John Oliver is out of the void and returning for the ninth season of HBO’s Last Week Tonight with a studio audience and a desire to tackle tricky subjects.
The comedian was full of fresh quips and sardonic humor when speaking with Deadline ahead of his return Sunday. He talks about how Last Week Tonight was able to deal with a crowd-free show better than some of the nightly talk shows (“I’ve always talked over the audience”), how happy he is that he no longer has to talk about Donald Trump, even if the U.S. “always wants to talk about its elections three years before they happen,” and encourages Discovery, otherwise known as his new Business Daddy, to follow AT&T’s “Victorian marriage” model and “leave us the f*ck alone.”
The Brit, who became a U.S. citizen in 2020, is in the middle of a three-year deal that sees Last Week Tonight run through 2023. He also picked up his sixth straight Emmy win in the Outstanding Variety Talk Series category — despite rooting for Conan.
Bill Maher, who hosts Real Time on the same network, was recently quoted in James Andrew Miller’s HBO oral history Tinderbox as saying “They love John Oliver because when does he ever say anything that isn’t in line with what the conventional woke is? I don’t watch it all the time, but what I’ve seen of it is extremely down the line liberalism.”
Oliver counters this argument, calling it a “bullsh*t prism” to see it through and one that is “intellectually bankrupt.”
He points out that he’s far more interested in covering topics that rarely getting any play in the medium from stand-your-ground laws and prison climate to the political status of Taiwan and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko as well as lighter topics such as federal duck stamps.
However, don’t expect George Clooney to appear at the click of his fingers this season.
DEADLINE: You’re back out of the void with a studio audience. How are you feeling about it?
JOHN OLIVER: It’s our intention [for the audience to return]. It feels like whenever you say anything definitively right now, there’s always a voice in the back of your head thinking yeah, or maybe not. Maybe we all learn another letter in the Greek alphabet that we wish we’d never heard of. Our intention is to go back to the studio, for sure. Whether we have a whole audience? I don’t know. It feels like that’s going to be a decision for [this] week. We did our last six or seven shows with a very small audience. But that still felt obviously like more people than none, which we were used to previously.
DEADLINE: I’ve spoken with a number of your peers like Seth Meyers and Samantha Bee about audiences returning and they said it was a very strange experience. Seth, for instance, had gotten so used to the sound of silence. Was that the same for you?
OLIVER: Ours was slightly different. I’ve always talked over the top of the audience, partly because we have too much to fit into 30 minutes, I’ve never really slowed down for an audience laugh. That didn’t really make any difference to me to be totally honest. It was a little weird doing the first one without an audience, then I completely got used to it. Not having an audience was nothing compared to the production problems of trying to make a show from a residential apartment. That was immensely difficult for a huge number of our staff so I’m very glad that that is over. With Seth, one of the things that was most exciting to me watching that was seeing the development of the weirder jokes like the painting. I loved it. Then I loved it developing it into the studio without an audience there, where things are getting weird and he’s talking to Wally a bunch, and they’re doing long runs with the writers and you worry, could this work with the front of an audience. I was worried with Seth, in particular, that everything that I’ve loved about those shows without an audience, was going to get damaged by the presence of an audience. They were just going to fucking ruin it. It’s been really great to see that that actually didn’t happen, that they’ve managed to keep that weird spirit they developed and the presence of an audience has not negative effect.
DEADLINE: Were you worried that might happen on Last Week Tonight?
OLIVER: Not for us, because I kind of don’t really pay attention to them but there is definitely a world in which the best thing about being back in the studio is you can do production again and you can drop teddy bears from the ceiling and parachutes. You can stage a duck stamp thing so it can feel more like a TV show. When you do that stuff, it is helpful to have an audience there to react to it. Otherwise, you look like a crazy person. But when we did our Turkmenistan piece, and we wheel out a 6000 pound cake, that makes sense when you have an audience triumphantly going ‘Yes, you did it’. If you’re doing that on your own, and your voice is echoing off the wall in an empty studio, you look like you’re having a nervous breakdown.
DEADLINE: How far ahead do you plan pieces like those?
