'Last Week Tonight With John Oliver': Season 2 Has More Guests, "Long-Term Mayhem Production"
"I have no interest whatsoever in the 2016 election at the start of 2015. ... Unless you're in the same year as the thing you're describing, it's a complete waste of breath."
"I don't really feel like we've settled in yet," John Oliver told a handful of reporters on Tuesday morning at HBO's New York City headquarters. "I don't know what comfort level we'll reach or when, but at the moment, it's not overly comfortable. And yeah, seeing my name on things is, I don't think that's ever gonna get less weird. But I'm still slightly bamboozled by the level of success of the show. … Look, I'm British, so any kind of success is very jarring to me! I just anticipate disaster, so there's layer upon layer of confusion whenever anything goes well."
Even days before premiering the second season of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver on Sunday, the HBO host remains humbly bewildered by the success of his late-night show. It debuted last April, and by October was pulling in 4.1 million viewers, putting it ahead of his fellow HBO colleague Bill Maher's 4 million weekly viewings.
So, for the show's 35-episode sophomore season — up from 24 in its debut run — Oliver will continue deconstructing the dominating headlines, like exploring the police brutality in Ferguson; properly presenting lesser-known news stories, like spotlighting the despair that local translators in Iraq and Afghanistan face after working with the U.S. military; and falling upon what Jon Stewart calls "random acts of journalism," like exposing the mysterious recipients of Miss America's charity contributions. "We don't really get wrapped up in the week-of stories as much, probably because we'd be last and partly because you want to do something different," he explained. "In general, we tend to wait until something is over, then look back at it and do an analysis. … You're looking for comedic nuggets, you're not really looking for journalistic nuggets. It's a different eye in terms of going after what exactly you're looking for, the kind of truffles that you're snouting around for."
He also hopes to revisit topics discussed in season one, such as net neutrality, for example — that is, "if the ball has moved. If there's a way to look at it that is worth spending more time on it, absolutely. We've only bit a little bit off some stories, so there's plenty more on the bone that some of the stories that we looked at." The headline that was hardest to read while the show was on hiatus was that of the Paris attacks. "[The] Charlie Hebdo [attacks story] is really offensive for me as a comedian, especially a comedian who gets to do whatever he wants with impunity. That was an upsetting thing to see them go through. But we could look at that in six months or a year's time and just do something about the overall state of satire in the world. I don't really feel like we've missed anything, because we can come back to it."
However, one story you won't see Oliver covering on Sunday nights is the 2016 presidential election. "I'll think about that in 2016 — I couldn't care less right now," he told reporters. "I truly believe that the 2016 election is what the news likes to think about when it doesn't want to think about anything. There's no merit in it. Unless you're in the same year as the thing you're describing, it's a complete waste of breath. It's like a subject screensaver for the news. You know that if they're saying "Oh, look, Jeb Bush is running," you know that's the equivalent of just, nothing is happening in the newsroom, or we were tired! ... I have no interest whatsoever in the 2016 election at the start of 2015. There's a time and a place for that, and it's in 2016."
Since there's no commercial breaks to split their time, such stories won't be getting shorter anytime soon. Though the extended segment was something the show made signature after its 12-minute take on the death penalty landed well, Oliver asserted, "You have to have a pretty intense level of contempt for the American people if you think people will only watch something if it's only two minutes long and you have someone getting smashed in the nuts at some point. And I'm not saying I don't enjoy two-minute-long, nut-smashing videos, but there has to be more. There has to be protein along with dessert. Although, I was pretty surprised by the extent to which people have wanted to watch long pieces about things that seem objectively boring, like net neutrality, or objectively distressing, like the Iraqi and Afghan translators."
To fill episodes, expect more guest appearances — "talking to someone that has skin in the game," he said — some "long-term mayhem production things" that "we can spend months building that have no tangible value whatsoever," like the finale's celebrity salmon slap, and enough lighthearted antics to prevent the show from ever being recorded live. "If you're using space gecko costumes and having stuff rain down from the ceiling, you need to clean the area before a tap-dancing Steve Buscemi or dogs dressed up as Supreme Court justices are wheeled in. There is a circus element to the show, which doesn't quite work if it's live." But even then, the "paralyzing freedom" HBO has granted means the format could fall away at any time: "We can make the show fit the story we want to tell."
Whatever's in the episode, HBO prides itself on uploading a decent proportion of it to YouTube. "We don't see it as giving it away; we think it was fantastic marketing of the show, it was fantastic marketing for the brand, and I think it lures people into what is special about HBO," said HBO co-president Richard Plepler. "The best advertising we can have is letting people taste some of the unique content on the network, and I think it's a great compliment to John that it broke that fast and we will continue to do it." Oliver noted that because the episode deconstructing FIFA's corruption went viral in Brazil, "there's been more than one occasion where someone who doesn't speak English grabs me in the street and starts ranting in Portuguese and I don't know what's happening. … It's been a completely unforeseen bonus that it kind of goes everywhere."
The show has bulked up its research department to four: two from The New York Times Magazine, one from ProPublica and one from Al Jazeera. The eight writers will then pair off and team with one researcher and one footage producer and tackle a story that will lead an upcoming episode. "There's a lot of panicked work behind the scenes on it, so I think we've been trying to make tweaks over the last month of how we can get things to run a lot smoother so that we're not in panic mode as much as we were," he said of his show's newly implemented processes, which previously only spanned a week's time. "The A-block story, I think we want to be able to give them at least two weeks on that. Hopefully we'll get into a cycle where we can keep giving that level of time to stories that need it."
Despite the upped workload ahead of him and the show's entire team, he notes, "Everyone wants to raise the bar on last year in the office; everyone wants to try harder and get better, and we should be able to get better. … I think I probably know as much as I did this time a year ago, [but] I think we're just trying to do what feels interesting and what we think we can make funny in a way that we couldn't elsewhere."
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver returns on Sunday, Feb. 8, at 11 p.m. on HBO.