If you’ve come here looking for lively discourse about how Joe Biden’s America will be influencing the new season of Last Week Tonight, take a cue from the Russian space geckos and fly the hell out of here. It’s mascot time! Since its debut in 2014, John Oliver’s late-night program has embraced the art of the elaborately felted costume like no other, whether it’s trotting out a blind iguana to revitalize the Department of Justice or a barbershop squirrel quartet to tell a coal baron to eat shit. (And who could possibly forget about Chiijohn, the hunkiest otter in the eastern hemisphere?) By our estimation, about two dozen mascots have graced the Last Week Tonight screen alongside Oliver over the years, who told Vulture in a recent interview that HBO will never, ever learn the truth about how much they cost to create. Budget aside, Oliver was thrilled to get candid about why he loves puppeteers, his life-long Muppet obsession, and how the inclusion of mascots changed the show’s production as we know it.
You’ve spoken in the past about how you’ve wanted Last Week Tonight to have a Muppet Show quality to it. What is it about mascots that are funny to you as a comedian, and why do you think they’re so effective at elevating your segments?
It’s definitely true. Tim Carvell [Last Week Tonight’s showrunner] and I were both huge fans of the Muppets growing up. They were big comedic influences on us. I still think that the Muppets are spectacular. It’s interesting watching little clips of them now. I have a 2-year-old and 5-year-old, and I’ve wondered what they think about them. They seem to really like the Swedish Chef. The Swedish Chef is still funny! It’s classic, wordless comedy. I always loved it. It definitely felt like it was a fun way to elevate stories and give it a sense of playful fun, especially in a story that’s incredibly bleak.
In our first season, we did a very Sesame Street–style song at the end of an episode about prisons. In doing that, we began to think that we could execute segments at a bigger level. We could get good puppets and mascots made. Bob Balaban makes most of our puppets. Wait, not Bob Balaban. [Laughs.] Bob Flanagan! Can you imagine if Bob Balaban, noted character actor, somehow managed to make a puppet business on the side? Once we realized what was possible, that opened up the way that we thought about using mascots. We could make something beautiful, shoot it beautifully, and rather than having the funny-bad crappy version of something, we could do the funny-spectacular version.
How do you and your writers know when it’s effective to include a mascot in a segment? Do you write with certain guidelines in mind?
Not really, but we don’t want to overdo it. We want it to be motivated each time. The first time that we made something that was going to be directly motivated by the main story was the piece about tobacco. We made Jeff the Diseased Lung in a Cowboy Hat. We made it to fuck with Marlboro. That was pretty cleanly motivated in the body of the story. We wanted to try to get these images of our Marlboro mascot to mess with their Google results. We felt bringing that mascot to life would be fun. And it was. It was really fun.
The Jeff campaign was a huge turning point for Last Week Tonight’s prominence. Did its success change your perceptions for what you and the show could accomplish?
Absolutely, but not in the way that you think it resonated. It actually made us think significantly about, in terms of production, what we were capable of. Because at relatively little notice that week, we got a bus advertisement in Uruguay, and we sent boxes of T-shirts to Togo and successfully shot both of them. That was one of those moments where we realized not only can we do this, but we can think about what we can actually do if we had this idea earlier. It was amazing that we could scramble and get those results. That started to make us think, Hold on, if we extend our production on each story, or if we have an idea three weeks out, then we can really do some shit. It was very, very much a moment of realizing we could add very high-end HBO production to a comedy show.
I’m pretty much convinced at this point that HBO will give your show whatever you want, no money questions asked. Do you actually have to worry about a mascot budget?
They don’t know how much things cost, and long may that continue.
Can you tell me how much an average mascot costs?
No! Noooooo! You’re basically asking me to cancel myself. If HBO ever finds out how much we spent on this stuff, we’re toast. They’re never going to find out that number. I’ll take that to my grave. I’m not even going to whisper that into someone’s ear when I die.
Are there any mascots that you’ve wanted to create for a segment but, for whatever reason, they couldn’t come to life?
There have been times when we’ve worried about whether it was worth it and did it anyway. There’s one mascot most people haven’t even seen. Remember that time when Chipotle was giving people E. coli a few years ago? We did a fake commercial for Chipotle, and we made a really beautiful chef-cockroach costume that held knives. It’s onscreen for a second and a half. I think it was worth it. But someone looking at our line budget might quibble with that interpretation. We didn’t rent it, we made it. It didn’t exist! Who would have a life-size cockroach costume? If anyone does need a cockroach costume that has the ability to emote, we’re open to trying to recoup some of the costs.
