With Last Week Tonight, John Oliver has found himself in the curious, and enviable, position of hosting a satirical news show that frequently makes news. Whether it’s by setting up a fake church to show the flimsiness of religious tax exemptions, urging viewers to overload the FCC website’s servers with angry comments as a way to spotlight declining net neutrality, or snagging an interview with Edward Snowden, the 38-year-old Oliver, whose show just began a third season on HBO, has displayed a knack for getting attention with comedy that feels a little like activism. (Though he swears, repeatedly, that the latter is not the point.) Over two long interviews at the show’s offices on Manhattan’s far West Side, Oliver, an intensely self-deprecating (that is, English) and far more low-key presence than his righteously aggrieved on-air persona suggests, talked about what he’s learned from his old Daily Show boss, Jon Stewart, being an outsider in America, and the simple pleasure of calling someone a dirty word.
I hear you’re a new father to a baby boy. Congratulations. What’s his name?
I guess you can see the river from your office.
It was either Hudson or Window. It didn’t occur to me until recently actually that my son is going to have an American accent. Because I guess in my head that’s never how I’ve heard my child speak, and I think it’ll be odd that I’m going to sound different from him. And he’ll hear me have to change my voice for automated machines. You probably don’t have to do that. On the automated phone lines, all the time — “No. 4.” “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that.” “No. 4.” “I don’t understand that,” and I have to say “No. 4” like a kind of a sedated John Wayne. And it feels like such a defeat. There’s almost a smugness in there: “Ohhh, No. 4.”
“Why didn’t you just say that! Speak American, not English, dummy.”
It really is like that, and it is a really, really powerful way to break someone down. But Hudson’s going to be just able to say “No. 4” and be understood. He’ll belong here, whereas one of the things that I like the most is that I don’t really fit in, and there’s a kind of comfort in that. If you’ve never felt like you fit in really anywhere in your life, as you grow up, it’s almost reassuring to go somewhere you definitely don’t fit in. Like America.
You came to the United States to work on The Daily Showalmost ten years ago without ever having been here before.
Yeah, almost exactly ten years.
I came here from Toronto almost exactly ten years ago, too. This probably speaks to my own cynicism more than anything else, but there’s always a level of personal engagement with American politics that I can’t quite get. It’s like someone who doesn’t get along with their stepdad being forced to listen to that person and thinking, “You’re not my real dad!” So I’m curious what caused you to become so engaged.
Well, as a citizen of the world, you tend to have a basic understanding of the mechanics of U.S. politics — because you’re on the receiving end of it. I definitely had to do a bit of a crash course for the first few months. There would often be times in writers’ meetings when something would be said and you’d be writing down, “Okay, so that’s the thing I need to look up later.” I had to kind of quickly paper over the gaps in my knowledge of personalities and process. But The Daily Show is an immersive experience. There is no better way to throw yourself completely at U.S. politics than that particular job.
What about British politics? Are you similarly interested?
Oof. I’m happy to have disengaged from that. If you’ve lived with three decades of the white noise of a specific kind of bigotry, then a new noise is preferable. America still has that new-car smell for me.
What’s a political issue you see treated differently in Britain than in America?
The lack of religion in British politics is a polar opposite. I don’t know how many people in Congress are openly without religion; I would imagine potentially zero. Whereas in England, politicians cannot talk openly about faith. Remember that Tony Blair was a committed Catholic, and there was real concern about that. He tried to not be photographed going to church. The question that made him squirmthe most leading up to the Iraq War was “Do you and George Bush pray together?” That was like pulling a pin out of a grenade, handing it to him, and saying, “What are you going to do with that?”
Tell me about the differences between political satire in England and in America.
Well, America’s has generally been better. There is no one in England that is or has been as good as Jon Stewart.
You always talk so glowingly about him. Does he have a photo of you behaving inappropriately with a pig? Is that just something every English person has secretly done?
