'Last Week Tonight,' Two Days Later: John Oliver on His First Show, Dream Guests, and Old White Racists


"Last Week Tonight With John Oliver" premiered to 1.4 million viewers on Sunday (11 p.m. on HBO), and that's not just thanks to all the racists in the news last week. With a show that recaps the biggest stories at the end of each week, Yahoo TV thought it'd be appropriate to check in with Oliver about his debut show… two days later. Keep reading for his take on the premiere ("not a disaster," a glowing self-review), his dream guests (Oprah vs. the Queen!), the art of dropping F-bombs, and the continuing late-night shuffle.

Hi there! Have you recovered from Sunday night?
Yeah, now I'm just all worried about next Sunday now…

The wheel keeps on turning.
Exactly. That's probably the best thing about it.

How do you feel about the first show?
It mainly feels good just to get it out of the way. We've kind of been building a staff and teaching them how to do the very particular version of their jobs that we need them to do, so I just feel good for them — they've worked really hard all week, and I feel good for them that we got something on the air that was not a disaster.

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There were stories that your first few trial runs missed the cutoff deadline for air… it's not easy!
Exactly. The technical stuff is difficult. Our office is across the road from our studio, so there's all kinds of technical problems that could go wrong. So, you know, we managed to iron that stuff out to the point that we're not giving people heart attacks. Just to physically get something on the air and have it not be terrible was great. Now we kind of work out where to go from here, and hopefully in six months we'll look back and feel like we're into a rhythm, whatever rhythm that is. We need to re-engineer things, but it's hard to re-engineer a car if you just crash that car. [Laughs.] We'll work on the engine… bang out some dings…

Well, you joke about not giving anyone a heart attack, but my favorite part was that you barely took a breath. I was imagining a "Rocky" training montage of just you in a pool doing breath training.
[Laughs.] Yeah! I'm sure I'll slow down… I was quite excited, and we had quite a lot of things to get through to get the show under [time]. We still had to end up lifting a few things out of the show, which hopefully you didn't notice the edits, just to get it down to 29 minutes and 59 seconds. We had to trim things down a bit, but it was exciting — we've kind of been working so hypothetically for the last couple of months that it was just fun to actually do something.

When you're doing those test episodes, I'm sure you had moments of "Oh, I wish we were on now so we could cover ___." How amazing in your premiere week that you got all of the racism. Just all of it.
[Laughs.] All the racism! That's right. Like a nauseating shower raining down upon us, yeah. Old white people feeling really comfortable once again, a racist beat in their rotten hearts.

The dead calf. I was dying. It's like they knew you were premiering this week.
That's right. It'd be great if an old racist man could just hold up a dead calf… at least that would give us an early laugh at the start of the show, and we can surf the momentum to the credit.

Then, of course, there's the cussing, which was such a pleasant surprise. I hadn't really thought about that until you dropped your first F-bomb.
It's fun. Linguistic pyrotechnics are nice to fire off every now and then. A well-placed F-bomb, strategically detonated, can be a thing of beauty.

Could you ever go back to basic cable now? I feel like you'd be bleeped within an inch of your life.
I like bleeps, though — bleeps are fun as well! There's a nice rhythm that bleeps get you. I've got no problem with bleeps. But the F-bomb… it's a nice-sounding word, and it's multi-purpose. It's positive, it's negative, it will be there for you whenever you need it.

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How much has HBO had a say in what it is you're covering, or how you want to cover it? Did you get a lot of notes after that first episode?
Not much. They've been pretty "Let's just get on with it" so far, so yeah… they're kind of just letting us do what we want. It's almost suspicious.

Until you f--- it up, of course.
Exactly! That's what I'm waiting for — I'm waiting for a black SUV to turn up, and guys with earpieces to step out and say, "Get inside." It's like, "Oh, I knew this was coming."

Will you always be doing the interviews? Or will you have correspondents eventually?
I don't know — I'm not sure. [Laughs.] This is just Week 1, so I don't know what we're going to do. Sorry, we need to reschedule this conversation for six months' time — I'll have more to tell you then!

I liked you doing the interview, but because people are so familiar with you as a correspondent on "The Daily Show," I just expected you to have one or two of your own.
I don't think so, because we're not going to be a parody news show, so no people pretending to be journalists. I don't know how we'll expand things.

Are you hoping to have guests in studio sometime?
Yeah, depending on who's available to come in… some weeks, we might not have a guest at all. Some weeks, we'll have a guest in-studio. Some weeks, it'll be pre-taped. So there's no need to stick to a rigid formula, I think.

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So no formula, no rules: Do you have a personal goal for this show? A dream guest?
The Queen. The Queen and Oprah together.

Together, yep. Arguing with each other about who is the most powerful woman in the world. And let me tell you, Oprah is going to win that argument. [Laughs.] I, at least, want to give the Queen her say.

Who gets first chair in that scenario?
Well Oprah will be sitting in a chair, and the Queen will be sitting in a throne. So it's going to look like the Queen's got it, [laughs] but when it comes down to bank accounts, she really doesn’t.

So is this pretty much the job now? Will you have time to go play on other shows? We always love you on "Community."
Oh, you know, I love doing that. But this is the job for the time being, yeah. Maybe in a hiatus week, I can go and do things… I'm not going to do anything else for the next few months, that is for sure. I need to make sure that this thing works first before leaving it unsupervised.

Are there any talks of extending the show to an hour-long format?
Maybe. I guess what we'll have to think about is if… we could do it… I think we could do hour specials on certain things if it seems like we need the extra time, and HBO seemed fine with the idea of that. If it's an hour every week? Maybe… I think that would have to become a slightly different show. I think it'd be too exhausting to see the kind of thing we did on Sunday for an hour. By 40 minutes, you'd be tapping out. So it'd be a different kind of show, but we could do that if we felt like that was worth it.

Well, and I don't know that that's the best answer. I was reading that a lot of people wanted that room to breathe and laugh, but I loved the fact that I had to pause or rewind a bit because I was laughing, but you were still going.
That's awesome — I love that! We want to pack it with as much as we can because, you know, it's exciting to get to make a TV show!

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When David Letterman announced his retirement, my first thought was that if he'd done it six months earlier, Colbert would've been tapped and you would've taken Colbert's spot after "The Daily Show."
I wouldn't have gotten that job. I don't know if that's true. Yeah, who knows?

In my mind, it's true.
OK, well, that's nice.

But you have a lovely job now.
That's right — I'm not complaining!

The million-dollar question these days: Your old friends, your old pals, who should take Colbert's timeslot?
I'm not Comedy Central. [Laughs.] I have no idea. I don't know if they're going to want another show like that. I have no idea. They're all very good in different ways, at different things — it's a specific thing, running a show about the news. I'm not even sure that… who knows if Comedy Central even wants another one of those? I have no idea.

Do you have any predictions about Stephen Colbert taking Letterman's job?
My prediction is that he's going to be amazing. I think he's going to be so funny. I'm pretty confident in that prediction as well. I think he's gonna be great. He's so much broader an entertainer than that character is. He's going to be incredible — he's got a lot of artistic muscles that he has yet to flex, that people haven't seen. And he's a good man to his bones, to the marrow in his bones — he's an amazing human being and, as it happens, an extremely funny one.

"Last Week Tonight" airs Sundays at 11 p.m. on HBO.