TV's sharpest political satirist on crafting comedy in dark times, that 'Drumpf' gag and where we go from here in our candid cover story
TV's sharpest political satirist on crafting comedy in dark times, that 'Drumpf' gag and where we go from here in our candid cover story
On the wall facing John Oliver's desk, on the eighth floor of an office building so far on the West Side of Manhattan it's practically floating in the Hudson River, are 30 blue index cards. Each represents an episode of the 2017 season of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. And each and every one of them is blank. That's one reason Oliver is already arriving at the office before 8:30 a.m. each day, though he has weeks until the February 12th kickoff of the show's fourth season. But he and his staff also have a near-impossible task ahead of them: planning a season's worth of television's smartest, sanest show in the dumbest and craziest of times.
Oliver just wants to do his show, to continue using the extraordinary creative freedom granted by HBO to keep diving into what's been aptly dubbed "investigative comedy," which means devoting a huge chunk of every episode – or sometimes the entire half-hour – to lengthy, improbably hilarious, fact-stuffed explorations of arcane topics, from debt-collection laws to the racist history behind the disenfranchisement of U.S. territories like Puerto Rico. But there is the small matter of President Donald Trump, who is throwing off everyone's plans, Oliver's among them. Appropriately, a book currently sitting on his desk is titled A World in Disarray: "A little on the nose," he says.
In the face of a fact-challenged presidency, the work of the most thoroughly fact-checked comedy show in the history of television seems sorely needed. Though he largely focused on other issues, Oliver did deliver some of the campaign's most memorable critiques, observing in July that Trump has said "thousands of crazy things, each of which blunts the effect of the others. It's the bed-of-nails principle: If you step on one nail, it hurts you; if you step on a thousand nails, no single one stands out, and you're fine."
But again, Oliver is a reluctant combatant. "I hope we'll be able to protect the majority of the show from the president," he says, noting that the in-depth packages they're preparing have little to do with Trump, and that, in general, he tries to go beyond "party politics." "We're trying to build foundations of incredibly complicated stories that we know are basically timeless." That said, when we meet again two weeks later, this time just a few days after Trump's inauguration, Oliver has conceded that the new president will likely dominate the first show, at least.
Oliver is wearing jeans, Asics sneakers with black socks, and a plaid shirt with sleeves rolled up to reveal ferociously hairy forearms. He's grown some facial scruff that somehow only emphasizes his acknowledged resemblance to Bart Simpson's friend Milhouse. "It's like getting some control back in your life, or wrestling back control of your face," he says, pondering the beard-growing habits of off-duty TV guys. "You just feel like a kind of shaved gibbon all the time."
Oliver is effortlessly, casually funny in conversation, like a guitarist running scales. At one point, he launches into a mini-skit about a Rolling Stone writer fighting Trump-induced malaise while interviewing a band – Imagine Dragons, he specifies. "What's the point, then, guys?" he moans, playing the part. "What's the point? What's it like fiddling while Rome burns?"
How was your mood over the holidays?
Oh, pretty bad. We had one show to do after the election.
That was the one where you did the now-famous "Fuck 2016" segment, which ended with you blowing up a giant 2016 sign set up in an empty stadium?
We'd already planned the demolition, because it had already been a really bad year in many ways. It had been a fucking awful election campaign, humanity at its worst. And Prince died, and everything else. It was supposed to be a separate story after whatever we did at the top of the show, but it turned out to have direct connective tissue, so we did one story for 30 minutes, and then blew it up and walked away.
The morning of Election Day, we went through all the safety stuff, and the guy had said, "Hey, you're standing, like, in the blast radius." Like, "This wave is gonna come through you, through your ribs, and it's gonna move your heart." And I'm a natural coward, with all the self-preservation skills of a coward, which is flee and flinch.
But you looked stoic as hell in the final clip.
We did the actual explosion the day after the election. I was so dead inside emotionally that I didn't flinch – because I didn't really care [laughs]. "Hmm, maybe a piece of something smashes into me and kills me. Would that be the worst thing?" I mean, he'd been elected less than 12 hours ago, so you'd think, "Yeah, I'd like to blow something up and see if I feel anything." So it wasn't bravado, it was total nihilism.