Yes, he does have that photo — and it was a warthog, thank you — but that’s not why I say these things. In terms of what I learned from him, if we’re talking a percentage of what I know, it’s pretty close to 100. He invented this particular style of TV comedy about the news. There is not going to be a Stephen Colbert without Jon, and there’s definitely not going to be me. It was amazing, watching him cut some of the best jokes, and he was always right. By taking out what seems like the funniest joke, everything else would get funnier and make more sense, because that funny joke was a digression. Or the story shifted a bit so that joke is an orphan … and that orphan must be destroyed. That’s a big lesson to learn, because the funniest thing is something that you’re innately protective of. And as far as my level of gratitude — I’m talking about him like he’s dead — the fact that he asked me to take over the show when he was away felt like such a huge leap of faith from him, and I thought that faith may have been a little bit misplaced.
Has he told you what he thinks of Last Week Tonight?
No, he kind of just let me go.
Was there ever any discussion with Comedy Central, after you’d filled in for him, about your taking over the show?
There was not. Jon came back and got resettled, and that felt like tying the bow on that crazy summer. Then before he announced he was leaving, he said to me, “We need to talk about what you’re going to do next.” In your head, that sounds like you’re being fired, so that was pretty frightening. But what he wanted to say was that I needed to think about what I wanted to do next.
He knew it was going to be hard to go back to my old job after having filled in for him. He was a little bit of a mother bird pushing me out of the nest. When I mentioned the offer from HBO, his face changed, and he said, “You would be insane not to take that.”
Would it have been hard for you to go back to being a correspondent?
As Jon said to me, “Once you touch the precious, you don’t want to give precious up.”
That’s a Lord of the Rings reference?
Yes, I’m not talking about a stripper. But Jon was right. It was so much fun filling in for him, when we would write an aluminum-pricing story or about Anthony Weiner — actually, not so much Anthony Weiner, because you can’t take much pride from a series of comedy lay-ups. Or like a really difficult day, like the Trayvon Martin verdict — that was hard because I had no authority to speak about that. That was one of those moments where you only want to hear what Jon Stewart had to say, not a guy pretending to be him, but we did something different, and that felt difficult because we were working without the person who was going to make it okay. Those all felt like exciting achievements. Working at that level of difficulty, it might have been difficult to go back to the old job. I had to spring to at least an equivalent challenge, not go backward.
Let me ask you a question you’re probably going to hate. The way Last Week Tonight gets talked about online, it’s clear a lot of people are watching the show in the same way that they would read a newsmagazine — to be informed. But does the way people watch the show fit with how you understand it? To what extent are you doing news?
News is absolutely not our lane. Saying someone watches the show for news is like saying to a musician, “A lot of people use your music to work out. Do you make workout music?” No, this isn’t designed for the gym. We’re obsessed about making sure that all the things that we say are accurate, but that’s only because those things are the structural foundation upon which the jokes are based. You remove that, and your jokes are all nonsense. It’s a comedy show. We can’t really control how people receive it. Just like you can’t control the ludicrous packaging placed on the pieces the next day online, when people write things like “John Oliver takes a sword to the very heart of chicken farming.”
The whole “John Oliver eviscerates” thing.
Exactly. “He throws a hand grenade at Congress.” That response never ceases to slightly depress me. “He takes a baseball bat and pounds to death the concept of chicken farming.” Wow, you just oversold what that piece was! It’s really annoying.
The amount of labor that can go into trying to come up with a joke that’s built on something that’s factually correct — it’s a huge amount — you’re saying none of that comes from any larger sense of mission? It’s just about the comedy? There are no larger motivating social or political principles behind what the show does?
Not really any larger sense of mission. It’s just — we’re making a comedy show.
Maybe then it’s my liberal fantasy that you came across the chicken-farming story and a part of you felt outraged and thought we need to shine a light on this — that the motivation was more than just “This is crazy and we can make it funny.”
As we researched that story, we found out these chicken farmers were treated terribly, and we knew going in that it seemed like they were really unhappy. Why is that? Then we started realizing, well, they’re forced to sign these contracts, they seem pretty egregious, they have absolutely no leverage in this system, which means that they can be in huge amounts of debt immediately that they can never get out from underneath. It’s a system that keeps them basically without hope — they’re just slowly losing their land. None of that sounds funny, but you do all the hard work [of explaining that] so that you can eventually show all the bad people’s faces onscreen and say, “These are chicken fuckers.” That is the point—to get to where calling these people chicken fuckers is funniest. It felt that those contracts were wrong, but lots of things are wrong, and for that show it felt funny to call people chicken fuckers. That’s like an 11-year-old’s mentality, going, “Look, there are 65-year-old adults in suits in Congress. Let’s call them chicken fuckers, because that’s kind of what they are.”
