John Oliver on Earning Our Attention, ‘Last Week Tonight’ Plans, and Landing George Clooney — Q&A

The Emmy-winning HBO host reflects on his year-plus in the white void, who's impressed him in late-night, and what it takes to earn an audience's time.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver HBO interview
John Oliver on "Last Week Tonight"
Lloyd Bishop / HBO

In the nearly eight years John Oliver has been helming HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” the comedian has developed a number of tactics for holding an audience’s interest. Most prominent is the passion driving his direct-to-camera reports, often resulting in hyperbolic headlines claiming “John Oliver Eviscerates X,” or “John Oliver Destroys Y.” Jokes can be deployed as decisive exclamation points to these stories, as well as pace-setting commas that break them up. “And Now This…” videos add a random edge, helping shift from one hefty topic to the next with levity and style. Special guests drop by regularly enough to entice starry-eyed viewers, but not often enough to feel like a celebrity parade. Studio segments that move Oliver out from behind his desk are rare, but they’re always memorable. Sometimes the set even talks back to its host.

Already renewed through 2023, “Last Week Tonight” has also earned its viewership (along with 23 Emmy Awards) by refusing to settle for what’s expected. Not knowing what the main story makes each new episode an enticing reveal, and Oliver — along with fellow executive producers Tim Carvell, Liz Stanton, Jon Thoday, and James Taylor — make sure what’s waiting behind the curtain is worth it.

But by Season 9, “Last Week Tonight” has an established audience. It’s no longer the buzzy new sensation, but a known and admired property. At the same time, popular culture is growing more and more siloed. People can pick and choose where they get their news, who shows up in their social media feeds, and how many streaming subscriptions they’re willing to buy. Considering the essential issues raised by the show, as well as Oliver’s clear desire to make sure he’s heard, the series isn’t meant to be part of an echo chamber. It’s trying to meet viewers wherever they are and connect with everyone who can benefit from a better understanding of current events.

IndieWire spoke to the Emmy-winning host over Zoom as Season 9 was set to begin, digging into how “Last Week Tonight” became a force in entertainment news and what’s being done to keep expanding its impact. More topics include examining the show’s demanding construction, how they landed George Clooney for a recurring bit, and a hearty applause for Amber Ruffin and Seth Meyers, two fellow hosts who adapted beautifully to the pandemic’s trying conditions. As always, Oliver knows how to hold your attention.

The following interview has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.

IndieWire: Whether it’s about entertainment or news consumption, there’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about breaking people out of their bubbles. But that seemed like a major focus when “Last Week Tonight” first started, especially in how you put full segments on YouTube. How important has it been to stretch your message beyond HBO?

John Oliver: I guess the most reductive thing is when we started, no one really knew who we were. It felt like we were going to need to reach beyond our audience on a Sunday night because that audience might not exist. What then became clear very, very quickly is that there was huge value into putting that main story — not the whole show, but that main story — up on YouTube so that it could exist in a much broader world than just HBO subscribers, and could contribute to some kind of conversation because of that added reach. We’ve been very, very fortunate to be able to do that, and I don’t take it for granted. I’m very grateful that it’s been able to continue. It’s meaningful to us to be able to talk to people that might not otherwise be able to, or necessarily want to, hear what we have to say.

You’re in Season 9 now. How do you hope to keep expanding your reach?

I guess I don’t think of it so much in terms of a bubble as [I think of it] in terms of what stories you can get people to pay attention to. It’s a huge privilege that so far, across eight years, it does seem like people are willing to sit through stories for 25 minutes that do not seem that entertaining when you start talking about them. I am cognizant of how lucky we are to be able to talk about PACE loans on TV and have people watch it, or the complexities around ransomware, or how EMTs are funded. I know that this is not, on its surface, palatable entertainment. And we really do try to make it more palatable, but we are very lucky to have an audience that trusts us to deal with stories that we believe are interesting, even if they may not seem so, superficially.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver HBO interview
John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight”Lloyd Bishop / HBO

How much work goes into setting that balance? The reporting takes time, shaping the topic into a story takes time. How much time do you spend rehearsing the show to convince yourself you’re ready?

It’s a good question because we’re working on six stories at one time, right? Those main stories are six-week processes. They’re all in different stages of development. It’s like degrees of worry about each one that you’re in, and the thing actually that I’ve missed the most during the pandemic has been not being able to read those stories early on just to our staff in a room in our office. That was incredibly helpful to us because you get a sense of whether the story made any sense, whether it was interesting, whether there were parts of it that were confusing that we needed to be much more clear about, whether we were over-explaining certain things. It is massively useful to be able to learn those lessons before doing it to an audience.

