John Oliver Talks Trump Executive Orders and ‘Luxury’ of Long Segments on ‘Last Week Tonight’

John Oliver
Courtesy of HBO

John Oliver and the “Last Week Tonight” team could be forgiven for thinking that his HBO series has been a target of sorts for the Trump administration.

A number of the social, political and economic issues examined by Oliver’s weekly late-night series have been the subject of executive orders signed by President Trump as part of his rapid-fire policymaking process during the first two weeks of his administration.

“Over five days last week, each executive order related to a story we’ve done in the past three years,” Oliver said Monday during a roundtable with journalists to promote the fourth season of the show, which bows Sunday. He called it a “depressing exercise” for his producers to re-tweet links to stories on the fate of Iraqi military translators, the immigrant visa application process, and financial industry rules governing retirement and investment programs (“wave goodbye to it as it sails away in the distance”), among other topics.

Oliver said that despite the “all-consuming” nature of the 2016 presidential election, he tried to ensure that “Last Week Tonight” tackled more than the ascendancy of Trump last season, and he expects to do the same this year. Out of 30 episodes in 2016, just eight of the centerpiece stories were focused on Trump and presidential politics. “We were very anxious not make it all Trump, all the time, both on the level of interest and what the human soul can sustain,” he said.

The weekly format of “Last Week Tonight” has also forced producers to seek out issues that are rarely dealt with on other late-night comedy series. “As a benefit to us we’ve been pushed into covering things that no one in their right minds would cover for comedy,” he said. The flexibility of the show — which amounts to whatever producers think is best for the material — is a “luxury” that comes from working in the commercial-free atmosphere of HBO, he said. “We can be structurally ambitious with what we do,” Oliver said. (HBO chairman-CEO Richard Plepler sat next to Oliver in the conference room at HBO’s midtown headquarters, fairly beaming.)

Oliver pointed with pride to the 2016 episode that devoted almost the entire half-hour to exposing how multi-level marketing schemes take advantage of consumers. That segment was even redone in Spanish for online distribution because research indicated that Latin America is a big growth market for such companies. “Jane the Virgin” star Jaime Camil was enlisted to fill Oliver’s role of hosting the segment in Spanish.

Oliver was pressed about his view of comedy in the Trump era, and whether late-night hosts now fill a role of holding the powerful accountable.

“I don’t think it necessarily needs to change — you’ve probably got to work harder. That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he said. “There’s lots of low-hanging fruit with administrations like this. You kind of need to reach past that.”

Among other observations during the hourlong Q&A session:

  • “Last Week” Tonight” wrapped its third season in November but the staff was back at work in early January. “I’m not cut out for relaxation on any level,” Oliver said.
  • Oliver strives for nuance in the show’s in-depth reporting, and it bugs him when viewer and media reaction to stories boils down to headlines declaring that Oliver “eviscerates” or “disembowels” the subject. “We work really hard to put a lot of nuance into a 20-minute story,” he said.
  • Oliver has a bipartisan fan base. “Conservatives come up to me and say ‘I disagree with you but I love the show.’ “
  • Research first, jokes later. Producers and researchers focus on nailing the factual elements of a story before they try to work jokes and humor into the storytelling — a lesson they learned through trial and error early on. “You can’t build a story on a foundation of sand,” he said.
  • Oliver is highly satisfied “when we do something irredeemably stupid,” and when he gets to see “a group of adults do a really silly, spectacular waste of HBO’s resources.” He pointed to the  creation of a miniature Supreme Court set that was populated with dogs, and an elaborate replica of the newsroom set from the Oscar winner “Spotlight” for a story about the state of journalism.
  • The native Brit said he’s still dismayed by the fact that his countrymen decided to leave the European Union in last year’s Brexit referendum, likening it to “watching a slow-moving car crash.” “It is impossible to overstate just how bad I think it is going to be for Britain (and) in Europe as a whole,” he said.

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  1. Michael says:

    Would love to see Trump in a Prime Ministers ?s skit. Nod nod wink wink know what I mean…

  2. Sure Brexit may be a bloody train wreck but watching Parliament speak makes me proud of to be a Brit Mr Oliver. Can’t wait til you’re show is back live…I’ve been watching the news thinking good lord John Oliver would have a field day with this!

  3. John Mehoff says:

    V.. FYI Jon Steward won a Directors Guild of America Award for his coverage of the news… so just because he isn’t a journalist doesn’t mean the context of what is said is less valid. If it is true it matters not who or how it is presented.

  4. V says:

    After reading some comments here, I feel this needs to be said. If you’re getting your news from John Oliver, you’re doing it wrong. He’s funny and informative (in my opinion) but he is not a journalist. Also, I feel like you guys are too focused on labels.

