NEW YORK — The last time John Oliver was hosting a new episode of Last Week Tonight, President Donald Trump was just elected as America's 45th president. This isn't a particularly long hiatus by any means, but it's felt like a millennia since Trump was sworn in and began enacting several controversial executive orders. But Oliver, for his part, has been glad to be off-air in the interim.
At a press event in New York on Monday, Oliver explained that he was fine not having a show because the lead-up to Inauguration Day is built on hypotheticals.
"It feels like you needed time to process your thoughts on things because everything was just hypothetical until the start and all hell broke loose," he said. "Since then, the kind of rapid-fire avalanche of activity has been, for us, the key thing is trying to work out what we’re going to do long-term going forward, not really miss having to condense our thoughts about whatever’s been going on."
When asked how Last Week Tonight would avoid the grind of endless Trump narratives, Oliver noted it helps that the show exists in a weekly format, so they're able to bypass the daily news cycle which tends to consume nightly late night shows. As a result, the Last Week Tonight team — which Oliver said has been working since the start of January, so don't judge them for being off the air for so long — has been focusing its effort on long-term stories.
I was worried when we started the show that there was no point in us doing certain things because Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report would’ve done stuff, so it pushed us into doing things in our earliest shows about the Indian election or the death penalty or net neutrality and then the unintended consequences of that was people actually watching the show.
I kind of like not living in that world, because we’re on once a week so it’s all being taken care of by nightly shows. So much has happened online, so much commentary, so much comedy happened online that even being off in the evening is sometimes a problem … the fact that so many of them went live after the conventions. You can’t wait a day. A day seems too long, then.
Oliver doesn't think comedy necessarily needs to change in the Trump era, but comedians will probably have to "work harder" because the Trump administration lends itself to a lot of "low-hanging fruit."
"We were very anxious not make it all Trump, all the time," Oliver said of Last Week Tonight in 2016. "Both on the level of interest and what the human soul can sustain." He does, however, understand that late night shows are inherently more political because the election — and, now, a new president — permeates throughout people's lives.
The election is so all-consuming, there’s not much else to talk about. It’s rounded down people’s faces so constantly and so aggressively that I think it’s going to make all those, like every nightly show, have cosmetic similarities in terms of content. They’re going to get pushed into talking about things, even if they don’t want to, because otherwise it seems like you’re not talking about the three things that people think of when they think of the day that just happened.
Now whether that changes going forward — I don’t know whether people can settle back into their natural curiosity level.
Last Week Tonight returns for its fourth season Sunday at 11 p.m. Eastern on HBO.
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