John Oliver has a few words for his soon-to-be new bosses at Discovery. And even those may be more than enough.
The HBO host, who launches a new season of the comedy-meets-investigative-journalism series “Last Week Tonight” on Sunday, has for the past several years teased the owner of HBO and its parent WarnerMedia with great relish. “You’re a terrible company. You do bad things and you make the world worse,” he said about AT&T in October. Ever since the telecom giant began working to acquire the former Time Warner in 2018 for $85.4 billion, Oliver has treated the company mercilessly. “AT&T: It’s the top telecom company around –- alphabetically, and nothing else,” he said before the company made its big buy.
No one from AT&T has ever talked to him about the content of his program, says Oliver, and he hopes that continues once Discovery takes control of WarnerMedia sometime over the next several weeks.
“We had absolutely no contact with AT&T, and I could not encourage Discovery more to continue that,” he told Variety in a recent interview. “Leave us the fuck alone.” Of Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who will soon run a merged company called Warner Bros. Discovery, Oliver says, “We do not need to meet each other. We do not need to speak.”
Discovery declined to comment, as did AT&T.
Oliver is among a handful of late-night TV personalities who have the leeway to tackle their corporate parents over a sustained period — in part because he has no sponsors with which he must curry favor. “It’s amazing. I swear, I do not take that for granted. It’s a big deal,” says the host.
To be sure, Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers have occasionally taken their overseers to task in recent years, but to find an example of someone who really held out a media conglomerate for ridicule, one has to go back to the 1990s and early 2000s. That’s when David Letterman turned former CBS boss Leslie Moonves into a steady joke in monologues and sketches –- and did so often enough that the executive publicly suggested the late-night host stop doing it.
Even “Saturday Night Live,” which in its early days regularly made fun of NBC’s ratings struggles and programming boss Fred Silverman, and even had Jimmy Fallon do an impression of former entertainment chief Jeff Zucker, has gotten more choosy about the practice. To be sure, “Weekend Update” occasionally throws a barb at an NBC foible, and the show has in recent years lampooned married anchors Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, as well as Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford, “SNL” kept quiet about Brian Williams’ ouster from “NBC Nightly News” and never did a sketch about Megyn Kelly’s ill-fated morning program.
Oliver will likely poke fun at his new corporate masters. “I mean, yes,” he replies after being asked. “There is no tastier hand than the one that feeds you. There is nothing more satisfying to chomp down on. The beauty with AT&T is it’s a hand that has done many terrible things. It deserves to be bitten.”
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His hope is that Discovery won’t take any bait. “I presume that they are not fans, but I also do not care,” he says of AT&T. “They have at least been smart enough to keep that one to themselves.”
While “Last Week Tonight” is seen as part and parcel of TV’s coterie of late-night shows, it is also in a genre of its own. Producers spend as many as six weeks on each of the show’s main weekly segments, which appear on TV as if someone has ceded “60 Minutes” to Monty Python. Oliver routinely dismisses efforts to liken the program to an exercise in journalism, but the show does offer in-depth analysis of topics such as criminal justice and misinformation, all while dressing dogs in robes as if they were at the U.S Supreme Court.
Clearly, the host has enough to tackle without having to manage corporate. “Last Week Tonight” has in recent years had to pivot quickly to accommodate pandemic restrictions. Oliver was for a time delivering segments from a room in his apartment, with two young children just outside the door. He hoped giving them an iPad and access to “Paw Patrol” would “buy me 30 minutes to go rant about facial-recognition technology. It was not the ideal way to do a TV show.” He also acknowledges that “doing a TV show completely on your own, from home, feels an awful lot like not having a TV show.”
Getting back to a studio — “Last Week Tonight” wrapped last season with a few shows in front of a limited audience and is likely to start this season the same way, says Oliver — has been a big boost. Once again, the host says, he can do bigger stunts “like dropping bears from the ceiling” that are just impossible in an apartment setting.
As the pandemic has ebbed and flowed across the globe, every one of the nation’s major late-night programs has navigated a hard pivot from one format into another, and then back again. Fallon brought his two young daughters and spouse into the mix for a while. Colbert, Trevor Noah and Jimmy Kimmel held forth from home. Bill Maher did “Real Time” from his backyard; Meyers hosted “Late Night” from an attic; James Corden worked out of his garage. For programs typically festooned with bands, in-person celebrity guests and elaborate stunts that don’t work with social distancing, the differences were stark.
“You feel like you’ve gotten into a rhythm. That rhythm is then forcibly stopped for a long period of time. You have to work out once more how to make some of these shows without any of the colors in your paint kit that you might normally have access to, so things get a little more reductive, a little more austere,” says Oliver. “It is much more exciting now when you get that paint kit back again, and say, ‘Oh shit, we can do a musical in Times Square again!’ That is the thing that’s really exciting. It’s all of a sudden realizing what you missed and being given it back again.”
The host hopes to steer “Last Week Tonight” away from the daily news cycle that gets chewed up by cable news networks as well as his late-night contemporaries. “We will just continue to try and show people things that they haven’t seen before and choose some stories they might not know much about, if anything, and that when they get to the end of, they wish they hadn’t.”
There is not a finale in sight at present for Oliver and HBO — well, at least not until the end of 2023, which is when the current pact between the host and his employer ends. “It’s still going. It will still go until it won’t anymore,” says Oliver, who is looking forward to devising more elaborate stunts and segments. After all, he says, “the most joyous reason to even be able to do a show like this is to properly misuse HBO’s resources. If this show exists for anything, it’s for that.”