John Oliver surprised just about everyone last April when he released an interview he had done in Moscow with fugitive National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden — including, apparently, HBO.
At a press event in New York on Wednesday, Oliver revealed that HBO had no idea the Snowden interview had even happened until the Last Week Tonight team returned from Moscow with the tapes. He added that HBO was not only cool with giving them extra time to air more of the interview, but that the network agreed to hold off on promoting Snowden's appearance to help sell a joke:
We couldn’t tell them that we were going to interview [Snowden], because there had to be very few people knowing about it … Also, I really liked the idea of it being a surprise, because we had this section at the start of the interview where I was really concerned he wasn’t going to turn up. But it’s not really funny if you promote it beforehand, so I thought it’d be great just to spring the interview on people.
But that’s not something I think most networks are anxious to hear: "Oh, you’ve got something you think people would like to watch? Why not not tell them it’s going to be on?" It was amazing that they said, "Yeah sure, we’ll do that." And then we played it in to the audience, and I told the audience, "Do you mind just not, for the next three hours, telling anyone what’s happened?" Amazingly, it worked.
I really appreciate the fact that HBO let us do that, because we thought it was the best way for that material to be presented, even though commercially, it’s the worst way to present it.
When asked if he was nervous about traveling to and from Moscow with footage of him having a conversation with a fugitive, Oliver answered emphatically: "I was terrified! You know you’re not supposed to meet with fugitives. … Don't stare directly at the sun, and don't meet fugitives."
Meeting and interviewing Snowden obviously panned out, but Oliver isn't too eager to repeat the experience. Asked if the Snowden success made him think about going after El Chapo, Oliver laughed. "No … Rolling Stone had already given him an offer he couldn't refuse: a full edit on the story."
Above all, Oliver emphasized that he was proud of the way Last Week Tonight clarified some of the murkier aspects of government surveillance agencies — even if it meant explaining them in relation to the possibility of leaked dick pics:
We would spend weeks researching these programs, and as you get deeper and deeper, you start to think, "Oh maybe I understand it," and then one more thing comes in and it’s like Jenga. The whole thing collapses.
It was from that kind of frustration, finding [it] incredibly difficult just to get the information into our heads to then make jokes about it, when we realized we needed to do something reductive. And we hit on — there’s no way to finesse this term with any dignity — that penis idea.
…That was the first line that people would not allow the government to cross. So once we started kind of reverse engineering from there, how could we articulate each of those programs in a way that is directly related to the availability of your junk to the government?
At Snowden's request, Last Week Tonight affirmed the accuracy of what he said during his interview with Oliver by following up with the NSA. But, Oliver added with a grin, "I'm guessing they [already] knew."