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John Oliver Really Just Wants Last Week Tonight to Be The Muppet Show

John Oliver. Photo: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images

Since its debut in 2014, HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver has routinely pushed the boundaries of what a topical comedy show can be. Its deep-dive segments, which now often nudge the show beyond its designated half-hour slot, are famous for tackling the obscure, convoluted, and underreported. Like its host’s alma mater The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight feels like a calming anchor of reason in a sea of news chaos and social-media storms. And at the center is John Oliver, the self-effacing host of a show that’s quickly becoming a late-night institution.

With the show about to enter its sixth season on February 17, Vulture caught up with John Oliver earlier this week to talk about the show’s fact-checking process, the one story he wished he could have covered, and the story behind all those mascots.

I feel like in interviews you tend to be very humble about the show, and I wondered if you would talk to me about what you think the appeal of the show is.
Who the fuck knows. I don’t know.

The appeal for me is that we’ve built this machine of very talented people working incredibly hard, and a process through which they can end up putting their considerable talents into a story that might be very difficult to handle. So the most appealing thing for us in making the show is kind of seeing what everyone who we work with is capable of, and trying to point their capabilities at something that stretches them. In terms of what’s appealing watching it, I don’t know. [Laughs.]

What we try to do is show something [viewers] haven’t seen before, or show people elements of a story they haven’t seen before. So I hope that would be a reason to watch it. But also, we are incredibly diligent over fact-checking. If there’s a scientific study that someone refers to, we’ll buy that scientific study and read it just to check that it says what the person says it does. So [there’s] the level of granular detail that we go to to make sure that the stuff that we’re presenting or that we’re co-signing on is rigorously fact-checked. I hope there is an element of trust that people have that we’re not passing on any information lazily.

You take a hiatus every winter. When something like the shutdown happens, are you thinking, I wish we were doing a show about this, or I’m so glad we’re not doing this?
No, because we work the whole time. We took two weeks off over the holidays, but otherwise we’ve been in the office the whole time, since the day after our last show, just researching. And that’s kind of vital time for us to set ourselves up for the year.

In terms of the shutdown, not really. It feels like we would probably just contain it to the start of the show anyway, so it doesn’t feel like we’d be bringing anything particularly unique to that. It’s more the stories that fall away. [Of the things we missed], the honest answer is that there was a story about a British family terrorizing New Zealand on holiday. That really felt like, Aw, that would be really fun to talk about, and I’m not sure anyone else would want to talk about that because it doesn’t matter. That was our sweet spot. It was pretty incredible.

People, especially journalists, around the world watch your show. I wonder how do you feel about representing the U.S. on a global scale?
I probably don’t feel anything about that. Again, I’ll fiercely stand by our work, and we’re completely confident in what we present in the end.

It’s been slightly surprising to us what we’ve been able to get away with, so I would hope that it would embolden people to think, Maybe I could get away with that, too. In our first season, we did 12 minutes on the death penalty, which seemed genuinely reckless. Who wants to watch 12 minutes of comedy about the death penalty? Now, it’s very rare we would talk about anything for as little as 12 minutes, but at the time, that felt like, This is probably about as much as we can get away with. In fact, that’s probably stretching it.

Then, when you realize people might want more than that, all of sudden we could start to do 20-, 25-, 30-minute, sometimes more than 30-minute stories, just because it feels like either you’ve gained people’s trust enough, or that you feel like it’s possible that people will be willing to watch it.

The show’s going into its sixth season. Do you feel the need to change things up?
We try to stretch it a little bit anyway. Sometimes it’s not half-an-hour long. I think the Anita Hill one was really long just because it felt like you wanted to let that interview breathe a little and to talk with some care about what we were talking about. So that kind of flexibility really helps — that we can break the format when we want to.

We try not to get stuck in a rut. We try to mix things up, not just in terms of what we’re talking about but how we present them. So sometimes it’ll be an 8-minute chunk at the top of the show and then 22 minutes of something you may not want to hear about. And then sometimes it’ll be like a shorter story, like Florida felon disenfranchisement, and then we’ll do something dumb at the end, like give you an update on where Russell Crowe’s jockstrap is.

I have to ask you about the mascots. Vulture has been trying desperately to do a piece about the show’s mascots, but we’ve been repeatedly turned down. Why won’t you allow it, and what are you hiding?
Why won’t we allow it? I really appreciate the “What are we hiding” question. I think we generally don’t do interviews about the show once we start, so this is basically it, once a year, and then we tend not to talk about it. We don’t do regular check-ins. That’s probably why?

I mean, the truth of the mascots is that we have a gigantic room filled with spectacular mascot costumes now. [Executive producer] Tim Carvell and I — I think we’ve always seen the show as our attempt to make The Muppet Show and failing to do so. But occasionally, just occasionally, you get the kind of Muppet Show adoration in the ludicrous mascots.

So I should have come in with all the mascot questions today and gotten it done?
Absolutely. Yeah, definitely, that’s the thing, So basically they can have the story this time next year. [Laughs.] You can Trojan horse the story.

Who’s in the mascots? Can you tell us that?
Yes, well it depends, but most of the time, it’s this guy called Noel [MacNeal]. He was The Bear in the Big Blue House, and he worked for Sesame Street. It’s a bunch of Sesame Street puppeteers. But in terms of Mr. Nutterbutter, he is Mr. Nutterbutter.

Is there anything about the production or the writing of the show that would surprise viewers? Anything that seems different from what we end up with?
Just the amount of effort that goes into each element of the show would probably surprise people, just as it would probably [surprise them] to know that we’ve kind of been at work the whole time, and we haven’t been away.

None of us are really coming back with a tan. We’re not generally a tan-interested group of people. There’s not a lot of beachy people. But yeah, it’s just a massive amount of work. Like what it takes to get the background on each story, the writers are working on it for weeks. Those big stories we don’t write in a week; those are written over at least a month.

One last question: If you had to undo either Trump’s election or Brexit — you could snap your fingers, and one of them didn’t happen …
Um, Brexit. Partly because it felt like that put some of the populist movement that got Trump elected in motion, and also the ramifications from that are going to be generational. It’s a total catastrophe, and it hasn’t even happened yet. It’s going to be horrendous.

That’s why we need mascots. Sometimes you just need a mascot at the end of something. It’s like the Kavanaugh thing — it was so depressing that week, having Gritty burst out did at least give the illusion of joy.

So maybe a Brexit mascot in the future?
Yeah, maybe.

John Oliver Just Wants Last Week Tonight to Be Muppet Show