John Oliver is supposed to be shooting the 16th episode of his HBO show right about now, but there’s a small problem: He and his staff aren’t done writing it. Even as this evening’s audience files into the compact Last Week Tonight With John Oliver studio in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, the show’s star is still down the hall, behind a door helpfully labeled Rewrite Room. “I’ll read anything off the teleprompter,” Oliver jokes at one point, promising to “Ron Burgundy that shit.” In truth, however, he adheres to the rather more rigorous approach of his mentor, Jon Stewart, who is fond of saying, “If you take your foot off the throat of the show for a second, it’ll get up and walk away.”
Tonight’s show may not be ready, but Oliver is at least dressed for it: slim, dark Burberry suit that he has to peek at the label to identify, natty blue-checked dress shirt, contrasting tie. He’s six feet tall, but so slight of build and unassuming in manner that he comes off as a couple of inches shorter. His very British teeth are, as he once put it, “cosmetically erratic.” He has a prominent nose, a not-so-prominent chin. His glasses aren’t chunky enough to be fashionable. His swept-forward hairstyle evokes Noel Gallagher on school-photo day. But it all adds up, somehow, into a distinctly appealing presence, onscreen and off. As Stewart points out, the guy has “dimples the size of the Thames.” And the accent, which is actually rather working-class but seems impressively posh to most Americans, doesn’t hurt. “He probably wouldn’t be the guy you’d pick from central casting to anchor a news show,” says HBO programming chief Michael Lombardo. “He’s not Bill Hurt. And that’s what I love about him.”
In the rewrite room, which is packed with casually dressed staffers tapping on laptops, Oliver looks like the boss that he is. He’s been on his feet for more than two hours, taking down a huge iced coffee as he and executive producer/show-runner Tim Carvell refine the episode’s script, line by line, on a large flat-screen hooked up to Carvell’s computer. In the first few minutes, Oliver adds a joke about an Al Qaeda leader – “This guy truly is a mass murderer, he’s boring me to death” – while Carvell riffs on a terrorist imitating Chandler from Friends: “Could we be any more militant?”
“I learned all of this from watching Jon,” says Oliver, 37. “The Daily Show is projected onto a wall every day, and he will sit back and just do surgery. I had years of watching him condense stuff, taking the fat off it, until you’re left with something resembling what you were hoping for at the start of the day.” Oliver spent seven and a half years as a star correspondent and writer on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, then took over as guest anchor for three months last summer while Stewart went on leave to direct his first film, Rosewater.
Within minutes of Oliver’s first night at the desk, it was clear that despite his protestations (“This looks weird… It sounds weird to me, and this is my actual voice”), he was experiencing a fairy-tale, star-is-born moment. Stewart saw it all coming: “There does come a point where someone has mastered the game,” he says, “and is then ready to take my chair. But since my ass has worn that groove in the thing, unfortunately, that’s not available. But the good news is there are many other chairs. And he was just ready. Much more so than I think he realized.”
Last year, when HBO offered him his own show, Oliver had no idea that Stephen Colbert was about to vacate his post-Daily Show program to take over for David Letterman. But he’s not sure he would’ve taken the job anyway, assuming he was offered it. “It’s always helpful not having a choice,” says Oliver. “I don’t know. It’s such a hypothetical now. I can’t imagine anything more difficult than choosing to leave The Daily Show, because that broke my heart.”
As they work through the script, the mood is initially light. “There’s no way we’re cutting this,” Oliver says, when they get to a highly digressive bit that includes actual 1964 audio of Lyndon Baines Johnson discussing the disposition of his “nuts” and “bunghole” in a phone call with a pants company. “We go long before we cut this out. I’ll defend this to the death!”
The rest of the episode turns out to be tricky. In dress rehearsal, a segment about student debt and for-profit colleges was overlong, with an unfunny expository lump in the middle. Even worse, the planned use of a Frontline interview with nursing students complaining about their for-profit education (no hospital training, a trip to a Scientology museum on their psychiatry rotation) sparked legal rumblings from their college, leading HBO’s own lawyers to request some awkward, disclaimer-y language. As the meeting drags on, Oliver compulsively rearranges a pile of soda cans at least five times, and starts twitching his fingers in the air, like Brody fingering invisible prayer beads on Homeland. “You can carry one of these situations per show,” he says later. “You try carrying five of those per show, you’re in a world of shit.”