Right after Brexit, you stated on air that this could happen in America. And you were visibly upset about Brexit itself.
Yeah. I was furious. So I was not that surprised. At the moment when those first election returns came in, it was like muscle memory of watching the Brexit results all night thinking, "I know how this story ends. I think I know where we end up."
Watch to find out five things we learned from hanging out with John Oliver.
Way before this, you had mentioned seeing xenophobia in small-town England – you said people were ranting about Bulgarians.
That's why calling a referendum was such a myopic decision. That was an incredibly reckless, arrogant, self-serving move, to call a referendum and then not to energetically campaign to find a way to avoid what you've just set in motion. Not to have any sense of the depth of either xenophobia or resentment for European bureaucracy. It was a terrible idea from the get-go, as is proved by the fact that [David Cameron] is not prime minister anymore.
Was it especially frustrating after you looked into the camera and begged the U.K. voters not to do it?
I had my producers and researchers trying to find any argument to the contrary, to work against my prejudice of going into this thinking, "This is a terrible fucking idea." And the researchers – who are incredibly nuanced in their thinking; very rarely does anything come back in black and white from them – returned saying, "There's really nothing there. This is jumping off a cliff blind." It was clear it would be a catastrophic decision for Britain and anyone in its immediate vicinity. To have that knowledge, and then to watch six hours of electoral returns come in through the night, just watching your country set fire to itself – it was pretty bad.
What did that vote reveal for you?
It's hard to unpack the general shift toward the right in America and in certain parts of the world. The moment in that pathetic Brexit campaign that seemed to resonate most afterward was [conservative member of Parliament] Michael Gove saying in an interview, "People in this country have had enough of experts." And that turned out to echo throughout the year, especially in the U.S. You can understand, right? Being lectured is annoying, when you're a kid and throughout your life. But it turned out there was less collective investment in facts than people thought.
Did you share the general shudder when Kellyanne Conway introduced the idea of "alternative facts"?
It's just a framing device, an ear-catching phrase, but it's nothing new. The content of what she's wrapping a bow on is something that everyone has been bearing witness to. We've had 18 months of feelings over facts. The only thing that's remotely new about it is the location that it's coming from.
Is interviewing her essentially pointless?
In general, it's very dangerous to keep the old campaign architecture around with this presidency, to have an eight-person panel on CNN debating whether or not he said something. "Did he or did he not do this thing we watched him do?" There's actually serious harm in that discussion. And, yeah. I really don't see the point of talking to Kellyanne Conway because her language jujitsu is so strong. You know she can look you in the eyes and tell you the opposite of what you just saw happen, and she will be more confident in her answer than you are in your question.
The White House press corps seemed stunned by "alternative facts," and by Sean Spicer's haranguing them with falsities.
That's absurd. There's nothing to be stunned about. Trump and everyone around him have been consistent to a fault in their behavior. There's this sense that, well, D.C. is the dominant gene, and anyone who goes there will have to kowtow to how things are done there. But you're dealing with a human wrecking ball.
Is it going to be harder or easier to do a current-events-based comedy show in what appear to be seriously dark times?
Yeah, um ... harder? Certainly harder than I think people might imagine.
The main thing I tend to hear from people, in a well-meaning way, is, "Oh, wow! Your show's set," and, like, "You're gonna be fine for the next four years." But whenever these ... I was gonna say these kind of administrations, but this may be a different level. But just for comedy alone, it can be more difficult because there is so much low-hanging fruit. Especially with someone like him. The old W. Bush days were not halcyon days for comedy in lots of regards, unless people really fought to find some more substance in what was going on. If you're just making fun of personalities and sound bites, then you're just attacking the window dressing, and there's only shallow satisfaction in that.
That is a philosophy of comedy that Jon Stewart put forth to everyone on The Daily Show, right?
It's what I liked most about The Daily Show – that Jon would really try and reach beyond just the fun sound bites. You could absolutely have fun with them, but that was the dessert. Those are the things that you could use to get people to listen to the main thrust of what you're saying.
