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John Oliver on making Last Week Tonight and why he won’t focus on the 2016 election

"Funny has to come later. You have to make sure that [the story]'s structurally sound."

John Oliver is back, and he's sticking with what works.
John Oliver is back, and he's sticking with what works.

If you've been waiting for Last Week Tonight to return to the air and weigh in on the increasingly messy 2016 presidential election, you might be out of luck. John Oliver's weekly news-comedy show kicks off its third season on February 14, but as the host told reporters at a recent press event in New York City, he has no interest in combing through the daily indignities of the election cycle.

After all, he said, "There’s plenty of other people who will do that."

That's truer now than it ever has been, thanks to the usual late-night suspects (not to mention Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update). There's Stephen Colbert, who's taken over The Late Show from David Letterman and — unsurprisingly — turned out some of this election cycle's best political interviews. There's Trevor Noah, testing the waters as the new host of The Daily Show. There's Larry Wilmore, clearing a new path with The Nightly Show, and Daily Show expat Samantha Bee, showing lots of potential with Full Frontal, which just premiered on TBS last week.

Between them, Oliver correctly assumes, we'll have more Trump jokes than we know what to do with.

To be fair, it's not like Last Week Tonight covered the burgeoning election last year, either. And that is exactly how he likes it. "We won’t do too much of the daily dramas of the campaign," Oliver told us. "Otherwise you get lost in the general campaign ephemera, where nothing is really happening of any significant consequence."

It's not that he will completely ignore the upcoming election, or pretend there's no Donald Trump out there, Trumping up the place. "You can’t claim he doesn’t exist, no matter how hard your mind tries," Oliver said. "[But] I'm less interested in what he’s saying than what’s happening underneath."

This logic holds true to the core mission of Last Week Tonight. In the show's first two seasons, Oliver made a point of delving deeper into the topics it covered than daily shows typically can. He devoted his longer, more researched segments to issues that are largely unrelated to the election and its candidates: exploitative televangelists, child labor exploitation, transgender rights, the widespread corruption in FIFA.

Oliver has therefore gained a reputation for focusing on stories that other outlets aren't covering — though he refutes that claim, and strongly. "They are being covered," he insists. "They’re just not being listened to."

Enter Last Week Tonight.

John Oliver is a little freaked out by how much influence he has (and wants you to please stop sending him sperm)

As it begins its third season, Last Week Tonight is hoping to keep its momentum going mostly by doing the same thing it did in seasons one and two. Oliver claims he doesn't have time to think about how people (including report on the show "destroying" and "eviscerating" various concepts; he's just trying to make it to the next episode alive.

Oliver spoke to the press at length about how Last Week Tonight is a collaboration between Oliver and the show's writers, producers, and researchers, as well as those collecting the footage they need to support their stories. Ultimately, though — and he said this in the strained cadence of someone who says he's joking but very much isn't — "it's always going to be a kind of controlled drowning."

While the first portion of each episode of Last Week Tonight is dominated by a timely monologue, the second, longer section focuses on stories that aren't necessarily from the previous week (i.e., more "evergreen" concepts). Oliver and his team like to have at least a two-week cushion in case a story collapses due to a source falling through or a last-minute development coming to light. When Last Week Tonight first debuted, he told us, there were several times when they came dangerously close to not having anything to put on air. Understandably, Oliver doesn't want that to happen again.

When I inquired about how long the team usually devotes to producing Last Week Tonight's evergreen stories, Oliver said they like to have at least a couple of weeks to get through the process of someone pitching the story, the research department making sure it has legs, writing the segment, and putting it on the air. The show always has "parachute stories" ready to fall back on in case of a last-minute disaster, or of the writers wanting to give a piece room to breathe and become something more.

Oliver's Church is now closed, but he made a convincing case.

For example, one piece that became "something more" was an August 2015 segment on how televangelists and evangelical churches raise huge amounts of money from donations, with Oliver arguing that they "exploit people's faith for monetary gain." While Oliver and his team were researching the story, he decided to set up his own church to see how he could do using the same tactics — and was floored by the response.

Oliver said Last Week Tonight "had to hire five permanent interns" to sort through all the mail it received. They ended up getting more than $70,000 in singles (Oliver had requested singles as part of his new church's call for support), dozens of paintings and cross-stitches of Oliver and his onscreen church wife Rachel Dratch ("nobody's funnier"), and even "five vials of human sperm" — all sent separately.

In Oliver's words: It got "pretty fucking out of hand." But it was a huge lesson. Moving forward, he told us, "I’ll be more wary going in of people actually doing the thing you ask them to do."

If you're going to insist that John Oliver is a journalist masquerading as a comedian, you'll have to get through John Oliver first

Oliver's reach and influence are growing (see: his "church," crashing the FCC website after a blistering net neutrality segment, sitting down with Edward Snowden in Moscow), and no one's more uneasy about it than the host himself.

When asked whether he's concerned that some people consider the show to be their primary news source, Oliver bristled. "I don't think that's true," he said. Later, he insisted that "if you look at the script, there’s a joke after every single thing."

That's true. And the "I'm just making jokes!" defense is a time-honored one among comedians who spend a lot of time talking about politics, like Oliver's former Daily Show boss, Jon Stewart. But it's certainly a weird thing to say within minutes of discussing how hard his writers lean on the research, how important it is to be right, and how consistently surprised he is to find that his word can truly matter to people.

In Oliver's words: "Funny has to come later. You have to make sure that it’s structurally sound, the ground that you’re building the story on. And you can write jokes late, easily ... [but] if elements of a story collapse, it takes all the jokes down with it."

Oliver obviously wants the jokes to stand up to scrutiny. Why not accept the fact that his jokes inform just as much as they entertain?

Last Week Tonight airs Sundays at 11 pm on HBO. Previous episodes are available to watch on HBO Go.