When you started Last Week Tonight, were you nervous at all about what HBO would let you or not let you do?
Well, kind of. You hear stories about HBO being hands-off and just presume that’s total bullshit because everyone says that. NBC will say, “Listen, this is your project; we just have a few notes …” Then it’s wha-bang [mimes dropping a huge stack of papers on his desk]. When we did our test show, it was like being a naughty kid — you want to see what you can get away with. So we did a too-long section on GM that was pretty aggressive, and after that HBO said, “You should do more stuff like that.” Which was not what I was expecting to hear.
You’ve said that during the first year you felt like you were trying not to drown. At the risk of belaboring the metaphor, when were you able to swim?
Not in that first season. Just to really pound that metaphor into the ground, you can feel like you’re swimming on a Saturday and even get to a show on Sunday and go, “That felt good,” but there’s a gigantic wave that’s about to smash on top of your head the next week and you don’t know it’s coming. You’re only ever 24 hours away from feeling like you’re about to put out the worst television show HBO has ever broadcast.
With the show’s third season, are there things that you’re capable of pulling off now that you couldn’t have before?
Definitely. From the first season to the second season, we ended up making a slightly different show than the one we were set up to make. We wanted to do longer stories that went a little bit deeper, so we had to bolster our research department and change how far out we started working on a story. The first year, we were doing a story in a self-contained week, which is a recipe for disaster, because if something collapses two days in, you’re in serious shit. We’ve realized that we can do stuff that has a much longer lead time. There were things that we did last year that were incredibly complicated — the Edward Snowden thing, setting up a church. It’s a spectacular waste of resources.
At what part of the process do you go about turning these news stories into comedy? When do you make this stuff funny?
This is a lesson from The Daily Show: The funny stuff is easier. You should be able to write jokes pretty quickly. The jokes are kind of the window dressing, but you need to make sure that they’re hanging on something solid, because if that story falls apart, all the jokes fall apart, too. In the first year, the problem often was that we would write jokes and research a story at the same time, but then as the story shifts, a whole second wave of research will come in and wash away two days’ worth of jokes. That was a key process thing that we had to fix, because you have people going at the jokes and then nothing stands up. So yeah, the jokes come later.
When did you realize you were good at this kind of work?
I have not gotten to that point yet.
How about when you first felt less uncomfortable doing it?
I’m honestly trying to think of a time where I’ve thought I’ve got this. I don’t know if I’ve reached that point yet. I think it’s a question of trying. I’m willing to try really hard.
Can I get you to admit that you grasp how to do your job?
Uh, I don’t think so.
You’ve done remarkably well, considering!
Have I? I’m not sure. I guess I’ve learned some fundamental skills for how to go about imbibing information and turning it into comedy, but part of that is an instinct anyway. I’m not my biggest fan. That’s probably painfully obvious.
Forget hosting a show then. Are you confident about your skills strictly as a comedian?
I don’t know if I’m good at comedy so much as I love it.
What do you love about it?
At college, a friend of mine, Richard Ayoade, and I did a two-man show together and people came … and laughed! I remember walking off after and thinking, Oh, shit, my life has just gone into a different realm. It’s like the kind of thing a heroin addict would do: Oh, I’m going to sacrifice my family and home for this.
Heroin makes everything so warm and nice.
That’s right. It was the same kind of thing, except comedy does not feel warm and nice. I guess there were little problem-solving moments at The Daily Show — those field pieces were really difficult. I remember we were doing a piece about English as the official language of the United States. And we were talking to a guy in D.C. who was pretty media-trained, and he was managing to rebuff everything I asked him. Then he was saying, “You don’t even need to speak English, and you can be okay in the United States.” And I remember it was like time slowed down — if I can hold him in this thought, I can walk him somewhere funny. So I said, “How would you say ‘My arm hurts’?” And he pointed at his arm and went, “Ah ah ah.” And what about “My knee hurts?” He pointed at his knee and went “Ah ah ah.” Then I said, “Give me ‘I’m allergic to penicillin.’ ” He froze, and I’m thinking, I couldn’t have done that two years ago. That seemed like a seismic step forward.
