Last season, HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver kicked off with business as usual: recording in a studio with an audience, unpacking the news for the week with delightful aplomb and irreverence while providing us with jokes and jabs (mostly directed at Trump’s incompetence) in a way that only Oliver can. Then, Covid-19 happened and the world changed immensely causing the talk show to change the way it did things.
For one, Oliver relocated from his lively studio to an at-home studio which he lovingly referred to as “the white void”. Then there was all the news about the pandemic, the Trump administration, and the Black Lives Matter movement that was sparking a revolutionary racial reckoning across the globe. It was a lot to unpack, but Oliver kept moving forward week after week giving perspective all of the endless garbage news.
Even though the world was on fire, Oliver still managed to keep spirits up with erotic rat art, sewage plants named after him and, of course, Adam Driver.
With the eighth season of the 20-time Emmy winning series debuting on February 14 on HBO, Oliver looks to continue to give us the news and humor we want, shining the light on major news while informing and entertaining. Deadline talked to Oliver about what’s in store for the new season, whether or not he’s going to return to host from the white void and the low bar that we have set for what it means to be President.
DEADLINE: During the pandemic, many talk shows have found a safe way to return to record in-studio while some are staying virtual. Can we expect Last Week Tonightto be back in studio or will you remain in the white void?
JOHN OLIVER: Oh, we’re going to be in the void because of the f*cking thing!
DEADLINE: Glad you’re staying safe!
OLIVER: I mean, each studio and circumstance is different, right? For us, I think it would have been great to be back in a studio, but I don’t think we feel like we can do that yet. So we’ll be in the void for who knows how long? Well, I guess until they can roll out the f*cking vaccine!
DEADLINE: At this point, it would be weird to see you in the studio again after being in the void for the past year.
OLIVER: I haven’t seen my staff for a year! There are people who work for me now who I’ve never met! I think we were going to probably be practicing relatively extreme caution for a whole bunch of reasons. One, we’re in the position where it feels like we can do that and still have everyone paid. Also, a bunch of our staff got sick at the start of the pandemic, which I think also kind of means that I think intuitively, we are going to be extremely cautious.
DEADLINE: Yeah, better safe than sorry.
OLIVER: Yeah, that’s the thing. It just doesn’t feel worth hurting anyone. I like our show very much, but I already don’t want to hurt someone with it. we’re in the immensely fortunate position where we can keep doing the show whilst also doing it remotely, which I know is incredibly lucky. And yeah, it just feels like the lowest possible bar you can clear in the time of a pandemic is not to have your TV show make things actively worse. We’re just trying to clear that bar.
DEADLINE: Last Week Tonight has a clever tongue-in-cheek and hilarious approach to reporting the news. With the amount of exhausting dire news and Trumpian trash that came out on a daily basis last season, did you find it difficult to shift the tone while continuing that Last Week Tonight-branded humor?
OLIVER: Really good question, because generally, our show’s M.O. is to kind of take the poison of what’s going on in the world and trying to synthesize that into comedy. But at the start of the pandemic in particular, where, all of a sudden, we’re not only not in our studio, but we’re having to do this ridiculous at-home set that we’d put together quickly. And I’m actively worried about staff members who were sick.
The thing that’s really affecting it is watching the death count go up, and you start to think, “Well, hold on, what can you do as the death count is climbing? What can you do, and what feels remotely appropriate?” I especially felt that because it seems like the most joyous parts of our show are the stupidest parts. You think, “Well, at what point is a really stupid joke starting to fiddle while Rome burns?” I was a little bit worried very early on for what tonally feels like it is remotely appropriate right now and the weird revelation was that stupid rat erotica.
I thought we can do twenty-some-odd minutes about the mishandling of a pandemic and the rising death count.
Then we can just about logically turn into, “You’re probably running out of things to watch right now. Here’s something that we could watch together,” and just view weird clips. That felt fun enough. Then as soon as it hit us and we did try and track that painting down, that felt like a fun game with a potentially euphoric conclusion. On top of that, it felt like, if we set this up right, we can almost money launder HBO’s production budget to food banks, which actually feels like the most responsible thing to possibly do right now. So when they found that painting and said, “It’s on its way” I didn’t really believe it was coming.
Early on, when the FedEx guy turns up in a kind-of hazmat suit and presents me with this painting at home, it was the hardest I’ve laughed in weeks. And as absurd as it sounds, it really did feel like, “Oh, I think I’ve got some hope now”. It was hope in the form of a piece of rat erotica.
DEADLINE: That paved the way for the popular Adam Driver bit. It feels like you have to be a little more cognizant because its like telling a joke at a funeral.
OLIVER: I was honestly worried about it before that rat erotica bit where you realize, “Oh, no, we can do it. We can definitely do stupidity in a way that feels like it’s bizarrely nourishing at these darkest of times.”
Then there were things like the Adam Driver bit or even Danbury, Connecticut sewage plant. The Adam Driver joke felt like an incredibly dumb joke that we told before the pandemic took root in America. We kept it going into our at-home shows and then when it became clear that he was going to do something at the end of the year, that’s when it really felt like, “Oh, so this bit now can actually have a real crescendo to it of feeling like we’ve all built to something utterly worthless but genuinely fun.” It was a real breath of fresh air.
DEADLINE: Now that the country has a new president and 2020 is behind us, the bar is pretty low in terms of what we can be happy about.
OLIVER: It’s problematically low, yeah.
DEADLINE: How has the past year changed the way Last Week Tonight has reported and handled news and how do you think that will carry over into this new season with this new administration?
OLIVER: It’s tricky. I mean, it’s going to be great to be making the show without Trump being president because he had a deep desire to be the focus of any moment and certainly of any story, which was often unhelpful because with systemic problems. He is not the most important part of that, right?
He’s just sometimes the apex of the problem, and so with him gone, the problem remains, obviously. So it’s going to be exciting to work on stories where you are not having to constantly deal with someone trying to draw focus all the time.
DEADLINE: So true. Every week I watched the show and was dreading to hear the news you were unpacking.
OLIVER: Guess how we felt?! I’m sorry that 30 minutes was difficult for you, but imagine being in it for the six previous days (laughs).
DEADLINE: That said, how do you manage self-care throughout last season?
OLIVER: Honestly, I didn’t. I have not improved as a person in any way. I got a TV show and two little children.
There’s no room for self-care in that. It’s just controlled drowning all the time, so no, I haven’t learned a new language. I haven’t learned how to bake.
DEADLINE: At least Adam Driver made you happy.
OLIVER: It’s weird talking about it now. The thing that was really, meaningfully reassuring was realizing that we could do dumb jokes again — and dumb jokes are our favorite thing. So if there was a dumb joke that someone could add to and have it come back like the mayor of a town in Connecticut coming up with the idea for a memorial sewer plant, it was really helpful in reminding me that my favorite thing, which is dumb jokes could still exist in a world that was mishandling a pandemic.
DEADLINE: It will be nice to not wake up to a horrible tweet and read news about a president that’s actually doing his job.
OLIVER: Again, that bar is depressingly low. We have to ask more from a president than actively doing their job or not threatening someone that day. We have to hold him to a higher standard than that.