You joked on the show that you fear you'll always be in Jon's shadow.
I don't think that's a fear, and I don't even have a problem with it. I'm happy to be in his shadow. I think that is only appropriate.
Jon has managed to be relatively quiet lately, other than popping up with Stephen Colbert.
Yeah. We'll see how long that goes on for. You've gotta be able to do a year off. After you've worked at the pace he has, you just physically have to be able to do a year. I mean, he's working on things. So he's publicly quiet, but he's not privately quiet. He's using his brain and working on stuff right now.
Do you have any similar ambitions of directing movies, writing movies ...
No! [Laughs] This is so all-consuming. Not only can I only do this, I only really see this, 'cause I can't really think that far ahead. I can only think a few weeks at a time, just because there's always pretty big calamities ahead that we need to avoid.
So when you have the president of the United States, in his inaugural address, echoing a passage from a speech that the Batman villain Bane delivered in The Dark Knight Rises ...
Yeah, that would be the low-hanging fruit. Those are kind of the responses that Twitter can give you. The easiest jokes have kind of been told. The carcass will have been picked pretty clean. So we've gotta do something else.
What were your overall thoughts on the inaugural speech?
The American carnage? Again, I don't know what people were really expecting. But there was definitely something jarring about a speech that negative, and that clunky, considering it's an inauguration speech. You know, the kind of speeches that are sometimes carved in marble on the side of a wall? I'm hoping that some marble-carver is not chiseling out "American carnage."
My favorite part was the "and the crime and the gangs and the drugs" bit. It had a nice cadence to it.
That's right, yeah. He's got bars [laughs].
There's this endless debate over whether the use of his Twitter account is strategic or whether they're tantrums. Where do you fall?
Is Trump strategic, or is he sophisticated enough to know the power of the kind of linguistic hand grenade that he has become? Because even if he isn't, it's a classic magician's misdirection trick, isn't it? Is he sophisticated enough to understand the power to distract people from what you're doing with ridiculous behavior? And the party he nominally belongs to is definitely sophisticated enough to know that. They could get a lot of shit done while people are gasping over the things that Trump has said. You could do hard legislation in the shadows, because if a magician comes onstage and releases a chimpanzee into the room who starts throwing feces at people, it's going to be pretty easy for him to make a couple of moves and end up with a woman sawed in half [laughs]. They could get an incredible amount done while people are distracted by just the volume of nonsense.
Your "Make Donald Drumpf Again" segment, complete with hats, was great at first, but it seemed to get out of control. I would almost compare it to when a cool band has a hit song that becomes way too big.
That is exactly how it felt – that [it] got out of hand. We did that the night of the Oscars, right? So that was not supposed to be that big of a deal, because of the Oscars. And not just the Oscars, the Chris Rock Oscars. Good Oscars, right? We were not doing that with the sense that it would become bigger than our show normally is. And, yeah, the prevalence of it, after the fact, became a bit dismaying. It kind of slightly ruins the memory. But the idea of the Drumpf thing, I think, is really funny outside of what it became – to try and separate the brand from the man.
And my favorite part of it was the link back to the attack on Jon Stewart, when Trump thought it was somehow discrediting to him to reveal that his original last name was Leibowitz.
Yeah, exactly, and I'm really proud of that.
Which was blatantly anti-Semitic, by the way.
Oh, yeah! There's only one thing that is, and it's anti-Semitic [laughs]. If it's not anti-Semitism, I don't know what it is. Yeah, I'm really proud of the way that whole thing linked together. It was supposed to be just a joke, like everything we do, not a stick to hit people with. It was supposed to be a much more nuanced, argumentative piece than the reductive end that we put on it. So just to see people using it as a shorthand was pretty dispiriting in the end.
And there are always the people who are still doing the Drumpf thing two months later, and you're just begging them to stop.
Yeah, of course. That joke became old for us very quickly. There's a reason we didn't use it again. It really is the song I skip past. It's "Creep." It's a good song, Thom Yorke! It was a good song when he wrote it.
Well, at least you don't have to go onstage and have people demanding you do "Drumpf" for them.
