Talking ‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’ with Showrunner Tim Carvell

In December it was announced that longtime Daily Show head writer Tim Carvell was leaving to serve as showrunner and executive producer of John Oliver’s new HBO show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. After years of writing for publications like Fortune, Entertainment Weekly, and McSweeney’s, Carvell joined The Daily Show in 2004 and was promoted to head writer in 2011. Ahead of Last Week Tonight’s premiere on HBO this Sunday, I recently talked with Carvell about why he left The Daily Show, what he thinks Comedy Central will do with Colbert’s time slot next year, and why we should trust a Brit like John Oliver to tell us what news has already happened each week on Last Week Tonight.

What made this opportunity feel like the right time to leave The Daily Show?

Well, it was somebody I knew very well doing something I knew generally how to do, so it was not the most terrifying possible way to leave. It was also after last summer [when Oliver guest hosted] John and I had a lot of fun working with each other, and so the idea of having the opportunity to create something new together was too good to resist. It was incredibly hard to leave The Daily Show just because they’re such a great group of people and my friends, and Jon Stewart was incredible to me and to Oliver. He’s a great boss. So yeah, it took something extraordinary to leave.

You’ve described your hiring at The Daily Show as somewhat “accidental.”

Yeah, I wasn’t supposed to go into comedy writing. I mean I very much wanted to – it was something I’d always been interested in – but I just figured it was the sort of job that nobody is allowed to do. And so I was working for business magazines and was a writer at Time Inc doing short stuff for McSweeney’s on the side, and Steve Bodow was a writer at The Daily Show, I met him through doing McSweeney’s, and he let me know there was an opening and I submitted a packet and they hired me. Which I realize is not the way anything should ever happen, but I got very very lucky.

Who’s on the Last Week Tonight writing staff?

Let’s see…Jeff Maurer, Jill Twiss, Geoff Haggerty, Dan Gurewitch, Juli Weiner, Kevin Avery, Scott Sherman, and Will Tracy.

Were you involved in the hiring process?

Yeah, Oliver and I staffed up the writing staff. It got started a little before I came onboard – his management company put out a general call for submissions, so that started before I even joined the show. But when I came on we sort of augmented that call with some folks that we wanted to poach as well.

How different is the format of Last Week Tonight than The Daily Show?

We’re working that out. The recognizable part of it will be talking about the news through the use of clips and interviews. We’re trying to find the best ways to tailor to Oliver’s sensibilities and to make the best use of the differences in format and time. One thing we realized early on was we have a half an hour without commercials, and that’s a long time to hear anyone talk to you, so we got on the idea pretty early of having these superstitial segments that are going to serve as the show’s “commercial break” so that the show is broken up, and at least for a little while you get some respite from John’s voice. [laughs] We talk about it that way, and really – it’s a lovely voice, we just want to take little breaks from it. So that is one of the things that will be distinct from The Daily Show; where they’d go to a commercial break we would go to a produced comedy piece.

So we can expect more segments like the ad parodies you released with Josh Gondelman?

Yeah, I think Oliver has referred to it as “the burden of time” – we have a week to make the show, so we almost feel this responsibility to go out and produce a little more. We don’t have the virtue of immediacy – we won’t be able to turn around a show about a thing that happened that day, so we at least better produce some stuff that took some time.

Do you like the challenge of knowing you’ll probably be last to get a crack at a lot of headlines?

It’s nice. It’s funny – it definitely means that it’s a challenge because Twitter will have its way with a story, The Daily Show, Colbert, all of the late night shows, Saturday Night Live, and then we come along, and so it’s like well, we better have something new. So it’s a little nerve-wracking, but I think we like the idea of the challenge of being last to the party and still having to bring something.

Will there be any other people on the show regularly in the vein of The Daily Show’s correspondents?

It’s going to be mostly John Oliver, there won’t be correspondents or anything like that or contributors.

Is there a general guideline to the kinds of guests you want on the show?

I think we’re going to generally look for people who ideally have expertise in whatever it is we’re talking about that week. So I think the model will be more expert witness than necessarily a celebrity. And HBO has told us there’s no pressure to book celebrities, we don’t need big names as much as the best person for what we want to talk about. Which is so not a network note to give, and we really appreciate that they’re very open to whatever people we think will be best for the show.

Do you think HBO will be generous with clips for those who don’t have HBO?

I know that early on their plan is to be somewhat generous like they have with some of their other shows, but I don’t know down the road what their plan is. The hope is that at least there will be some viral web component to the show, so that’ll probably be out there. On our Twitter feed we’ve been posting a bunch of fake HBO GO passwords, so if you don’t have HBO maybe one of those will work.

Now that there have been so many shifts in late night, do you have any take on the evolution of it and where it’s headed?

Oh man, not really. It’s mostly because when you’re working inside it, you try not to think too much about the big picture of things; it’ll just screw you up. I remember when I was in college Leno got The Tonight Show then Letterman getting Late Show, and that made sense as far as my grandparents’ generation almost became my parents’ generation. So it was like oh, the next generation’s coming up – and that’s kind of nice. Not that Letterman isn’t a legend and someone we all owe a tremendous debt to, but it’s interesting to see people keep moving up, and I think it makes the genre feel a little fresher.

Do you think The Daily Show will change in any ways now that Oliver has a show and The Colbert Report is ending? It seems like Daily Show and Colbert have both developed a symbiotic relationship, at least for viewers.

I’m sure they’ll do great. It’s funny, it’s another one of those things where when you’re in the place you don’t think in terms of the big picture. So I think that Daily Show and Colbert were very much in their own silos, and in their own offices. So we kept our heads down and worked on our show and they worked on theirs, so I never really thought of the two shows’ processes influencing one another. The Daily Show will keep going exactly the way it has been, and hopefully they’ll find somebody to follow them. I have no insight to that or who they’re going to get, but yeah, Colbert’s a big loss for the network.

Is there anyone you’re rooting for in particular?

There’s a lot of really great contenders who have already been suggested and been around for the job. I have no doubt that they will choose well.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver premieres on HBO this Sunday at 11:00pm.

Talking ‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’ with […]