Oliver and Carvell (himself a 10-year veteran of The Daily Show) had briefly convinced themselves that a weekly show would be less stressful than their old jobs. It is not. “We’ve looked back and laughed at the idea that this would be an easier pace,” says Carvell, a stoic 41-year-old who seems to have a near-psychic bond with Oliver. “Now that we have a week to make a show, we take a week to make a show. And it still doesn’t feel like enough time.” (It sounds luxurious to Stewart: “If there is anything I could ratchet up some envy for, it’s that. I believe the phrase I used was, ‘Take me with you.'”)
A huge clock at the front of the room reads 6:02 – the audience is in their seats, and things are officially running late. Oliver and his producers try to work out legally acceptable language, while two youngish writers kneel at a glass coffee table, whispering to each other as they try to write a new joke to fill a hole at the beginning of the loans segment. When Oliver learns that the college wants him to mention that the nurses later filed a lawsuit against the school – implying that they were motivated by money to speak out – he doesn’t disguise his disgust. “Fucking assholes,” he says. “Oh, boy, I’m going to get so mad.
They eventually find language that is both litigation-proof and funny (“They say not mentioning those facts to you would constitute reckless disregard for the truth. But not the kind of reckless disregard for the truth that would lead you to send medical students to a fucking Scientology museum”). The writers, in turn, pitch college-debt jokes: “Students are forced to attend two-for-one margarita night at the townie bar. It’s a financial necessity,” one of them says. Oliver doesn’t respond.
The other writer quickly chimes in: “Why are there so many a cappella groups? They know they sound stupid, but they can’t afford musicians.”
“That’s great,” says Oliver.
The margarita-joke writer jumps back in: “Or maybe, ‘They can’t afford instruments’?”
“That’s better,” Oliver says. There are a few more details to take care of, including blocking movements for a guy dressed as a human-size astronaut gecko – but they have a show. The student-loan segment goes viral, as usual. “It was fine,” Oliver says, evaluating the episode afterward. “It wasn’t great. It was fine. There’s nothing I’ve done that I would ever classify as ‘great.’ It was OK.”
Oliver does not indulge in Larry Sanders-style home viewings of the show. “Fuck, no,” he says. “Because there’s too many things that would be annoying to me. There’s no point in putting myself through that. It’s better to just draw a line under it and move on to next week.”
Though Oliver sees himself as “as much of a disciple as it’s possible to be” of Stewart, there is an essential distinction between them: Stewart is, at his core, filled with hope. He seems pretty sure that if both political parties could embrace civility, if Fox News turned less nutty, if the media as a whole got more serious, America and the wider world could move forward. To Oliver, though, our global predicaments are all-but-immutable black comedy, which feels about right for an age of ISIS, Ebola, extreme climate change and Vladimir Putin. Week after week, Oliver stands athwart history, yelling, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
Back in January 2009, Oliver stood shivering among hundreds of thousands of people in Washington, D.C., microphone in hand, as Barack Obama took the oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts. The masses cheered as one for the first black president, for the end of eight long years of George W. Bush, for the possibility of hope and change made manifest. At that very moment, Oliver offered an alternate view for the Daily Show cameras. “Is it exciting?” he shouted over the crowd’s cheers. “Yes! Are people setting themselves up for inevitable disappointment? Of course they are! Do they realize that yet? Absolutely not!” Obama had, at that point, been president for all of five seconds.
“I was right,” Oliver says now, with a laugh. “I had the similar kind of euphoric feeling in 1997 when Tony Blair was elected – the conservatives had been in for a long time. Tony Blair was a young guy, who seemed to represent nothing of what came before him. Everyone puts their hopes and dreams on him, and it does not work out the way you wanted it to. So I was going, ‘I think I know how this story ends. And it will end with some good things happening, but not what you want. One person is not going to be able to turn this ship around.'”
Oliver’s worldview has a lot in common with his friend and former collaborator Armando Iannucci, whose own HBO show, Veep, presents politics as pointless farce. “I agree,” says Oliver, with a shrug.
“John and I don’t sit down and say, ‘Let’s make something really depressing,'” says Iannucci. “We respond to what we see.”