"Do it! You are going to do it, right? Do it. Do it! Sure, you can encore with it, but you're fucking doing it, right? And don't do a slow version."
It's OK, now you're the "Fuck 2016" guy.
[Laughs] That's right. I'll just bury it with something else. That's the key thing – you don't want to stop, in a way, because you don't want the last thing you do to define you. It's just that we're not supposed to be that popular. Our show is not supposed to be [laughs] that relevant.
You've made it clear you're similarly irritated with the meme "John Oliver eviscerates; John Oliver demolishes ..." whatever subject you're addressing.
Of course. But that has nothing to do with us. Our purpose was never to eviscerate or disembowel.
If real crisis starts to break out – war, mass deportations – won't the show have to change, and move away from some of the less immediately topical long-form segments?
It's a bit challenging, right? You have to look at The Daily Show during the most ferocious parts of the Iraq War. I don't know if the show changes, or the tone might change. I don't know. I'm cognizant of that, though, as we're going into this year. Does this show need to change at all?
Assuming you are not, yourself, singled out and deported, that is.
Again, normally, you would think, "I'm probably not going to get deported, presidents have big jobs, they're not that petty."
You are, in fact, a United States citizen now, though?
No. No, I'm on the green card.
So, believe me, that is something that is wrapped around my head.
What an insane thing to have to contemplate.
It's amazing, yeah, and, again, normally you could curtail the paranoid part of your brain with logic. And you can't do that with the same ferocity because that logical part of your brain now tells you the chance is nonzero.
On the other hand, the greatest episode of all time ...
[Laughs] But it's not in the studio, it's from JFK on my cellphone.
"I'm on the green card. There's a chance someone rappels down and kicks in the window and grabs me. That's not usually how immigration enforcement works, but [Trump] doesn't play by the same rules."
They did want to deport John Lennon.
[Looking faintly alarmed] They did?
I believe there was the pretext of an old drug bust.
Yeah. They had something on him! They got nothing on me. Nothing! [Laughs] I have a week and a half now to basically go through my office and apartment [laughs] and flush everything. We'll see. There's a chance someone rappels down and kicks in the window and grabs me. That's not usually how immigration enforcement works, but he doesn't play by the same rules. And Trump's verbally Bane-esque – why not use the fun side of Bane as well, which is like crash-landing out of planes?
That requires a certain fitness level.
He's a 70-year-old man, but he said he feels 39. He couldn't even say, "I feel 40." Hold on – I am 39, and I feel 70!
I sort of feel that if, say, Saturday Night Live got canceled right now, it would signal a national emergency.
It would not!
Well, Trump was kind of suggesting that he'd like it gone.
He can't do that. I think market forces would protect Saturday Night Live in particular. I think it must be weird for them to know that he is probably watching, in part because he hosted that fucking show. I don't think we are really on his radar.
You probably go well beyond his attention span.
That's true. SNL is nice and punchy.
The only thing keeping you in this country is the sheer complexity of your show.
[Laughs] That's true. We don't have Miley Cyrus singing twice just to break it up.
Deportation aside, do you have apocalyptic fears right now?
Most of the time you can be confident that it's not gonna happen. Not with this president. We'll see if we're dancing on a pile of flaming rubble at any point in the future.
Your wife gave birth to your first child in 2015 – how has being a dad changed you?
Even when something like Brexit happened, I guess there was an extra level of sadness attached to that. Because when he was born, I thought, "He's really lucky. 'Cause he can have a British passport, which is a European passport as well, he can live and work anywhere in Europe. He has that freedom of movement. Like, what a massive privilege to give to someone. And he can live in America, too. As an immigrant, I know how difficult it is to come to this country, even with all the support of working on a TV show. It's not easy to navigate the American immigration system, or any immigration system. And, so, I guess what made me extra-sad about that was I could feel his horizons contract and he wasn't six months old yet. And that just seemed heartbreaking.
And I guess I was lucky in that I haven't had to explain to him what this election was. I skipped all that because he's less a human being now than he is a high-maintenance houseplant. So there is not the complexity of having to frame it in a way that he understands, especially if Trump winning runs counter to some of the things you want to teach kids. That, I imagine, was very difficult for people. I'm quite glad I didn't have to deal with that, on top of everything else.
