Last season, HBO’s Last week tonight with John Oliver started with business as usual: recording in a studio with an audience, unwrapping the news of the week with delicious aplomb and irreverence while providing us with jokes and jokes (mostly directed at Trump’s incompetence) in a way that only Oliver can. Then Covid-19 happened and the world changed tremendously, which changed the way he did things.
On the one hand, Oliver has moved from his bustling studio to a home studio that he lovingly called “the white void.” Then there was all the news about the pandemic, the Trump administration, and the Black Lives Matter movement that was triggering a revolutionary racial calculation across the world. It was a lot to unpack, but Oliver kept moving forward week after week to give perspective to all the endless garbage news.
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Even though the world was on fire, Oliver still managed to keep his spirits up with erotic rat art, the sewage treatment plants named after him and, of course, Adam Driver.
With the eighth season of the 20-time Emmy award-winning series February 14 on HBO, Oliver seeks to continue giving us the news and humor we want, shedding light on the mainstream while informing and entertaining. Deadline spoke to Oliver about what to expect for the new season, whether or not he’s going to come back to animate the white void and the low bar we’ve set for what it means to be president.
DEADLINE: During the pandemic, many talk shows have found a safe way to return to studio recording while some remain virtual. Can we expect Last week tonight be back in the studio or will you stay in the white void?
JOHN OLIVER: Oh, we’re gonna be in the void because of this fucking thing!
DEADLINE: Glad you stay safe!
OLIVER: I mean, every studio and every circumstance is different, right? For us, I think it would have been great to be back in a studio, but I don’t think we feel like we can do it yet. So we will be in a vacuum for who knows how long? Well I guess until they can roll out the f * cking vaccine!
DEADLINE: At this point, it would be weird to see you in the studio again after being in a vacuum for a year.
OLIVER: I haven’t seen my team for a year! There are people who work for me now that I have never met! I think we were probably going to be relatively extreme cautious for a bunch of reasons. First, we feel like we can do it and everyone is still getting paid. Additionally, some of our staff fell ill at the start of the pandemic which, in my opinion, also means that I intuitively believe that we are going to be extremely careful.
DEADLINE: Yeah, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
OLIVER: Yeah, that’s the thing. It is not worth hurting anyone. I really like our show, but I already don’t want to hurt anyone with it. we’re in an extremely lucky position where we can keep doing the show while also doing it from a distance, which I know is incredibly lucky. And yes, it just feels like the lowest possible bar you can cross during a pandemic isn’t to not let your TV show make things worse. We’re just trying to clear that bar.
DEADLINE: Last week tonight has a smart and hilarious take on news reporting with the amount of ghastly news and Trumpian trash that came out on a daily basis last season, did you struggle to change the tone while continuing that Last week tonightbranded humor?
OLIVER: Really a good question, because generally the MO of our show is to kind of take the poison of what’s going on in the world and try to synthesize it into comedy. But at the start of the pandemic in particular, where all of a sudden we’re not just in our studio, but we have to do this ridiculous set at home that we had put together quickly. And I actively worry about staff members who were sick.
What really affects him is to see the death toll go up and you start to think, “Well wait, what can you do as the death toll goes up? What can you do and what do you think is appropriate from a distance? I felt that mostly because it seems the happiest parts of our show are the dumbest parts. You think, “Well, when does a really stupid joke start playing while Rome is on fire?” I was a little worried early on about what seemed appropriate at the moment and the weird revelation was this stupid rat erotica.
I thought we could do twenty minutes or so on mismanaging a pandemic and rising death tolls.
Then we can pretty much logically become, “You’re probably running out of things to watch out for right now. Here’s something we could watch together ‘and watch some weird clips. It was quite fun. Then, as soon as it hit us and we tried to track down that painting, it felt like a fun game with a potentially euphoric conclusion. On top of that, it seemed like if we got it right, we could almost launder HBO’s production budget to food banks, which actually seems like the most responsible thing to do right now. So when they found this painting and said, “He’s on his way,” I didn’t really believe he was going to happen.
At first when the FedEx guy shows up in some sort of hazmat suit and shows me this paint at home, it’s the hardest I’ve laughed at in weeks. And as absurd as it sounds, it was really like, “Oh, I think I have some hope now.” It was hope in the form of a piece of rat erotica.
DEADLINE: This paved the way for the popular Adam Driver. It’s like you need to be a little more aware because it’s like telling a joke at a funeral.
OLIVER: I was honestly worried about this before that rat erotica where you realize, “Oh, no, we can do it. We can certainly do stupidity in a way that makes it seem oddly nourishing in these darkest times.
Then there were things like the Adam Driver bit or even Danbury, Connecticut. Adam Driver’s joke sounded like an incredibly silly joke we told before the pandemic took hold in America. We continued that on our shows at home and then when it became clear that he was going to do something at the end of the year, that’s when we really felt like, “ Oh, so this track can now have a real crescendo to it of feeling like we’re all built for something totally worthless but genuinely fun. It was a real breath of fresh air.
DEADLINE: Now that the country has a new president and 2020 is behind us, the bar is pretty low for what we can be happy about.
OLIVER: It’s problematically low, yes.
DEADLINE: How has the past year changed the way Last week tonight reported and handled news and how do you think that will continue in this new season with this new administration?
OLIVER: It is complicated. I mean, it’s gonna be great doing the show without Trump being president because he had a deep desire to be the center of any moment and certainly any story, which was often unnecessary. due to systemic issues. It’s not the most important part of this, right?
Sometimes he’s just the peak of the problem, and so with him gone, the problem obviously remains. So it will be exciting to work on stories where you don’t have to constantly deal with someone trying to get attention all the time.
DEADLINE: So true. Every week I watched the show and was afraid to hear the news you were unboxing.
OLIVER: Guess how we felt ?! I’m sorry that 30 minutes was difficult for you, but imagine being there for the past six days (Laughs).
DEADLINE: That said, how have you been handling personal care throughout last season?
OLIVER: Honestly, I didn’t. I haven’t improved as a person in any way. I have a TV show and two small children.
There is no room for personal care in there. It’s just controlled drowning all the time, so no I haven’t learned a new language. I did not learn to cook.
DEADLINE: At least Adam Driver made you happy.
OLIVER: It’s weird to talk about it now. What was really, really reassuring was realizing that we could make silly jokes again – and silly jokes are our favorite thing. So if there was a silly joke that someone could add to and bring back as the mayor of a Connecticut town with the idea of a memorial sewer plant, it really helped me to remind myself that my favorite thing – silly jokes could still exist in a world that was poorly handling a pandemic.
DEADLINE: It will be good not to wake up with a horrible tweet and read news about a president who is actually doing his job.
OLIVER: Again, this bar is awfully low. We need to ask more of a president than actively doing his job or not threatening someone on this day. We have to keep it at a higher level than that.