Aside from Jon, are there other people you’ve been learning from?
Dan Harmon of Community. He’s a good example of just, like, killing himself to make something 3 percent better. That’s always quite inspiring because when I would redraft, I would say, “It’s fine, it’s just fine, the draft is fine.” Fuck knows most drafts stop at that point. Once you’ve got it to fine, people walk away. From that point, it’s a lot of sweat and a lot of pain to make a piece barely perceptibly better. But if you can do that six times, make it incrementally better, all of a sudden it’s 10 percent better, and that’s actually a big deal. But it’s like athletes: If you’re running a 10.3-second hundred meters, with all the pain and not eating the most flavorsome foods to get to that level, is it worth working even harder to get to 10.2? You’re already running pretty fast.
That millisecond is the difference between a contender and a noncontender.
Is it even? Because the real guy is running 9.79. So is it worth all the trouble to go from 10.3 to 10.2? Is it worth all of those sacrifices to get to an Olympic final and then run a time that has you come last? Because that’s how I see myself.
If what you’re doing is really just joke crasftmanship, is it not problematic that people are watching Last Week Tonight as a news resource?
It’s not problematic for us because that’s not what we are. That’s not a responsibility we’re willing to put on our own shoulders. It’s probably problematic if someone just watches this show for the news — problematic for them, in a very big way, and for society at large. But that’s not our fault.
Why is that problematic for them?
They probably have an outsize view of the importance of chicken farming. And that would be the best consequence.
You had a line I liked about falling in love with America, in all its beauty and awfulness, and how that was like falling in love with a girl while you’re holding back her hair as she’s vomiting. Do you still feel that way?
I still have the immigrant’s crush. America is fundamentally the best idea for a country. Not to get all Statue of Liberty about it, and this is hard as a British person to say, but the principles by which the British were kicked out of this country are the best principles. And however flawed that initial Constitution was — and the fact it needed to have amendments out the wazoo to make any kind of coherent sense — freedom of speech is still the best idea. I can call people chicken fuckers on television. I don’t take that for granted.
Did you have those feelings before you came to the States?
When you’re not from here, America has an iconic, mysterious allure, and you want to know what it’s like; whether the confidence the country projects is misplaced or not. Then you get here and you realize it is slightly misplaced but that it’s also a more complicated country than anyone gives it credit for. America is viewed overseas as this coherent mass of people who are proud to be American and thus agree with each other on everything, and of course nothing could be further from the truth. This is as fractured a country as you’re likely to find, but that’s what’s great about it.
This is the first time that Last Week Tonight has been on during a presidential-election cycle. I was watching one of the debates, and it occurred to me that a debate is probably not something that you guys would cover.
No, I’m not interested. I think we’re much more likely to take a more forensic look at how the election is run. So that means not really the personalities involved, and more the process underneath it. It’ll be fun to try and pick apart the way that elections are run in this country.
What about the campaign has been surprising to you so far?
It’s been depressingly unsurprising because it follows a similar pattern: The media starts getting excited before the race is remotely exciting.
You don’t think that Trump changed the typical narratives?
Yeah, he’s the embodiment of how powerful, to a bad extent, name recognition is in American politics. There were some incredible things he inadvertently brought to light. There is a power in a candidate openly saying, “Of course I gave to both parties in the past. I’m a businessman, that’s what you do.” He’s like the Wizard of Oz, pulling back the curtain, and there is something interesting in that. The Trump version of the Wizard of Oz would be saying, “Hey, Dorothy, go fuck yourself.”
Where are you from originally? Kansas? Sounds suspicious.
Dorothy was the ultimate dangerous immigrant in a way.
Given that campaign news — and news in general — moves so fast — did you know when you started the show that Last Week Tonight would stay off the day-to-day news cycle?
If the news had been dominated by something all week, there’s a pretty good chance we’re not going to be doing that. All of the meat of a story has been picked off the bones by the end of the week. So we have to do something else. It’s not possible to predict what we’re going to do on the show each week.
Your Edward Snowden interview felt like it came out of nowhere.
Yeah, I thought it would be nice if people were just watching TV and then: What the fuck is happening? Edward Snowden is on?
