John Oliver has his head down on his desk, his finger mid-scroll on his iPhone as if the onslaught of cataclysmic news triggered an exasperated collapse.
It’s actually a posed photo for the ads promoting the fifth season of his HBO late-night talk program, Last Week Tonight. Written above Oliver’s tableau of existential despair is the new season’s cheeky tagline: “Everything is fine.”
“I feel like that all the time,” Oliver laughs, glancing at the poster, erected on an easel over his shoulder. “I felt like that before this presidency as well. But yes, especially now I emphatically feel that way.” As for the almost menacing nature of the “everything is fine” tagline? It “seems like the most jarring joke,” he says. “And that is a canary in the coal mine.”
Oliver is speaking to a small room of journalists at HBO’s Bryant Park offices ahead of Last Week Tonight’s Sunday night return.
Though the Last Week Tonight staff has been in the office working on material for the new season every day, the show last aired in the beginning of November. Those two months in between equate to decades in the news cycle of the Trump administration. Trump’s “little rocket man” tweets? The president paying hush money to a porn star? They’re blips whizzing by on a ticker tape of news events moving at light speed, without Oliver and his team on air to offer their own takes.
They’re not terribly distraught about that, though. And that’s by design.
Oliver has no plans to revisit news that passed the show by when it returns Sunday night. “I think it would be physically impossible to take a deep breath and say, ‘So, since November this happened…’ because I think we’d be talking for hours,” Oliver says.
And in terms of news about Trump, he’s happy to not address it at all.
“The tricky thing with him is that there’s so much of it, right?” he says. “It’s just such a firehose of bullshit… You don’t want to just chronologically repeat what he said and then tell a joke off each thing. You want to tell why it matters.”
The format of his show allows him to relegate topical Trump news to the top of his show, in which he recaps headlines in a sort of Daily Show style, and devotes the lion’s share of the episode to the meatier investigations that he admits are “pretty irrelevant in terms of the week, but we would argue extremely relevant to the concept of being alive.”
“There’s so much low-hanging fruit,” he says about the Trump stuff. “You can end up eating too much of it.”
Of course, no one could ever accuse Oliver or his show of serving audiences fruit baskets. His segments deep-dive into topical issues with all the vigor of a journalistic investigation. Last season saw the series tackle the Syrian refugee crisis, public charter schools, net neutrality, and, appropriately, the future of journalism.
That last topic sparks an interesting conversation with regards to Oliver.
Time and again, he has rebuked the idea that he is a journalist, though the investigations that his show conducts are investigative. It’s true even outside of Last Week Tonight. Debate raged last December about how much Oliver is blurring the lines between comedian and journalist following a prosecutorial interview with Dustin Hoffman, in which he relentlessly interrogated the actor about sexual misconduct allegations made against him.
“I think it’s just the first person who was going to have to talk to him was going to have to ask him the first questions about that. So unfortunately, that was me,” he says about the case of that interview. “I’m staggered if he honestly thought I wouldn’t bring it up. I don’t know how little he would have to think of me to think I wouldn’t bring that up.”
But while he’s explicit in giving credit to the journalists the show employs to shore up the accuracy of these segments, he is as adamant as ever to draw a clear distinction between what he does and what journalists do.
When asked why, he says it’s “because I really respect journalism! I wouldn’t say I’m a basketball player because I like basketball, but I can’t dunk. Similarly, I’m not a journalist.”
Still, Oliver realizes his show, by virtue of when it airs, is in a unique position to not only be allowed to be late to the news, but is expected to be, thus leaving room for those bigger stories—whether or not you call them journalism. If something happens on a Monday or Tuesday, for example, “the bones are going to be picked pretty clean” by the time Sunday night rolls around.
But what he has come to realize is that by late afternoon on Thursday, most of those daily shows are doing their last show of the week, so they can’t pivot on breaking news.
“So anything from like 5 o’clock on a Thursday probably falls to us, unfortunately,” he says, laughing. “We pick up the immensely depressing relay baton. By the time Seth Meyers is done taping, we’re like, ‘Fuck, now it’s us.’”
That defeatism, though tongue-in-cheek, is interesting to consider. No one needs reminding of how oppressive and draining the onslaught of horrifying news can be, a sledgehammer driving us into the ground until we’d be better off hiding out in bunkers on a daily basis.
Last Week Tonight is, of course, funny.
But while people may be turning to late-night comedy for community catharsis, is there ever a fear that the constant spotlight on what’s wrong with the world might veer toward nihilism?
“You don’t want to get to the end of that story and say, ‘So it’s pretty fucked! Anyway, see you next week!’” he says. “We would be worried about kind of just taxiing people to the edge of despair and then making them get out. So we try to point towards some at least narrow solutions to what we’re talking about.”
So what about him, personally, then? That “everything is fine” poster telegraphs one mood about the current state of affairs. But how does he really feel about what’s going on? Does he have any hope?
“I feel some hope,” he says “You don’t want to feel too much hope, because you’d be crazy if you did. Too much optimism isn’t always a great idea. I realize that’s the most British thing I’ve said: ‘Too much optimism is a grand mistake.’”
After a quick break to laugh at himself, he continues: “But especially now, I would not assume that everything was going to be OK unless you actively made steps to make it that way. Too much hope can be an anesthetic. You want to know how much pain you’re in.”
So should you desire to grin and bear it along with him, Last Week Tonight returns this Sunday at 11 p.m. ET.