Stevie Nicks famously has a climate-controlled shawl room. Do the mascots also live in such luxury?
Spectacularly good question, because they used to have their very own office. If you’ve ever seen a room of, let’s say, 30 mascots hanging from hooks, it does lose its charm very quickly and turn into a serial killer’s basement. We were pretty immune to how odd it looks — this meat locker of mascots — until a third child looked inside and became distressed. We figured, These probably should go somewhere else. They’re now in a different kind of storage unit where a person can’t accidentally walk in, because it really was originally a kind of room where you would go into and think, Oh shit, this is the last thing I’m gonna see, isn’t it? It was bad.
The guy who’s in most of our mascots, Noel MacNeal, is incredible. He was the star of Bear in the Big Blue House. You might be able to recognize his voice. He’s so, so great at bringing these mascots to life. It’s amazing because when they’re just a costume and a decapitated head, you realize just how amazing Noel is, because once he gets inside that thing … It’s like when people visited the Muppets or Sesame Street; you really forget there’s a real person under there. There have been many, many times where I’ve forgotten Noel is inside the thing that I’m talking to.
Have you ever been tempted to go into a mascot costume yourself?
I’ve definitely been tempted, but I’ve never done it. Partly because when you’re inside it, you can’t see it, so it loses its charm. The joy of them for me is as a viewer and not a participant. But also, I think I’d be bad at it. Good puppeteers are incredible. There’s a lot of Oh, how hard can that be? ideology when it comes to puppeteering. When they really bring them to life, it’s something else. I’ve done things with Cookie Monster in the past, and he makes me laugh so much. Getting to talk to the real thing is an absolute dream come true when it happens. What I’m trying to say is I know enough about my puppetry skills that I wouldn’t be able to bring the magic to these mascots. I’m much happier at looking.
Have you encouraged your fellow late-night cohorts to also embrace mascots? Because they really should at this point.
Not only have I encouraged them, but Seth [Meyers] actively helped us. I sent Chiijohn over to his studio when we did the second segment, and it was really hard to explain what I was asking him to do. I texted him and said, “All right, there’s this mascot and we’re shooting something. It’ll take 15 minutes and you can do it after your rehearsal!” I knew the only way to get Seth to help was telling him that it was practical. Seth met Chiijohn and Shinjo-kun before I did, and he texted me afterwards and said, “They don’t speak. You didn’t tell me they were going to be silent.” By that point, we had given Chiijohn to the city in Japan, so Chiijohn had his own mascot-teers. They take their jobs incredibly seriously, and they don’t break character at all — not during takes, and not between takes. They were in character the whole day. You can talk to them, but they won’t respond. They’re the Daniel Day-Lewis of mascot-teers. They don’t break. It’s full immersion. It’s the method technique. Seth left as creeped out as he was charmed.
What mascot would you say best epitomizes Last Week Tonight?
If I had to choose one, it would probably be Mr. Nutterbutter, just because of what he represents. It represented a story that took years to unfold, and it was incredibly frustrating. We did this piece about coal, and the CEO, Bob Murray, sued us. That lawsuit took years for us to get out from under. He was an incredible bully, and not just to us — he sued so many local newspapers and made them cave to him. He tried to silence so many people. Through all of the frustrations of the process of that lawsuit, the only thing that was keeping me going was thinking, After this is over, we’re going to give him the opposite of silence.
To me, the opposite of silence was a Broadway musical with us telling Bob to go fuck himself. Having Mr. Nutterbutter attached to that memory is very important. But also, as a mascot, he’s spectacular. His mouth opens and his head turns. There’s so much that Noel can do in there. I can’t look at that squirrel without laughing. It was a real problem. There are certain things Muppets do that I find enjoyable and keep giving me increasing returns. One is the penguins. You know when the penguins open their mouths when they laugh? Fantastic. When Noel, as Mr. Nutterbutter, sharply turns to look at me, it’s so funny, and a joyful laugh always comes out of me. [Laughs.] I can’t handle the squirrel movements.
Do you think it was a missed opportunity not to send Mr. Nutterbutter to Bob’s funeral?
[Laughs.] It would’ve been a statement. I’m not sure I would’ve wanted to put Noel or even the costume in that situation. Also, we left it all on the field with Mr. Nutterbutter — a 1920s musical in Times Square with a dancing squirrel. I think you know how we feel.