John Oliver talks net neutrality, salmon cannons, and the future of Last Week Tonight

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“I can only assume there were lines upon lines of cocaine up and down this table at some point.”

John Oliver is sitting at the end of a comically large table at HBO’s New York offices. Flanking him on each side are maybe a dozen journalists and HBO representatives, which in total don’t quite fill half of the chairs. HBO chairman and CEO Richard Plepler, sitting to his immediate right, laughs. He's is also quick to clarify that this room was designed prior to his tenure. “It was when it was run by a Mexican drug cartel,” quips Oliver.

Last Week Tonight premiered just nine months ago. In less than a week, the show will return for its second season debut. It will run for 35 shows this year, at a pace of about seven weeks on the air / one week off, until mid-November.

The promotion for this new season has stressed emphatically that the show will be "basically the same" as last year. Each episode begins with quick highlights of the week’s news, followed by a lengthy, well-researched main story. That sameness extends to Last Week Tonight’s YouTube strategy, as well, with large breakout segments from each episode uploaded the day after airing, each garnering millions of views. Plepler says that strategy will continue unabated. "The best advertising we can have is letting people taste some of the unique content on the network," he said.

More researchers with backgrounds in investigative journalism

The most important changes this year, rather, are behind the scenes. "We've bolstered our research team now, so that we can go deeper on stories and give them a little more time to find stuff that is not easy to find," he said. Last Week Tonight now has four researchers, up from just one last year, from media outlets like ProPublica, Al Jazeera, and The New York Times Magazine. "We had one researcher working week to week, and I just didn't want to find him on the roof of the building one night," Oliver said. "So, then we made it two. And then I didn't want to find two people on the roof of the building. So now it's four — four and counting." Additionally, the main stories — which previously were done within the span of a week — will be given at least two weeks each if needed.

Oliver, though still considering himself a comedian first and foremost, stressed the need to tackle the stories in an investigative way. "The jokes really come later [in the process], because you can't build jokes on sand," he said. "They either don't work or they wash away. So you need to make sure that the story you want to tell is solid, and then on that you can dress everything up."

Over the course of nearly one hour, Oliver also reflected on many of the biggest moments from Last Week Tonight's first season, which you can read below. His comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

  1. Net Neutrality

    Last Week Tonight's coverage of net neutrality was one of its earliest and biggest successes. It also led to some amusing internal government emails. One day before the FCC officially proposed reclassifying the internet as a utility, Oliver was asked if he'd take any credit for the change:

    "I think for a start, you'd need to question whether the ball has actually moved or not, and they may move it a little and then it may get moved very much back to where the ball was originally put by Congress, so no, I don't take any credit for that at all. I think we just identified a problem, pointed at a means through which people could express their disgust with it, and then they did it. But I don't think, I think you can read too much into our involvement there."

  2. Salmon Cannon

    "We can’t take credit for the genesis. The genesis is just one Seattle area man’s dream. We saw that and thought "that is an absolutely magnificent piece of equipment." And then I think someone had the idea — because this was months out — we could just do our own version and fire salmon into people’s face. And so then we started putting out the feelers of, 'would you like to have a salmon hit you in the face?' It was just an amazing amount of yeses. It doesn’t seem like a good offer. When we were getting The Simpsons and David Letterman’s one coming in, even when I heard that Letterman said yes, I was still not expecting to see a fish thrown at his face. So that took a couple of months of just preparing the salmon, mailing the salmon, throwing the salmon, and then getting the tapes back. I can’t even remember how many people, but it was incredible. It was really fun.

    "We are going to try and do some long-term mayhem production things like that. We’ve been trying to think over the last few weeks of things that we could spend months building that have no tangible value whatsoever. It was just one of the most joyful two minutes of TV. It’s not rocket science — you know, Monty Python have hit people with fishes before — but I think it still holds true. A human being hit by a flying fish is as objectively funny as something [that's] as subjective as comedy could be.

    "Whenever we’re going into something really dark or detailed as a story, we always try to cut against that by then doing the dumbest thing that you will see that week on television. And the salmon cannon definitely qualifies there."