Did that piece feel like a breakthrough for you? You framed it all in the context of privacy over dick pics, but during the interview, you were actually pushing him hard on the substantive stuff.
Yeah, he’s the curator of such incredibly important information that you want to make sure that you treat that information with respect, and some of that is going to involve asking the hardest questions that you possibly could of him. It’s infantile to say there was absolutely no risk involved in doing what he did and he completely owned that when he said, “You’re never truly free if you’re without any kind of risk.”
You’ve said before that punching down isn’t funny.
Satire works best when it is punching up, when it’s anti-Establishment.
Is that why you think there isn’t a right-wing version of your show or The Daily Show?
They’ve tried. They tried very briefly to do a conservative version of The Daily Show. It was gone real quick. I don’t know why there isn’t one now. There’s clearly a market for it. But it’s not like there isn’t a wealth of pathetic behavior regarding the Democrats and the Obama administration.
I think the concept behind your question is a little problematic — as if to say I’m coming at something just from a liberal point of view, and not from a comedian’s, which is to point out bullshit. If you become too partisan in your way of thinking, you get less funny.
You don’t think the conclusions your show draws are more troubling for someone on the right than they are for someone on the left?
We tend to do stories that are objectively apolitical. Net neutrality is not a party-political issue. Chicken farmers are not a party-political issue. Civil forfeiture — if anything, that’s a libertarian issue. I don’t find stories that would be party political particularly interesting.
I feel like the impulse for a lot of your show’s longer pieces comes from a sense of anger, and there’s obviously no deficit of horrible things happening for you to do pieces on.
That is definitely not a problem.
So does that unending supply of bad news get disheartening?
As you go deeper into stories, you follow the same emotional path of: Seems like there’s something wrong here, and then, Holy shit, this is so much worse than we thought.Something like the civil-forfeiture story — you go, “It seems a little weird that there are all these dash-cam videos of cops asking people, ‘Do you have any cash in the car?’ ” Then you go further into it and you realize they’re funding their departments by shaking people down. So the scale of it is bigger than you’d thought. It’s almost inevitable that in however many more years I’ll say I can’t deal with this toxic shit anymore. But it’s still an interesting level of despair at the moment.
Come Monday morning, how are you judging the success of a show? Viewers? YouTube views?
Ratings is not a game we’re in. Then again, HBO says they don’t care about ratings and they cancel shows — but we don’t have overnight ratings. By the time we get back in the office on a Wednesday morning, I’ll see how things were taken online, but I usually pull out pretty quickly because the “John Oliver obliterates” stuff can get quite dispiriting — to have stories framed in such an objectively ludicrous manner when you’re not asking for them to be.
What about when you see the stuff you’ve advocated for, like asking viewers to spam the FCC, actually happen? Does the show feel closer to activism than comedy in those moments?
The end goal is to build a machine that makes comedy. Not any sort of advocacy. I just don’t think the comparison is valid or interesting. When you’re so clear in your head about what you’re trying to do, those constant queries are kind of odd.
I think it boils down to the people who watch the show wanting to feel that you’re acting out of some sense of mission and that you believe the same things they do. And figuring out what someone believes is the truth is a lot easier if that person is a journalist than a comedian. If a journalist says a building is on fire, you probably believe it. If a comedian says the same thing, maybe you do.
That’s what’s weird to me about when people ask about the show’s relationship to journalism. It’s so clearly comedy.
Does having worked on the show make you think differently about the work of journalists? Do you think they’re doing something that’s a lot harder than you’d realized? Or are you more inclined to think most journalists are idiots?
There are certainly a lot of really bad ones. We fact-check every statistic we use, and it can get very frustrating, because if you watch the evening-news networks, if there are three statistics on a screen at one time, you can be fairly sure at least one of those is wrong. Which is pretty scary. You think, How on Earth can ABC News put these numbers up on screen? And then you think, Well, ABC News has cut back on staff to a dramatic extent. They’re spread pretty thin, and this is what happens.
Do you ever have the desire to do a logistically easier kind of comedy? You could be doing a sitcom and not worrying about fact-checking a network-news statistic.
There is no part of me that wants to do a sitcom. And it’s not so much that I would like to do something easier as I would like this … I just wish it wasn’t so hard.
Have you always loved political comedy?