For all his fatalism, a lot of Oliver’s comedy is driven by a raging sense of injustice. He was visibly livid during a recent segment on police abuses in Ferguson, Missouri, for instance – even as he offset the horror with an amazing joke that linked a cop who yelled, “Bring it, all you fucking animals,” with the penguin-waiter sequence in Mary Poppins. “It’s hard, on a basic, human level, not to feel moral outrage over what was happening there,” Oliver says. “That was just imbibing poison as you’re going through the week. Most of our stuff has not been that timely, but The Daily Show and Colbert were off that week, so no one was doing anything about Ferguson. So it kind of all fell to us.”
The show’s title aside, the best stuff on Last Week Tonight isn’t particularly time-sensitive: Its virtuosic long-form segments, which can stretch to 15 minutes or more, gliding along a Philippe Petit-worthy line between wonky didacticism and absurdist jokes, are like nothing else on television. “I wanted to take everything that Jon had taught me – which is, like I said, basically everything,” says Oliver. “And I was thinking, ‘What could I do differently?’ And that would be ‘depth’ and ‘length.’ There’s loads of responsibility that comes with getting extra time, and you better fucking use it.”
The first episode of Last Week Tonight hewed more closely to the Daily Show formula, complete with a six-minute interview segment. “Having a guest at the end seemed to make sense, because everyone does it,” says Last Week co-executive producer Liz Stanton. “But then we realized, ‘Oh, wait, we don’t have to’ – and HBO said the same thing.”
The second episode was far bolder – they spent nearly half of its airtime talking about the death penalty. “I remember that for half a day or a day, we were going back and forth on ‘Should we? Shouldn’t we?'” says Oliver. “And then it just seemed, at the very least, almost ridiculously funny to try. But people seemed to really like it. So from then on, we started opening up a bit, thinking, ‘Well, we could do longer.'” They’ve had to expand their research staff to keep up with their escalating ambitions.
Digging into bleak corners of the American experience – payday loans, income inequality, the prison system – isn’t exactly leavening Oliver’s natural pessimism. “The more in-depth we go to things here, the darker you start to feel about it,” he says. “When you start following the money in politics, that’s where you start to think, ‘Holy shit, is this thing broken beyond repair?’ When we started looking at stories, even the Dr. Oz dietary-supplement stuff – you start to see how corrupted, at root, things have become. And the fact that there’s this revolving door – that 50 percent of the people that leave the Senate go straight to lobbying positions, that one statistic alone is a dead canary in a coal mine. That is not good. There is something profoundly wrong at the heart of American politics.”
And then there’s the show’s report on the United States’ sloppy protection of nuclear-missile arsenals, which included an account of a drunk high-ranking general trying to get onstage with a Beatles cover band at a Mexican restaurant – in Russia. “Individually, the facts are horrendous,” Oliver says. “But in their totality, you can get them to a point where you either have to laugh at them or you’re about to walk into the river. You’ve got the choice.”
Growing up in Margaret Thatcher’s England, Oliver watched his dad, a public school principal, struggle with the consequences of the prime minister’s budget cuts. In their sleepy town of Bedford, north of London, class inequalities weren’t hard to find. “There were two really nice private schools in Bedford,” Oliver says. “And they just looked amazing. Their grass was literally greener! And you’d, like, walk past, and they all looked so happy. They all had a lot of floppy hair, and really nice uniforms. And we were never even allowed to play them at sports. It just felt so unfair.”
Oliver would listen to Richard Pryor albums over and over, and had some thoughts of becoming an actor by high school. But his real obsession was soccer. Against all available evidence, he spent his entire childhood utterly convinced that he would become a professional footballer, which, not coincidentally, was his dad’s primary ambition for him. “At nine years old,” Oliver says, “I used to go to Liverpool games with a full football kit under my clothes. Because I genuinely thought, ‘If someone gets hurt and they run out of substitutes, they might turn to the crowd and say, “Who has a kit?”‘ It didn’t border on delusion, it set up house in the epicenter of delusion.”
The spell finally broke – maybe – when a high school coach offered some backhanded praise. ”He pointed at me and said, ‘Why can’t you all try as hard as Oliver? He knows he’s not that good, but he’s running around.’ I remember thinking, ‘Hold on, I don’t think I do know that.'” He laughs. “‘I think you just told me!'”
