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Going into his third season of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver indicated he didn’t want to devote too much time on his weekly HBO series to the 2016 election. But as the presidential campaign ran its course, and Donald Trump became the Republican nominee and ultimately president-elect, the show found itself doing a number of popular pieces about the election and Trump, specifically, including an extended takedown of the real-estate mogul-turned-politician. And Oliver devoted his last episode of 2016 to Trump’s victory.
But over his three-month hiatus, the host said he wasn’t eager to get on the air to talk about the headline-generating president, and he hopes to keep Last Week Tonight from being entirely about Trump as the show begins its fourth season on Sunday. Oliver talked more about how the current president is (and isn’t) affecting the production of Last Week Tonight during a Monday morning Q&A with several journalists in New York.
Despite Trump continuing to dominate the news in between the election and the inauguration, much as he did during the 2016 presidential campaign, Oliver didn’t have a lot to say about the then-president-elect.
“For most of that time, until Inauguration Day, which I understand feels like 300 years ago, until that time, nothing’s really happened. It feels like you needed time to process your thoughts on things because everything was just hypothetical until the starter’s pistol went off and all hell broke loose,” he said. “Yeah, I didn’t really miss being off between the election and the inauguration because it didn’t feel like there was a great deal to say. When it was just in the process of being put together, there was no point in trying to predict what was going to happen. Since then, the kind of rapid-fire avalanche of activity has just been — I guess the key thing for us has been to try and work out what we were going to do long-term going forward. I’ve not really missed having to condense our thoughts down about whatever’s going on.”
And going into this season, Oliver hopes to keep the Trump material to a minimum, but he isn’t quite sure how he and his team will settle on a balance.
“We’ll work it out. I don’t know,” he said. “I think we’re very anxious to not make it all Trump, all the time — both on a level of interest and on a level of what the human soul can sustain.”
For the past month, Oliver and Co. have been working on longer-term pieces that both require a great deal of lead time and have nothing to do with Trump.
“He moves so fast that there’s no real point in spending a month on something that he’s said until you work out what the consequences of that are going to be,” said the host.
The criteria for finding a subject to delve into for Last Week Tonight‘s signature deep-dive approach to various issues hasn’t really changed over the past three seasons.
“The basic seed of it is always some version of instinct and curiosity,” said Oliver. “The basic seed of why we would be looking into a story has not really changed at all, but the resources and process we use to treat that story has improved since we started, so I think we can go deeper.”
The Last Week Tonight team has noticed that a number of President Trump’s recent executive orders have related to stories they did over the past year, leading them to repromote pieces about Iraqi translators, refugees and the fiduciary rule (“Wave goodbye to it as it sails away in the distance”), even as they noticed the “depressing pattern.”
“As it happened, by pure chance, or the fact that we might be diametrically opposed to the president’s instincts, lots of our stories from the past three years have become very relevant especially on very narrow complicated things,” Oliver added.
When asked how he sees comedy changing in the Trump era, he offered a thoughtful answer.
“I think you’ve probably got to work harder. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit with administrations like this, and you kind of need to reach past that,” Oliver said.
The fourth season of Last Week Tonight premieres Sunday at 11 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.
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