The Daily Show cemented that love, but going back to sitcoms — you’d see people using the show as a springboard. They’d leave and do sitcoms or movies, and there was definitely part of me that always thought Why would you do that? You’re in the best place. But then you realize not everyone is so obsessive about this kind of thing. They’re just funny people for whom this is a good job, but it’s not in their DNA to try and find complicated ways to process political stories.
And you are that obsessive?
Definitely. It takes a particular kind of person. When I was offered sitcoms or whatever other things on the side, I would either say no or I would only do it if it were on a hiatus week. I did Community for NBC solely on the understanding that I would not leave The Daily Show, which some people thought was insane. They thought, It’s a network sitcom! And I thought, Yeah, exactly, that’s my point. I would be much happier working on a fake news show for basic cable.
The thing I keep trying to get at is where this obsession of yours comes from.
I don’t know. It’s just that this very narrow thing is the thing I love the most. I loved writing jokes about this kind of stuff when I was in England, and then when I got to do it under the best person who’s ever done it, I ended up loving it more — because he would bring me up to work at a higher level. There’s nothing more exciting than that, thinking, Oh, shit, I have to get a lot better at this as quickly as possible because I can’t even fathom the level that he’s working at right now. And as you feel yourself starting to get better, that’s what stops it from getting boring. I was there for nearly ten years, and every day felt like a challenge. That’s a rare and valuable thing to have. Most people don’t find that thing that challenges them in that way.
I promise this is the last time I’ll bring this up, but when I raise questions about philosophical or internal motivations behind your work, you sort of brush them off. Are you not interested in answering questions about the emotions or feelings you have about your work? Or am I digging for something that’s truly not there?
It’s not just you. I think there is an outside desire — and I don’t fully understand the desire — to project motive onto the show. It always feels a little inexplicable for us, the obsession that people have with projecting motive when our motive is pretty clear. Every clip we have has a joke off it. Every statistic has a joke off it. We try and make the show incredibly dense with jokes because that’s the currency we’re trafficking in.
Now that you mention it, I’m looking at the shelves behind your desk, and I see a Michael Bolton record, some soccer balls, and a book of football clichés.
Exactly! This is not the office of a serious person!
I don’t see any salvaged rubble from the fall of Tikrit. No pieces of the Berlin Wall.
Yeah, there’s a lot of dumb shit instead. It should be harder for you to ask those questions about motive as all this is behind me. [Oliver gets up from his desk and takes a piece of brightly crayoned fan mail off a shelf.] Look: This is after we did this thing in the first season about Russian space sex geckos. They’re fuck geckos. A little girl wrote, “Hi, I loved your segment on space sex geckos.” Then she wrote, “P.S. I’m 11.” As if to say, “My mom’s so mad with you.” I’m genuinely bewildered by the anxiety that people have to project motives on a show like this. As if that’s a way of understanding it more? Some of the stuff that we’re most proud of is not those long stories but the spectacle. We did this thing about Japanese mascots. last year and had the stage full of gigantic dancing-mascot outfits for each Japanese government agency. We had this crazy psychedelic production and a confused Bob Balaban was there and it was so stupid — that’s the kind of thing where we get really excited about. Or this fake commercial we did based around Whole Foods selling $6 asparagus water — we did a parody of it with a tilapia in yoga pants and them selling granola that had been pushed gently between two oscillating fans. It was just so silly, and those are the things we’re bouncing off the walls with excitement over.
I don’t think the search for motive is as confusing as you’re saying. If there’s a schoolyard bully and everyone wants to see the bully get taken down a peg, and then someone comes and punches the bully in the nose, you want the person who threw the punch to have done it because they thought it was just. And not only because they thought it’d be funny.
Let me show you this. [Oliver walks to a wall of his office covered with small notecards for segments of the show.] [Co–executive producer] Tim Carvell keeps the cards that we’re most proud of. At the end of the week, they’ll all go away, but if there’s a particular card that makes no sense, he’ll keep it. Here’s one: “Enter Michael Bolton to sing song about anus.” We had Michael fucking Bolton singing a song about the IRS being America’s anus and how important anuses actually are. That’s what I love about the show.
*This interview was condensed and edited from two conversations, the first conducted on January 18 and the second on January 28. It appears in the February 22, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.