OLIVER: When we started the show, it was week-to-week. Then we very, very quickly realized, literally within two weeks, this was not sustainable. We were going to crash and burn before we hit double figures. We had to very quickly completely reconfigure how we made the show. By the end of that first year, once we caught our breath, things really changed. Now, it’s at least six weeks on any of those main stories. We’re always working on six shows at one time and they’re all in different stages of development. The problem is it’s not even just wanting to get it right. But it’s also knowing that if you get it wrong with some of these stories, there are serious consequences.
DEADLINE: You were trending on social media a few weeks ago because some fans wanted you to “literally” eat Bill Maher alive.
OLIVER: Literally is always used in a very literal sense, isn’t it? It’s not like that word has been misused to the point that it’s absolutely meaningless. You know what Bill Maher’s diet is? That man subsists on nuts. That’s a very stringy lean meat. If we’re going to stay literal here, my answer is no, that would drive me to a vegan diet. The concept of literally eating Bill Maher is stomach turning in every possible way. You’re not getting Kobe beef. If we’ve taught people anything from this conversation it’s don’t misuse the word literally.
DEADLINE: Joking aside, it was based on comments that Bill Maher made, calling you woke. Without wanting to start a fight between you two, I assume most people watching Last Week Tonight are left-leaning liberals. Are you aware that you’re often preaching to the choir?
OLIVER: I just don’t know if I see it that way. The stories that we’re happiest covering are the ones that don’t have much attention paid to them so it’s such a bullsh*t prism to see it through. I don’t know how that would apply to a story on PACE loans or prison heat. I don’t know how to even begin to engage in something so intellectually bankrupt.
DEADLINE: There are some people on that side of the argument, even if only in a very partisan way.
OLIVER: I guess you would hope that America could go through something together like a collective trauma that will bring the country together as one because we’d all be experiencing the same thing, but I don’t know. If this doesn’t, what will? Sadly, deep down, we all know the answer to that.
DEADLINE: When you started last season you said you were excited that Donald Trump was no longer President, but he still looms large. Are you aware of that as you come into this season?
OLIVER: I’m not sure how many times we said his name last year, it really wasn’t many, it was great. I don’t see why it should be different this year. I know that America always wants to talk about its elections three years before they happen and it should definitely not be that way. It is not healthy to be in a perpetual election year. It was great being able to avoid him… there was room to do stories about PFAs and info silos and stand your ground laws and bankruptcy reform. It was much easier to wrestle back the real estate from the show. There was a conflation of two things that made it hard, especially in 2020; you had the Trump presidency, which often was desperate for attention. He was a provider of a dangerous amount of low hanging fruit. You had to be very judicious about how much of that you let yourself eat, because it’s almost giving him a pass. To engage in that low hanging fruit too much you are ignoring the much more important things that are actually happening further up that fruit tree – to drive that metaphor into the ground.
When you add a pandemic onto that and we are all actually suffering through something incredibly visceral every week, it was very hard in 2020, to find space to talk about off the beaten path subjects, it was hard to find how you could say ‘We need to talk about facial recognition technology’, without feeling, even though they’re not there at all, the audience going ‘Really yeah, really, because this feels contrarian to the point of being genuinely irritating’. It definitely felt, as last year developed, that there was much more space for us to be able to say, let’s look at this guy, Lukashenko, let’s look at Taiwan or the power grid. It was a huge relief to be able to do that without having to fight this firehose of nonsense.
DEADLINE: More space to talk about Business Daddy. How is your relationship with the owners? There’s been a few things going on since you were off the air in November.
OLIVER: It’s hard to describe our relationship, we very much have a kind of Victorian marriage in that we never ever speak to each other. You get a sense that there’s mutual loathing. I’ve not had any contact with AT&T. They are good at failing to establish contact as their spotty cell service will tell you. As what as for what happens going forward? I don’t know. I mean, they are trying to throw us away.
DEADLINE: Have you been invited to David Zaslav’s Bob Evans house yet?
OLIVER: I haven’t and honestly, if that email comes into my email book, it is going straight to junk. I would massively encourage Discovery to follow the AT&T model and never speak to us. Leave us the f*ck alone.
DEADLINE: Can we expect any more of George Clooney this season?
OLIVER: No. We’ve wrapped that joke up. It was incredibly fun and physically demoralizing to have his face appear next to mine. It’s just it’s a brutal juxtaposition. It was really fun and it feels like we’ve tied that up.
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