Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

John Oliver, biting off a weekly chew

NEW YORK - Launching a weekly Sunday night news comedy show in an era of ever-shorter news cycles is both a blessing and a curse, as John Oliver freely admits.

As he chooses current-events topics to skewer, the bespectacled British comedian will have to pick over what other late-night shows, most notably The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, where he used to work, have already feasted on.

"If something happens on a Monday, realistically all the meat is going to be picked off that bone by the time it gets to us - there's probably barely a point in doing it," he said of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, which premieres on HBO on Sunday.

But Birmingham-born Oliver (who turns 37 Wednesday) said in an interview that both global news and late-breaking stories explored on the U.S. networks' Sunday talk shows will provide plenty of fodder for Last Week.

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  • "I think we'll be attracted to some extent by stories that are off the grid," he said, mentioning the ongoing Indian elections, in which he said five candidates had criminal records, as the type of event barely covered by U.S. mainstream media - or political satire shows.

    "Our show may end up skewing more international in terms of stories," said Oliver, who also cohosts a weekly satirical podcast called The Bugle with fellow Brit Andy Zaltzman.

    The U.S. political satire space is getting crowded. Not only Stewart, but also fellow Daily Show alum Stephen Colbert weigh in on the news on weekdays. Others, from HBO's Bill Maher to Saturday Night Live, do so weekly. But Sunday in particular - while a competitive TV night overall - is virgin territory, he said.

    "There's no kind of comedic look on the week at all," he said in an interview at HBO's New York headquarters. "So you're actually on nobody's toes. It is a relatively fresh turf that we can, uh, ruin."

    He says he leaped at the chance to switch to a weekly format and has not looked back even as nightly shows have grabbed the headlines. Colbert in particular has been in the news for snagging the coveted CBS Late Show chair of soon-to-retire David Letterman.

    "I'm used to that sausage factory of producing something every night," Oliver said. "There's something I love about that pace. But one of the most exciting challenges about this was how to take that pace and do something else with it. So to do a deeper dive into stories."

    So attractive was the offer from HBO, in terms of flexibility and freedom from editorial interference, that Oliver ended early exploratory talks with CBS and others after his successful run as Daily Show host last summer while Stewart was away.

    Oliver, also known for a recurring role on the cult comedy series Community, said he plans to stick it out at HBO "as long as I'm not fired."

    His test shows so far have taken on topics including General Motors' 2.6 million-car recall and faulty ignition switches linked with a series of lethal accidents - a story that has not exactly gone uncovered, but that he feels has failed to trigger enough public anger.

    Outrage has underpinned some of Oliver's most memorable work, which at The Daily Show also tackled such themes as gun control, money in U.S. politics, and the shortcomings of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

    The latter is a subject Oliver takes personally; his wife, Kate Norley, is an Iraq war veteran.

    The show will sometimes feature guests, though Oliver says he wants a format flexible enough to fit whatever the story dictates.

    It will likely have some prerecorded footage, but nothing like the "fake news" correspondents on The Daily Show.

    That's not to say that Oliver has completely left his former boss' orbit.

    He still sees the Comedy Central show as must-see TV - if for no other reason than to avoid repeating it. And he confessed that he had bounced ideas off Stewart via e-mail just recently.

    "He is the barometer by which I kind of judge myself," he said.

    Christian Plumb Reuters
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