He was rejected from college acting programs, but was a strong enough student to end up at ultra-elite Cambridge University, studying English literature with no particular enthusiasm. There, he discovered the “turbo level” of the British class system. “You get plunged into this world where people speak differently,” he says. “They’re very comfortable in their own skin, and they kind of presume success in their life. Any 18-year-old being that confident is kind of alarming. And then you gradually realize, ‘I’m not sure their confidence is misplaced.’ You realize, ‘Oh, shit, things are going to be great for these kids! Oh, you fuckers are going to be running the country! Oh, my God! This is not healthy.'”
At Cambridge, Oliver performed comedy skits for the first time, and instantly knew he had found his calling. “I realized, ‘Oh, I think I’m going to have to try this, because if I don’t, my life is going to be ruined.'” His parents never expressed resistance to this path. “It might have helped that my dad’s brother was an opera composer,” he says. “So he’d already had quite a kind of erratic, hard-to-understand life. He’d been pretty successful. That had been his job. So I think that helped get their heads around the idea that this was something that, potentially, could happen.”
Still, it’s not as if his mom and dad were wildly supportive of his artistic ambitions. I bring up Kanye West’s mom, who was certain of her son’s genius from his earliest days. “This is, unfortunately, another way in which Yeezus and I are different,” Oliver says, cackling. “I don’t think there was ever the sense of ‘You are a shining light who will go on to make some of the most artistically important music of your generation, and you should keep telling people that, even if it turns out only to be quite good.’ No, I did not experience the Kanye form of parenting.”
His dad was most visibly proud of him when he scored a goal in a comedians-vs.-pros soccer game in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the early 2000s: “I ran into the crowd and took my shirt off and gave it to him. As a joke! And there were tears in his eyes. And he kept that shirt! I think that was as close as I could offer him of, ‘This is what you wanted, right? This is the best I could do, a joke version of it!'”
Oliver’s music-teacher mom once visited him in New York at the beginning of his Daily Show success, and took offense when a fan approached them to say how funny her son is. “He’s not brilliant,” she told the fan. “It’s the people around him that are doing all the work.”
He’s reluctant to analyze this incident. “As Americans, you’re more in touch with your emotions to think, ‘Let’s plumb the depths for this.’ I’m intent to just laugh that off. I’ll probably deal with that when I’m 70, in a rocking chair somewhere.” He’s never been in therapy. “I’m English. Repress! Push it all down! I’ve dealt with nothing! I’m a dormant volcano!”
Unsurprisingly, Oliver was never much of a party guy. “I never experience the kind of ‘I’m a golden god’ moment from alcohol,” he says. “It’s more, ‘I’m a piece of shit,’ just sitting alone in the corner of the kitchen going, ‘I just don’t think I’m very good at life.'” Weed was a little better, but he never smoked much. “Pot didn’t make me as paranoid as alcohol did,” he says. “But I never committed to it.”
After college, Oliver hit the stand-up circuit, slowly building a career and scoring gigs on TV and radio. His stand-up routine was initially somewhat generic (“I used to read out stupid questions from the driving-theory test in England. And then bits about budget airlines”), but took a deeper turn as he grappled with the AIDS-related death of his opera-composer uncle. “It broke my heart,” Oliver says. “He represented a lot for me – almost that Springsteen-y idea that there’s a way out of town. I decided to do a whole show about death. I ended up dying onstage, and being reincarnated as a penguin.”
He began broadening his act to include topical humor. “I actually used to try to watch The Daily Show on the Internet, in the early years, thinking, ‘Oh, this is what I want to be doing,'” he says. “There was this one gig I had in Birmingham in a pub, and I was getting quite disillusioned with stand-up, because I was just doing the same thing that basically worked. So I wrote up a few things about global politics and did it at this pub. It bombed completely because it’s a Friday night, they don’t want that shit! But I was so excited on the way home. I remember thinking, ‘OK, that was bad. But if I can work out how to make that funny, then this is going to start feeling really fun.'”
