I was slightly alarmed by that and went, “No! I want to stay here!” And he said, “Well… we’ll talk about it. I think that’s going to be… difficult.”
So he really foresaw you getting tons of attention for hosting?
Oh, he definitely foresaw it. He said, “We’ll talk about it when I get back,” and I pushed back hard on it. When he got back, he said, “So, let’s talk about what you’re going to do.” For a period of months, I talked to him every few days about whom I’d spoken to, and he gave me his input. He was my Sherpa all the way through it.
What were your biggest takeaways from working under a comedy guru like Jon Stewart for so long? I don’t think people give him enough credit for the amount of excellent comedians he’s helped shepherd, like Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, Rob Corddry, yourself.
He’s incredible. It’s not really a question of “the main lesson”—he taught me all the lessons I know. He taught me how to walk, in a comedic sense. With Jon, it’s important to remember that he’s the king. I saw something last week that said, “Stephen Colbert’s move to Letterman proves that Stewart is a real kingmaker.” No. He IS the king. If anything, he’s making princes, but he’s still the best at what he does. There has not been anyone better than him, and I doubt there will be anyone better. He is the touchstone. When we were taping the premiere, he was the touchstone in my head of, “Am I working hard enough?” “Have I thought this through like he would?” He’s the greatest.
There was a lot of chatter when it was announced that Colbert would succeed Letterman on The Late Show about how he would do, and if he’d be able to succeed without his “character.” Oh, that’s not going to be a problem. He’s much broader than that character allows him to be. He has some seriously broad entertainment skills, that guy. If you look at his stuff with Strangers with Candy, his interests are broad. He has so many artistic muscles to flex, that guy, that he’s artistically ripped. It is a ridiculous conversation because he’s about to prove it so pointless.
We really do live in the era of “political theater.” Why does political satire appeal to you, as a comedian?
Really fucking expensive theater! But it’s just the subject—political comedy—and you can apply any style to politics. Stephen [Colbert] is really physical. That’s pretty physical, silly, character comedy applied to politics. I like politics because it’s interesting and there are jarring juxtapositions that are inherently comedic in it—especially when it comes to elections in this country. It’s a very high-entrance fee circus.
Didn’t you meet your wife during election season? At the 2008 Republican National Convention, no less?
I did. At my lowest ebb! She was at both conventions with [Vets for Freedom], and we were shooting at the RNC which was in St. Paul, Minnesota, that year, and there was a middle section we weren’t supposed to be shooting on where the people that you wanted to interview were, and we’d sneak up the back staircase each day, and once they realized we didn’t have credentials, they chased us out. So, it was one of those days where we were chased out. She didn’t know who we were or what they show was, but she hid us in this little booth they had. It was a very strange place to meet your future wife. That was a bleak day. That was the night of Sarah Palin’s speech, so it was… a rough day.
Do you think that being an outsider—a Brit—grants you a unique perspective in satirizing American politics?
I think as a comedian, it helps to be an outsider. Most comedians are social outsiders. They generally have not fit in very well growing up, and they live by a different schedule—you’ll find yourself working and then out until 3 a.m. when everyone else is asleep, so your life is staggered next to the functional portion of humanity. It helps to have an outsider’s eye wherever you are in comedy, and that’s amplified when you’re not even from the country you’ve fallen in love with.
Is it just growing up with the craziness of Parliament, perhaps, that led you to be fascinated by politics, and view it through a comedic lens?
Maybe. Parliament in England is inherently ludicrous, but American politics has always been fascinating because it matters the most. What happens here is significantly more important than what happens in Parliament, and it kills me to say that as an English person. So you’re attracted to where the big decisions are being made. That’s why I got so frustrated last week when we couldn’t find any coverage of the Indian elections. That’s a BIG deal! There was nothing, and it blew my mind. American politics is the thing you look towards because it’s often more relevant to everyone’s lives in the world than even their own governments are.
Where do you get your news?
That’s a double-edged question because, in making The Daily Show or a show about the news, I would not prescribe the way I get my news to any human being—because it’s horrible. I have a TV on all day that I’m flipping around constantly to watch what’s not being covered and how badly it’s not being covered, and then I use SnapStream, which is a LexisNexis-like search engine where you can find videos via keywords. And then I read everything. It’s full immersion, and a deep dive into the cesspool of current affairs.
How did you land the exclusive interview with former NSA Director Alexander?
We just asked! We didn’t meet him under a bridge with a briefcase full of cash. It wasn’t that. And it wasn’t extortion of any kind. I think he wants to talk. We spoke to him just the day after that insane [Director of National Intelligence] James Clapper said that no NSA employee can talk to the media even about non-classified information, which is not the best way to go about things. For an organization that’s already perceived as shadowy to step deeper into the shadows probably isn’t the best idea. So Alexander is wisely wanting to speak out on behalf of what he thinks the value of their process is, and what he thinks the integrity of his employees are. I can understand how he wants to defend the people who worked under him for a decade.
I think the best Daily Show interview subjects are never the Hollywood actors, but politicians. Are you going to mix it up with celebrities, or include mostly hard-hitting subjects?
No, I would definitely lean towards more serious subjects if not entirely on them. I don’t really think that, by Sunday, there’s anything for actors to sell. They know by then how their film’s done at the box office, so you’d have a really euphoric, unengaged actor, or a really depressed one staring at the death of their career. And I’m not even sure that we’d be an appealing place for them to come.
How do you enjoy living in New York?
I enjoy living in America! I know it doesn’t seem like it because I get so frustrated about things, but I love this country. But there’s no good answer to, “Why do you decide to live on top of millions of other people where it’s either too freezing or too hot, and each comes with their own distinct smell?” I’ve always lived in cities, though, so I always get anxious in wide-open spaces. I was born in Birmingham and my family is from Liverpool, and I lived in London. I get really angsty in idyllic surroundings. What I need is noise, exhaust, and a cityscape of cab drivers honking and swearing at people. That’s what puts me to sleep.
So Last Week Tonight with John Oliver seems like a cushy gig. Is it something you see yourself doing for a while?
If they don’t fire me! I’m just trying not to screw up, and that’s not going to make people angry with me. Yeah, I’d like to do this as long as they’ll let me. Who knows how long that will be.