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John Oliver Talks Evolution of ‘Last Week Tonight,’ Jock Straps and Keeping Trump at Bay

John Oliver found a comfortable rhythm on his HBO series “Last Week Tonight” early on, but five seasons and many awards later, it’s still a hard slog every week to get it to air on Sunday night.

“It still feels like we’re evolving and learning,” Oliver told reporters Wednesday during HBO’s portion of the summer Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif. He emphasized the collaborative nature of the production and his role as a leader in making sure his staff is working at the top of their potential.

Oliver said over time he’s come to understand the importance of “realizing what our staff is capable of” and to maximize and challenge them in the biggest possible ways, whether it’s writing or researching or production. “We want to push them. We haven’t fully hit stable cruising altitude. We spend part of our week in various stages of controlled panic.”

When the show was greenlit in 2014, Oliver admitted he had “no idea what we were doing.” But he knew his weekly half-hour show by necessity had to be different from other nightly late-night comedy shows such as his alma mater, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”

The second episode of “Last Week Tonight” offered a 12-minute look at the status of death penalty laws in various states. “People didn’t seem to mind” after that aired, Oliver said, so that pointed the show in the direction of the deep-dive stories on substantive political, cultural, and social justice issues. Those main stories typically take a month or more of research, fact-checking, and reporting before they are ready to air.

One challenge at present is to keep the show from overloading on news related to President Donald Trump, despite the endless material stemming from Trump and his administration. “He’s the gift that keeps on giving in the way that a firehose is a gift. You wish he’d stop,” he said.

Oliver said they make an effort to keep the Trump material confined to the show’s “quick recap of the week” in the first 10 minutes rather than in the anchor story.

“We try to be wary of him cannibalizing the show. We try to protect that main story from him as much as humanly possible,” he said. 

Other highlights from Oliver’s session:

Oliver was pressed about the show’s habit of spending money to buy wacky items such as Russell Crowe’s jock strap from 2005’s “Cinderella Man” and wax figures of U.S. presidents. Oliver joked that staffers often brainstorm “what’s the most completely indefensible waste of HBO money we could possibly engage in.” Crowe’s jock strap was sent to one of the last Blockbuster Video stores operating in the country, in Alaska, as a tourist attraction to drum up business. With that store now set to close, Oliver mused about finding a new home for Crowe’s intimate wardrobe item. “Maybe that jock strap will orbit businesses like a Zelig in the future. Wherever there’s a business in its last embers Russell Crowe’s jock strap will be there,” he said.

Oliver, a Brit, feels it’s important for “Last Week Tonight” to keep watch on international news even at a time when America is roiling with domestic problems. “It’s important to me,” he said. “Understandably right now America is going through a lot. It’s easy to think ‘We just can’t take on what you’re doing, Italy, right now,’ ” he said. “We try to cast our net wider than just fishing from the American pool of sadness.”

On that note, Oliver had some advice for Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, who was razzed on the show recently for his decision to don native garb during his visit to India in February. “He overshot the runway of his own popularity,” Oliver said of the Canadian politician who is a darling of American liberals. Oliver said the trip proved that there are limits to Trudeau’s star power.

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