  5. Thomas John says:

    I eagerly taped and watched JO from his first show until last month. I don’t mind my ideologies being criticized — that’s healthy and good for me — but enough is enough. And now the show seems more like HIS ideologies. He’s no longer on my Tivo and I am sorry for that, but don’t miss him.

  6. cfbcfb says:

    Yes, the weekly format although its not on for months at a time…

  7. Clark Magnuson says:

    Oliver should be funny first and liberal second, not the other way around.

    • Dennis Hort says:

      Maybe you would do better just watching pro-Trump comedians. Oh wait…

      • cadavra says:

        Miller’s career crashed not because he became conservative, but because he stopped being funny. He literally became unable to construct a joke, instead merely ranting bland, generic insults to anyone on his radar. A real shame, as he was absolutely brilliant as a stand-up prior to 9/11.

      • cfbcfb says:

        Dennis Miller turned favorable to conservatives and loved Bush. Then his career crashed into a mountain and wild animals picked at his remains for days.

      • Chuck says:

        Don’t you know that you can’t make jokes about progressives? That’s intolerance.

    • He can do both at the same time. It’s called “multi-tasking.” Try it… You might like it!

  8. You are not American, you are a guest in this Country. You should be deported.

    • John Oliver lives in New York City with his wife and son on an American-issued green card, therefore he’s living in the U.S. just as legally as you do.

      • Timmy says:

        He’s married to an American Iraq war veteran (medic), so isn’t that better than “just” a Green Card? In any case, I’d pick him to stay over Kaboom, any day (LOL).

      • Kaboom! says:

        He’s not living here as legally as me. His green card can be revoked for various reasons, and is only valid for 10 years. I’m a naturally born citizen and don’t have those limitations. But nice try, an attorney you will never be.

  9. Alex says:

    Why do these low rated mock news shows get so much press, even their target audience the lib 18-49 crowd doesn’t watch. There are over 320 million people in the USA, Rush Limbaugh has over 25 million listeners, but these mock news shows with around 1 million viewers get all the kiss ass press

  10. Eric says:

    Remember when John Oliver made a fool of himself when Trump announced he was going to run. Remember how wrong John Oliver was.
    Remember John Oliver is just a propogandist for the liberal left.

  11. Todd says:

    Presenting the truth in a humorous manner, doesn’t make it any less true.

  12. Jinxi Richow says:

    For all the lies, stupidity, hate, racism, bigotry, misogyny, corruption and outright thievery associated with the Trump Presidency, it is a great time to be a comedian with such a stupendously stupid liar in the White House.

    Trump traffics in hate and outright lies yet conservatives like “Guy V” are completely indifferent to the very crimes for which such conservative white men accused and reviled Hillary Clinton.

    Conservatives may know how to spell the term ‘clueless hypocrite,’ but they have no idea whatsoever how NOT to behave like one.

  13. Guy V says:

    why do liberals get their news from hack comedians? And then claim superiority? While exhibiting such hatred?

    • Todd says:

      Presenting the truth in a humorous manner, doesn’t make it any less true.

    • MedulaOblongata says:

      1) Liberal minded people get their information from many sources, of which shows such as Oliver’s are only one source. His show just happens to be one well thought out and generally entertaining source of defend-able material. However, FWIW I have noticed that most comedians have higher than normal intelligence. 2) Hack? Hardly. It takes a lot of smarts to dissect, understand, form an opinion, and make typically boring material like this entertaining. If you watched Oliver’s show, you might actually be surprised at the amount of research that is required to create the miniature documentaries he presents. Far more thought goes into it than ironically many news outlets.
      3) As for superiority and hatred? Open your eyes…. there is a ton of hatred and superiority going around everywhere in your divided country. e.g. large crowds of Trump supporters chanting lock her up is driven from an insane hatred of someone on the other side, not out of any factual position.
      At the end of the day, its the quality of the ideas that count, and that takes intelligence and time to discern. Shows like this one present real information.

      • MedulaOblongata says:

        @Chuck (replying to my own comment as I cannot reply to yours)

        You make some very valid points. Sad that it’s refreshing from a reasoned argument. Point by point:

        1) Absolutely, good point(s). My wording probably did reveal some type of hidden bias, but perhaps not quite the one you noticed. With the original poster bashing what he felt was hack biased liberal media, my knee-jerk reaction is to choke on the irony, and correlate it to Trump’s rash of out and out lies (or perhaps even the strong right agenda of Fox). Perhaps unfairly, I envisioned the original writer as a Brietbart reader, closed to alternate opinions and out of frustration, lashing out by trashing a comedy news show host who he could not deal with. It is that stereo type of his original angry post, that I responded to. And only that stereo type.