When you got married, it seemed like you were starting to learn how to not devote 100 percent of your being to work. Now you have something else pulling you away. How is that working for you?
I've been, like, painfully, slowly, trying to introduce the components of being a fully functional human being. It's really hard. Yeah. I get the sense that the healthy work/life balance is something that is pretty elusive, if it's existent at all. I don't know. It's really – it's really tough.
Did parenthood crack you open emotionally, as it does for many people?
Definitely. Definitely. Definitely – and I'm British. So you're cracking a pretty dormant volcano [laughs]. He had a pretty difficult time, and it was not the easiest pregnancy as well. It was a level of trauma throughout his gestation and birth, and in the aftermath. So, yeah, it did feel weird doing a comedy show during some of that. And you probably feel things more keenly. I guess I've generally done that through other people.
How did that manifest itself?
[Somberly] I think that's why I found Trump's treatment of Khizr Khan and his wife [after the Democratic National Convention] – the parents of a soldier who was killed – I found that so heinous. That's probably through my [Army veteran] wife, right? So that's having some skin in the game with the military, or knowing the military through my wife. I found that so appalling that it was the only time last year I couldn't think of a joke. And we went around and around and around on finding a joke to get out of that segment, because it was going to be the last part of that story. We could never come out with a joke that didn't feel too glib. So we ended up just saying something that sounded like a joke but wasn't. And that feels like a failure, to be honest, because I think it's our job to put jokes on things. I think I was too personally offended by it. But that's a failure. I don't think that's an excuse. I think that's not doing your job properly.
You should probably resign.
Well, it definitely kind of sticks in my throat. We did come up with loads of jokes, just nothing that I felt like I could say.
It's hard for anyone to work in the face of something like a difficult pregnancy – doing comedy must be even harder.
I think what happened with me is that I would – I guess this is from the ninja skills of repression that British people have – that I would flick the switch: OK, this. Now this. Now this. And now you can compartmentalize everything. And then, once your baby is born, you fall in love with it and realize, ah, that probably doesn't fucking work anymore. Like that switch is broken [laughs]. And that's a big thing – a big thing with something that has been one of the foundational ways that you got through life. That is a huge thing to lose. I'm going to have to work out how to deal with that.
Is it possible that having your son in your life might make for better work somehow?
I fucking hope so. Otherwise, I'm going to be really angry with him – it's all his fault! [Laughs]
Just prep his future therapist: "Why do you think your father was angry at you?"
That's right. "He said he was pretty good at comedy before I was born, but I'm seeing a clip, and I'm not sure if he's right. Who wants to watch 20 minutes on retirement funds?" [Laughs]
When you're in the middle of one of your long, complex pieces about an arcane subject, do you ever think, "This is it – they're gonna cancel us"?
That's normally around minute one. That's when you say, "And tonight, our main story's gonna be credit reports, or retirement funds." You think, "What the fuck?" You wonder whether there is anyone sitting in an office in HBO going, "What is this? Describe to me what this show is before I watch this." You know, but the harder [and] the drier the story is, the more we try and balance that with doing the stupidest thing you can imagine, either with part of that story or in the show in general. That's another thing. If you see something very complicated, you might be about to see something utterly infantile.
You seemed to love working with Billy Eichner on Billy on the Street. Are you jealous of his brand of pure silliness?
Generally, I am jealous of him, yes, in terms of what he can shout at people, and his upper-body strength. But I like the balance between seriousness and stupidity. I think I would get depressed if I was gonna start doing just one of them.
Before The Daily Show, funny news – for lack of a better term – hardly existed outside Saturday Night Live. Now it's everywhere. What is it about it that works so broadly?
I don't know that there is anything fundamental about it. There's so many more shit versions than there were before The Daily Show, and there will be after it. It depends on the team that is producing each version of the thing.
What is needed to make it work, then?