In 2003, Iannucci hired him to write and perform on a short-lived, Daily Show-esque political-satire TV show called Gash, and he soon became a familiar presence on British TV. His work caught the eye of Ricky Gervais, who recommended Oliver to Daily Show scouts in the U.S. without ever meeting Oliver or even telling him about the plug. Oliver flew out for an audition, killed it, and has barely had time to get back to the U.K. since. “Everyone else auditioning was doing Colbert, a fake-newsman personality,” recalls Carvell. “And Oliver wasn’t that. He’s a different, odd, strong personality. I remember thinking, ‘Well, he’s not going to make it.’ He was ad-libbing and riffing with Jon, and I remember thinking, ‘What is he doing?’ But legend has it that Jon, after the audition, said, ‘It’s nice to have someone I can dance with like that.'”
Oliver and Stewart’s bond is strong enough that the two men simply refuse to see each other as competition. “When he went over to HBO,” says Stewart, “I didn’t suddenly think, ‘Damn you, Oliver!'”
Oliver argues that Last Week Tonight is fundamentally different from The Daily Show. “I don’t see this as a fake news program,” he says. “It doesn’t really have the trappings of news or a news format. Which is probably a cosmetic technicality if you watch it. But in my head, that was a big deal!”
The Last Week Tonight workweek runs from Wednesday to Sunday, and Oliver gets to the studio around 8:30 each morning. He tends to leave 12 hours later. “It’s all the responsibility I’ve spent my whole life trying to avoid,” Oliver says with a laugh, sitting in his office, which overlooks a construction site. He’s wearing greenish jeans, brighter-green sneakers and a gray button-down. “When I was 10, I thought being a comedian meant getting up at 1:00 in the afternoon.” But he’s used to it.
At The Daily Show, the ideas meeting was at 9 a.m., and the first passes at the day’s jokes were due around 11:15 a.m. The entire episode’s script is locked down by 2 p.m. “Every 15 minutes during the day at The Daily Show is pretty fucking important,” he says.
At the new show, Oliver has been so busy that he’s barely decorated his office – the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf behind his wooden desk is nearly empty: One of the few books is by Thomas Friedman, who sent it along after Oliver mocked him on-air, and there’s a framed wedding photo of Kate Norley, his wife of three years, on a shelf.
It’s 9 a.m. on the Wednesday after the for-profit-schools episode, and Oliver is fresh from both a weekend and a two-week summer break that preceded that show. He spent time in the Caribbean and in New Hampshire, where he had the chance to read a non-work-related book: Red or Dead, an acclaimed novel about a Liverpool soccer coach. He’s not so good at relaxing, though Norley is trying to help with that. “The Daily Show was my life,” he says. “I loved it so much that I was there all day, every day. And it was when I met my wife that she said, ‘If you don’t carve out some lines in your life, things might be difficult down the line.'”
Oliver and Norley, a former Army medic who served in Iraq, had a rom-com-worthy first meeting. One day at the 2008 Republican National Convention, Oliver and his Daily Show crew slipped into an unauthorized area. Security went after them, and the stakes were high: Oliver could have faced deportation if caught. Norley, who was attending as a veterans’ advocate, ended up hiding Oliver and his colleagues. The pair kept in touch via email for months before they were in the same city long enough for a date.
She still volunteers in disaster areas – when he got the HBO offer, she was in the Philippines, aiding typhoon victims. “Other people can go, ‘Yeah, whatever, Mother Teresa was a great human being,'” he says. “I have to go home to that comparison and look it in the face as I’m whining about my day.”
He’s also uncomfortable with the constant praise that his show has received so far. “I have enough self-loathing in me that the level of love I’m getting at the moment does not seem practical,” he says. He’s ready for controversy, almost eager for it. He adheres to the late Joan Rivers’ rules of comedy, in which there are no rules. “You shouldn’t punch down,” he says. “But sometimes it’s really fun to punch down! That is the moral code: There is absolutely no moral code. Sometimes the low-hanging fruit is just too sweet. You can joke about anything, it’s just in some areas the premium is harder that you deliver a really good joke.”
He’s eager to push the show’s machinery harder and further, and to take more risks: One possible future piece is tentatively titled “Our Friend Israel.” “There is no world in which we do not sail into that territory,” Oliver says, grinning with a rare hint of pride. “We’re attracted to the difficult at the moment.”