There are gradations of silence, right? There is engaged silence, and bored and confused silence. You want as much as you can of the first and as little as you can of the second. Generally, you don’t want to find out as you’re recording a show. During the pandemic, it is impossible to gauge those feelings when you’re doing a read just through Zoom on a laptop. You have to say to people afterwards, “Did that make sense?” Nothing is intuitive there. Everything has to be explained, so it all takes a little bit longer.

Then, when you’re doing it alone in a room, you can’t gauge whether people are absorbing what you’re saying or not because literally nobody is listening to you at that stage. Once we got back into the studio, what I really appreciated was being able to get a sense during rehearsal about where cuts needed to be made and where things needed to be explained more.

If you had to start out that way, if “Last Week Tonight” had kicked off during the pandemic, do you think it would’ve been able to develop into the show it is today?

I guess the honest answer is I really don’t know. I really felt for Amber Ruffin, who was starting her show with no audience there. And she’s such an amazing performer, right? That relationship with an audience she has is so warm — far warmer than the relationship I have. That show has become incredible, but the degree of difficulty [was high]. Those [early] lessons are harder to learn when you’re having to kind of learn them alone. You’re not learning from an audience. To have all of those signals turned off and to still be able to make the show that they made is incredible.

It’s not even just the laughter because she’s always funny, but it’s the kind of excited response to spectacle. The atmosphere an audience can provide really does help. [Like when we] built a 6,000 square foot cake, with an audience there you’d say, “Look at this cake,” and they go, “Hooray!” — there’s a sense of euphoria to it. If that was in an empty room, I just think that plays a little differently. You’re just saying, “Look at this cake,” and your voice echoes off the wall. I’m not saying it isn’t funny, it’s just funny in a very different way.

Right. The cake being wheeled into a room with just one person sitting in wait–

–the wheels under strain as it’s rolled in. And there’s that sense of, “Is this individual losing their mind?” And the answer is not no.

LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS -- Episode 1158 -- Pictured: Amber Ruffin appears on June 10, 2021 -- (Photo by: Lloyd Bishop/NBC)
Amber Ruffin (and Seth Meyers) on “Late Night with Seth Meyers”Lloyd Bishop/NBC

Speaking of other voices in late night, is there anything else you’ve seen that’s exciting? Or something you want to see?

I really loved what Seth [Meyers] did throughout the pandemic. I really loved his at-home shows where he was starting to talk back to all the paintings. I really, really liked it. And we ended up doing something similar with the void, having it talk back to me. I liked what they’re doing with “Corrections.” It felt like they’ve managed to take the “no one is supervising this” atmosphere of the at-home shows and the kind of unsupervised weirdness of those [no-audience] studio shows and develop them so that they didn’t go back to what they were pre-pandemic. They’ve become something different. I really loved it.

It was great watching that kind of development happen in real time, partly because you identify with what they’re going through. There’s very few people who’ve been in the position of having a TV show and then having to do it at home, which feels an awful lot like not having a TV show anymore. As well as feeling the responsibility of, “How do I keep paying my staff while this terrible thing is happening?” it was great to be able to watch other shows wrestling with the same kind of difficulties and manage to have some kind of visible fun doing it.

I loved the acknowledgement that there may be a little bit of deterioration going on and we’re going to have some fun with it.

100 percent. This is not a nervous breakdown that you’re witnessing, but it is the edge of one.

Regarding the pace and structure of the show, I wanted to ask about how you use celebrities and guests to help keep the audience engaged. Because last year, the recurring George Clooney bit felt so well-balanced: He worked as a call to attention, but you didn’t rely on him too often.

It wasn’t a planned idea. All we knew was that we had this story about sponsored content that we wanted to do, and there was this clip in there where this woman is showing that she can produce local news anchors [with a snap of her fingers.] Just conceptually, it felt like a fun joke to say, “Look who I can produce.” We thought that George Clooney might do it, partly because his dad was a local newsman, so we knew this story was really personally important to him. And that worked out. He was very, very passionate about that story. So he did it and then also agreed to appear in other stories in these five-second bits — which, like you say, were immensely helpful for us, especially when I’m in an austere, white void environment talking about a technical story. We did try and ration those Clooney bits to points where we really needed him; where it felt like, “You know what? You’ve made it 16 minutes into this story. Here’s George for you.”

He [recorded] a bunch for us after that first one so that we knew what we had and we could use them whenever we wanted. [That made it] much easier for us to use them when we could maximize their efficacy in a story that really felt like it needed a splash of glamor. But it’s a brutal juxtaposition. When you find your face suddenly paired with George Clooney, oh man, it is an unforgiving comparison.

At least in most of those clips, he’s kind of annoyed, so he looks a little angry, whereas you’re smiling and happy, so you’re more of the affable presence, where he’s a little bit of a grump.

But even that grumpiness, it kind of frames his face beautifully. Whereas a smile on this [gestures to his face], it’s not really helping anything.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” releases new episodes Sundays at 11 p.m. ET on HBO. Season 9 is available to stream via HBO Max.

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