Nearly five years after the debut of HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the host reflected on the show’s structure, approach and network home during his annual pre-season press breakfast in New York.
Increasingly, Oliver said, the challenge for the show is deciding “what single droplets of the firehose that’s being projected at you every week are worth slowing down and talking about.” Only rarely do major news events survive into Sunday for close examination, he noted. “The mental decision you make is, ‘Does not talking about this seem like an editorial decision in and of itself?’ The easiest example is Charlottesville.”
Last Week Tonight returns to the air February 17. Its colorful run has been set against a backdrop of dramatic changes across the TV industry and American culture. When it first premiered in April 2014, HBO was owned by Time Warner, Barack Obama was president and Netflix had maybe a couple dozen original shows on its streaming platform. In today’s Trumpian times, AT&T owns HBO and WarnerMedia, and Netflix continues to shotgun out hundreds of offerings across categories, including in the comedy arena that HBO once had mostly to itself.
Rival networks didn’t earn a mention during Oliver’s 45-minute session, but he affirmed he is happy to be left alone at HBO. When the show was being tested and fine-tuned before its premiere, he said, the network did offer two key notes, suggesting he not feel obligated to fill an entire hour and also absolving him of having to do an end-of-show interview as per talk-show convention. “They said, ‘You can have another six minutes just for a story or telling jokes,'” Oliver recalled. “That freedom meant a lot to us and that did kind of affect the DNA of the show we were making.”
Over the run of the show, “We’ve not had much contact with” HBO, he added dryly, “I’m sure we irritate them a lot.”
Asked if any AT&T executives had ever been in touch, Oliver snorted and replied, “What do you think?! That would be a hard ‘no.’ AT&T have not come to us at all, and long may that continue.”
No major changes to the format are likely, he said. “The flexibility about the show is one of the things that’s the most fun about it,” he said — such as occasionally super-sizing episodes to accommodate interviews or longer reported segments.
Audience habit, as consumption of TV programming and information continues to evolve, is another point of difference between the show in 2014 and today. “The difficult thing that’s ended up becoming a positive is, we’re late to everything,” Oliver said. “The way it is now, everybody’s late to everything. You could be on every day, you’re still technically late because something that happened this morning seems like a long time ago and it’s already been joked about a lot online.”
Oliver was asked how long he intended to keep making the show. “I have no idea,” he said matter-of-factly, noting the current agreement with HBO runs for another two years.
The host similarly had a drew a blank when asked about how he’d prefer to see Game of Thrones end. The HBO juggernaut will lift the curtain on its final season in April. “Well? Not disappointingly? That’s the ideal. I don’t particularly have a fantasy version of how it should end.”