        2) Personally I believe critical thinking is dead…. it died due to lack of profitability. However, a few things if what you say here clash with my world view…. a) You point out that he has a team. Of course he has a team. Obama had a team, Trump has a team, even lowly I have a team. It does not invalidate him or his contributions. b) He’s smug. Well, I think I know what you mean, he comes off that way sometimes (but it is important to note “sometimes”, he and the world are not binary). But he’s also earnest, caring, concerned, funny and goes out of his way to elicit positive change. He even goes out of his way to acknowledge the opposing position on most, if not all subjects. While the air of smugness you are detecting is questionable, he is not JUST smug. So, my point here is that reacting to smugness is human and natural, it does not invalidate him. The value of his thinking and message far outweighs any appearance of smugness. c) The news is biased. Yes I agree, it probably always was. But there is a logical error here. Not all news biases are at the same level. Some are way worse than others. This is a tough subject, as it gets very hard to quantify levels of bias. I’ve researched this in the past to find if there are measures of different media outlets levels of bias, and there are a few opinions, perhaps some fact checking metrics, but nothing too definitive (and thus the rise of alt-facts). One pseudo rule I have noticed is that the harder the media outlet tries to tell you what to think, the more biased they are, and the quicker you should distrust them. The closer it is to telling you just what happened, leaving you the room to think for yourself, the more fair it is probably trying to be.

        3) I believe the original poster was talking about hatred in this point. Oliver has never expressed hatred to anyone with a differing view. Mocking? Sure absolutely. But never hatred. And his mocking had a well thought out argument behind it (unlike the original poster)

        But I guess you went wider and feel that there is hatred (presumably) of republicans by democrats. Perhaps an example is my best response. I saw a bumper sticker once that said “Wanna confuse a liberal, tell them the facts”. This stuck in my mind because I thought liberals had all the facts ;) The vague analogy I am trying to make here is that it’s human nature to think that your position is the right one and the other side knows nothing. And when you think you are right, you are justified in your actions. The basic rules of being decent and respectful to each other were there for a reason. They stopped us from polarizing into hateful groups. Unfortunately, decency is leaving us which is making everything dysfunctional (I won’t tell you who I think has dysfunction as a key power strategy).

        I suspect you will probably agree with much of the above, but here is where I fear we will drift. As an engineer, I do believe that there are correct answers to every question. Certain positions are better than others. Oh, of course, they are time sensitive, depend on how your draw your boundary around the problem, how you value outcomes, etc. But there are best solutions for just about everything.

        The problem is that there is no real thoughtful discussion on what is best and why it is best. It’s monkeys throwing poo across a room. America’s values have become so fractured and the norm is to fight first.

      • Chuck says:

        MedulaOblongata,

        Let’s look at your arguments against Guy V. First off, I hate generalizing the way Guy V did by lumping all liberals together. Personally I have many very intelligent liberal friends. I also however understand his problems with some if not many liberals claiming superiority. I also understand the hatred aspect. I’m going to assume that your handle implies that you pride yourself on the use of your brain.That is why I’d like to look at what you wrote more logically.

        1) Saying Liberal minded people get their information from many sources, lumps all liberals together, It would be better to say something like, “the liberals I know, many liberals, etc…. To not do so would also have the unfortunate implication of saying non-liberals DON’T get their information from many sources and thus would argue in favor of Guy’s accusation that liberals claim superiority.

        2) I agree John Oliver is no hack, but we all know that there is an entire team of writers working on his material. John is very good at being smug in his delivery, but he can not take all the credit for the research. I also agree with your assessment of the “news outlets”. Unfortunately, that would actually be an argument that support’s the Trump administration’s “fake news” complaints. The reality is, news isn’t news anymore. It is not unbiased, it hasn’t been for many years. Thus if all the sources a liberal uses have the same “liberal/progressive” bias, then it’s no wonder they come to those conclusions. What happened to “critical thinking”?

        3)Using large crowds of Trump supporters that lack the platform of the media doesn’t seem fair. It’s like Palestinian kids throwing rocks at Israeli tanks. It doesn’t excuse the behavior. John Oliver and the news outlets have alot of power and they choose to use it to belittle anyone who believes differently than they do. In John’s defense, he is not claiming to be an expert, but his antics certainly do imply that the subject of his pieces are idiots. It does show arrogance and contempt. The only difference is that progressives don’t believe contempt over things they disagree with is hatred. Hatred is defined as anyone disagreeing with progressive ideas. The same can be said about their definition of tolerance. It is intolerant to believe in Christian teachings regarding homosexuality. It is perfectly tolerant though to belittle and insult those Christians. Logically I can’t understand this.

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