  3. FIFA and the World Cup

    "We did this FIFA piece that had a gigantic outreach and then got passed around in Brazil. And so there’s been, on more than one occasion, someone who does not speak English who has grabbed me on the street and started ranting in Portuguese, and I don’t know what’s happening until they say 'FIFA! FIFA!' and I go, 'Okay, yeah.'"

  4. Death Penalty

    "HBO was saying, ‘Do whatever you want.’ When you have that kind of freedom and that kind of time, then you end up looking into stuff more deeply because you don't have to throw to a break. You don't have a kill point in the act where you need to be done or you need to find a way to let Twix have their say. [For] the second week, we did something on the death penalty that was 12 minutes long that seemed like a really stupid thing to do, at all, let alone for a show's second show. That seemed like potential creative suicide, and I thought the very fact that we were going to try and do it could be funny in and of itself, even the attempt seemed kind of ludicrous. So after that, and when people seemed to respond to that, then I think we realized that we could just do whatever. So we were, some were like 17, 18 minutes last time, and they could technically be longer if we can keep the ball in the air for that long. It kind of developed pretty naturally, and it's what we gravitated towards being most interested in."

  5. Miss America

    "There’s a very defined lane that we’re in, and that lane is comedy. But you sometimes want to find the things that — yeah, the random acts of journalism would come in if you’re looking for something, and you realize it isn’t there. Even when we did something as silly as the Miss America thing. It’s just annoying when you’re trying to find what their charity has actually done, and no one has found it because it’s Miss America, then you have to go and find it yourself. That’s just really filling a vacuum because no one had looked at Miss America’s tax forms, because it’s Miss America — who gives a shit? We got to spend a week just pulling 990 forms and trying to work out where the money had gone. That’s really just because you’re looking for something that is not already there.

    "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 kinds of truffles that you’re snouting around for… the kind of things that are attractive to a comedian who’s interested in the news is the kind of thing that a journalist would just find and throw over their shoulder and say, ‘That’s nothing.' Oh no, that’s something, they said a silly word in it, that’s definitely something."

  6. Translators

    "If [fans are] coming up to me on the street, it's generally either something that is really fun, like dogs as Supreme Court Justices or fish hitting people in the face, or it's stuff that they appreciate that hasn't got some attention which is generally not talked about like, not belabor that story, but the Afghan translators. It just doesn't get talked about. A big, big part of Veterans Day on Facebook is dealing with panicked messages from people you've made promises to. And that you thought would be ok. So, yeah, that was one where people would come up and say, ‘Thanks for talking about that.’

    "But on our end, really it's just because it's an interesting story and it could end in a funny donkey joke. What we're attracted to is a reason to do it because it's funny. Like that visa application is so horrific that if you really start stacking what is demanded it becomes ludicrous. So even though that story was pretty unpleasant in terms of the details, you know there are things, there are jarring juxtapositions, there are shocking details which are comic in how appalling they are. So that's the idea of what your eye is drawn to, ‘Oh yeah, give us all these visa forms, this is going to be a ridiculous run.’"

  7. Ferguson

    "One of my favorite moments in terms of degrees of difficulty in sticking a joke landing last year was a joke that [head writer] Tim Carvel came up with very late, and it was when we were doing a week on Ferguson and police brutality, and there was that clip of the police officer saying, "Bring it you fucking animals, bring it." And it's just horrific, and you could feel the air go out of the room in the audience, because this is like 16 minutes into this incredibly depressing piece about militarization of police and institutional racism. It's not been a happy roller coaster for everyone.

    "So you see this clip and it feels hopeless. And yet Tim came up with this joke about the Mary Poppins penguins, which was so funny. So he was saying "Bring it you fucking animals," and I think the joke was something along the lines of, "That's not acceptable. That's barely acceptable to say if you're in a cartoon restaurant in a Mary Poppins film. Bring it." And it was just so silly, but the degree of difficulty to get people to laugh at that, it was just, it's a really small moment, so it doesn't really matter, but those are the most satisfying things where you think, 'We managed to get like a handbrake turn into a silly, whimsical joke from something which was heartbreaking.' And those are really hard to do. But that was kind of a high point of a last-minute joke pitch. And also it had penguins as waiters."

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