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Q&A: John Oliver Talks Latenight, ‘Last Week Tonight’ and His Love of America

John Oliver was destined to have his own chat show after the raves he earned while subbing for Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” last summer. Oliver took a break from preparing for the April 27 debut of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” to discuss his plans for the weekly series, his love of America and his thoughts about recent moves in latenight.

Variety: Why did you land at HBO?

John Oliver: They said ‘Would you like to do a show on Sunday?’ I found that instantly appealing. You’re not up against anyone. It’s a different perspective on the week. It just posed a significantly different challenge than I’m used to. I quite like carving out something that I’m not used to. How have you been preparing for the launch? Oliver: Each week we’ve done a pretend show. Nothing’s easier than a pretend success. When the show is hypothetical you can’t fail. No joke you write is going to be on TV. You’re trying to construct a machine that will one day make fun of things that haven’t happened yet.

Tell us about the format of “Last Week Tonight”?

Oliver: We’re trying to keep it relatively flexible week to week. The show can be whatever the story dictates. We may do a bunch of different stories or one story for the whole show. We’re going to try to not have a completely rigid format. It might be a mixture of (taped segments) and in-studio guests. … We’ll probably be writing stuff up to 5:45 p.m. (Sunday) and tape around 6-6:15 p.m.

Hopefully you’ll still be out in the world on assignment? Some of your most memorable ‘Daily Show’ segments came when you were in the wilds of America.

Oliver: I really hope so. The best opportunity I’ll have to do that is on what will be our weekends: Monday and Tuesday. I definitely want to keep doing that. Toward the end at ‘The Daily Show’ we were trying to do pieces that were (increasingly) conceptually and geographically ambitious. I really enjoyed the difficulty of that. There is something completely ridiculous about flying to the other side of the world to do a comic piece about gun control. About 15 hours into the flight I’m thinking ‘What am I doing with my life?’

But that particular piece resonated at a time when this country was struggling to make sense of a string of horrific deaths caused by gun violence.

Oliver: Thank you. That one was really difficult to put together. It was right when gun control legislation was collapsing in Congress. Some times the (segments) we do end up becoming quite disposable but that one stayed with me for a bit.

As good as you are at pointing out this country’s quirks and foibles, you seem to have a genuine love for America.

Oliver: America is the dominant world superpower. There’s always going to be something ridiculous about the dominant world empire — whoever it is. Rome was ridiculous. The British empire was cartoonishly stupid. You’re playing with a big canvas here.

Were you interested in America as a kid growing up in England? Did you aspire to make it big here?

Oliver: I was obsessed with American comedy. I aways wanted to come here but never came to America before I got offered the job on ‘The Daily Show.’ It’s always been a country of fascination to me. I fell in love with it pretty much straight away. When you come to a country that is not yours and fall in love with it in a way that makes you not want to leave, you’ve elevated it in your mind’s eye to the best version it can possibly be. You get annoyed when it can’t meet those standards.

With the latest movement in latenight, would you be interested in going back to a weeknight show if the opportunity came up at CBS or Comedy Central?

Oliver: I haven’t even started this show yet. I can’t leave a show that I technically haven’t started yet.

What do you think of Stephen Colbert’s move to CBS’ “The Late Show” next year?

Oliver: Stephen will be incredible at it. He’s a much broader entertainer than that character is. By the time he’s finished with ‘Colbert Report,’ he will have done that character for a decade. You can’t do it any better than he’s done it for 10 years. (CBS) is just an amazing new challenge for him. I think he’s got all these great unused muscles. He’s artistically jacked.

Have you asked Jon Stewart for advice in preparing for “Last Week Tonight”?

Oliver: Jon has been very good about helping me through this. It’s a strange adjustment. I’ve always had him as my guiding hand for basically a decade. Even over the summer when he had no free time he was still available to me, I was emailing him questions.

Will you have Stewart as a guest?

Oliver: I would love to have him on the show. I don’t have any (immediate) plans in terms of how we’ll do it. We’ll come up with something. I’m five blocks away from his office. I’ve only gone five blocks north.

What have you found most challenging about being in charge of your own show?

Oliver: It’s the running of the show. The performing of the show is the fun part. The work gets done during the day when you’re actually putting the things in the TelePrompTer that you’re going to say out loud later. Jon is so completely involved in every aspect of ‘The Daily Show’ and so having stepped in for him is how I’ve been taught to make a show like this. You’re involved in everything. As a comedian, you revel in irresponsibility. As a boss, there are consequences to behavior like that. The luxury of bad behavior is something I really miss. Now if you don’t do something, it doesn’t get done.

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