on comedy

How John Oliver and Last Week Tonight Choose What Stories to Cover

John Oliver. Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Turner

Most people who know Scott Rogowsky lovingly refer to him as the Quiz Daddy, the breakout star of the app HQ Trivia, which became a sensation soon after its launch in 2017. But as comedy fans know, Rogowsky has been doing his late-night talk show Running Late With Scott Rogowsky for years, bouncing around various New York City comedy venues since its inception in 2011. As part of this year’s New York Comedy Festival, Rogowsky hosted a late-night edition of the show at the Team Coco House on Friday evening, wearing, in a cute touch, a jacket and tie inspired by the opening credits of HQ. But Rogowsky’s real passion is hosting a traditional talk show — the kind with a live band, monologue, field pieces, characters, and interviews. All of those things were at play last night, when Last Week Tonight host John Oliver appeared as Rogowsky’s guest. Taking a page from the HBO show’s segments, Rogowsky devoted 40 minutes to his interview with Oliver, and here are some tidbits we learned about Oliver in process.

On why he came to the U.S.: “In 2009, I will say in my defense, this was a different country, going in a different direction. Listen, when I got on this horse, it was galloping majestically, Seabiscuit-style. I didn’t realize it was gonna take a hard right turn to the glue factory.”

On posters for Last Week Tonight: “Each year, it’s been fun to come up with an image that my face is not in, because I don’t really like the ephemera of being on TV very much. I have to put these things on buses, so the last two years, I’ve been hiding behind the desk and then with my head on the desk, and the justification for it has been a joke, but really it’s just I don’t want to be there.”

On whether satire is working today: “Well, it depends what you think its job is. If you’re in the Weimar Cabaret back in 1930s Germany, it depends if you thought, ‘My job is to stop fascism,’ that’s an overwhelming failure. Spoiler alert, if you haven’t gotten to that part of 20th century history. What we see our job as is to try to make a rigorous, factually solid, interesting, funny show. So in terms of the reverberations, we pay literally no attention to that whatsoever. We don’t factor it into anything.”

On choosing the stories for his show: “I think we can sometimes be an amplifier on issues that aren’t getting looked at. That is the kind of privilege of a having a show like this, is that you can look at unaddressed stories and give, especially in the moment, really, in the last couple of years, where this administration tends to cannibalize everything … We’ve had to protect the main body of our show, because there’s so much low-hanging fruit around, you can kind of gorge yourself on that and forget that there are other things going on in the world, so we try and make sure that the vast majority of our main stories are not centered around the president … You want to make sure that, if you’re gonna talk to people about something for 20, 30, sometimes 35 minutes, one story, you want to make sure that at the end you have some sense of a solution, however small, even if it’s a solution to just a small part of the problem.”

On his safety during the recent mail bombs: “The bombs were still getting sent out, he hadn’t got caught, the guy, and I was walking between my office and home. Two separate people — this on like a ten-minute walk to a car — two separate people said, ‘Have you got one yet?’ I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Have you got one? I bet you’re on the list.’ We’re talking about an actual bomb!”

On the show’s animal mascots: “I love a mascot. Tim Carvell, who runs the show, he and I are big fans of the Muppets, and basically we’re just trying to make a Muppet show and failing.”

On the show’s mascot costumes: “We used to just have them in this one room, but then kids occasionally would come in, and it was just a room basically full of decapitated mascots. And it was after the third kid cried, we thought, ‘Let’s put these somewhere else.’”

On topics he hasn’t covered on the show: “Yes, there’s loads of topics that either we couldn’t find a way in or that the story had shifted or it had been slightly misreported, so the most tantalizing parts of it weren’t true or it had shifted because a solution is underway. You don’t know if it works yet.”

How John Oliver, Last Week Tonight Choose Stories to Cover