It's exhaustingly hard work to do it well – it's way harder and takes longer than it probably should. 'Cause you have to make sure that your foundations are rock-solid before you start building nonsense on top of it. That takes a long time. You have to deconstruct it so you can work out what the components of the story actually are. Then construct the story as it actually should be, which is sometimes different than how it has previously been told, 'cause it's been misreported; then you need to break it apart again into comedic components. There are so many extra steps involved. You can also do it really quick and quite badly.
How do you choose the subjects for the long pieces?
Just whether it's something that's worth telling for that long, where we can show people things that they've never seen before. And whether it's interesting enough for us to work on for this long, let alone for people to listen to for 20 minutes. They fall apart if it turns out it's been misreported. Or if the story shifts to the point that we wouldn't be able to say anything definitive about it. It starts with, "This looks interesting," and then we all sign off that story to a researcher who will check the bones of it to see if it stands up. Then the footage producer will look to see if there is enough footage to tell that story on TV. Those would be the key stress tests.
Jimmy Kimmel called your show educational, and I was shocked that you didn't push back on that.
You're right, that is normally something that I would push back against heavily. I really like Kimmel. I'd never been on that show before. I probably trusted he was going somewhere funny, because he's a funny man. So I don't know if I was listening to the middle of that sentence, or if I was worrying about where he was gonna make fun of me. And I certainly get really allergic to the sentiment that what we do is purely journalism, because I'm being defensive of people who actually are journalists. So we did a whole 20-minute piece this year about journalism. We need actual journalists doing their jobs so that we can take what journalism does and frame it.
You were on Kimmel's show the night after winning your Emmy. Were you able to take some validation from that prize?
[Laughs] No! No, you can't escape the fact you are an adult holding a trophy. And you're walking up there and it's Jon Snow, and there he is, like [Jon Snow voice], "Here's your trophy." Awards for comedy are very, very silly. The most fundamental barometer for whether or not something is good is people laughing.
There really seems to be almost no gap between your on- and offscreen personas. You're truly yourself on air. How do you do that?
I'm not much of an actor, so I can't really fake it. I think it helps, perhaps, not having that particular skill set, because it's just not there as, like, a parachute to fall on. Yeah, and also by the end of the week, I'm so enmeshed in this stuff that I want to give it its best shot on the TV, because, again, you wanna honor how hard people have worked on it. And, you know, by the end of it, it's so densely written so that we want to have a joke on every single fact or clip or anything, that you're kind of diving for the finish line knowing that you've gotta get by on 29 minutes.
Just getting the words out is not a small thing.
I think that's why sometimes I'm physically, like, leaning, climbing over the desk. "No, you can't, please don't go! Don't go! You gotta hear this one more thing. I know chicken farming does not sound like it's worth it, but it is when you'll get it tonight."
You've said that right before you got the call for The Daily Show, your career in England was failing. Why do you think that was?
I don't know. I was making something of a living, so I guess we've got to couch that concept of failure a little bit. They had just canceled the two shows I was working on, so I was at a bit of a fork in the road career-wise when Jon Stewart hired me. And there was nothing suggesting there was anything big coming my way. I was often fighting [with executives] on any show that I was working on. There was often a lot of friction, because I wanted to do something that they didn't want to do. It was only under Jon Stewart that I had the cover to do everything that I wanted to do, because there was a kind of shared sensibility over there.
What would've happened if you never got that opportunity?
In the Sliding Doors version of this story, I'm guessing I'd just be doing stand-up in England to various degrees of apathetic respect.
Have you thought about how long you wanna keep doing this particular show?
Yeah ... I don't know. I guess as long as it feels like it's still challenging, the learning curve is still there. The production of it is so ferocious. I don't think there is a way to do this in a less intense way. I think we need to do this very intensely or you don't do it.
And what would the aftermath look like for you?
Who the fuck knows. I'm guessing there won't be one.
It's hard to imagine early retirement.
I can't do that. No. I don't do well relaxing. I don't really know how to relax, so that does not suit me well. I've always got to find something that can stop me thinking.
From finding out what's going on emotionally?
Yeah. I'm British. Our lives are basically a marathon and a sprint of running away from ourselves.