John Oliver on the Luxurious 'Freedom' of HBO, His Complicated Relationship With NYC
This story first appeared in the May 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
John Oliver is sitting behind his large wooden desk in his barely furnished office on the eighth floor of 555 West 57th St., one floor below CBS' 60 Minutes. There are no books on the metal-and-wood bookcase behind him. The TV is switched to CNN, on mute. It is mid-March, and several rooms on the floor are in various stages of construction; in one, heaps of plaster and drywall litter the floor. Oliver and his executive producer, Tim Carvell, still are hiring writers and producers for Oliver's new HBO program, Last Week Tonight. And true to his self-deprecating Britishness, he's a little uncomfortable going from hardworking team player to boss.
"As a comedian, your whole life you're kind of trained to avoid authority," he explains. "So to suddenly be the authority is a very, very bizarre situation."
Dressed in all-weather boots, khakis and a black-and-blue checked flannel shirt, he tells me that managerial cliches are starting to come out of his mouth: "I'm talking about trying to get the departments to synchronize. I sound like everything I've come to hate."
For all his self-deprecation, Oliver, who turns 37 on April 23, also shows why HBO has so much confidence in him. He will do whatever it takes. Later that week, on a clear, cold Friday, one of the last days of the winter of the polar vortex, Oliver gamely will indulge us as we subject him to a rather unorthodox photo shoot concept. Standing stiffly on the roof of the CBS Broadcast Center, with the wind howling off the Hudson River, he watches as a prop guy hoists a bright orange, five-gallon bucket filled with water -- warm water -- over his head.
"Ready?" asks the prop guy skeptically.
Oliver removes his glasses. "Go, top to bottom. Do it!"
The water washes over Oliver and lands with a splash at his feet. "There aren't many dry bits," he observes as he squishes over to a platform against the southern edge of the roof. An assistant hands him an umbrella while another splashes more water on his jacket. The photographer begins to snap away. "Are you OK, John?" he asks.
"Great," laughs Oliver, stifling a shiver. "Commit to the bit!"
Oliver has been committing to the bit, so to speak, almost his entire life, or since he realized sometime in secondary school that becoming a professional footballer was hopeless. As a child, he would lie awake at night listening to recordings of Richard Pryor. "I knew most Richard Pryor albums by heart by the time I was 15," he says. "You have not heard Richard Pryor stand-up until you've heard it through the voice of a 15-year-old white, British boy."
By the time he was recruited in 2006 to become one of Jon Stewart's supporting players on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, he already had spent several years honing his act on the London student circuit and in dodgy basement venues. Now, Oliver is in the thick of launching his own show. Premiering April 27, Last Week Tonight will air at 11 p.m. Sundays on HBO. The half-hour show, which will be shot in front of a studio audience in the CBS studio previously occupied by Bethenny Frankel's doomed daytime talk show, will look familiar to Daily Show viewers in its structure -- the clip-driven A-block, field pieces, interviews. But the weekly format will mean that Oliver and his producers and writers will need to approach topics differently than his former colleagues on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Oliver mentions the recent General Motors recall as the type of story that demands greater attention.
Click on the photo to view more portraits of the comedian.
"It's pretty incredible considering they may have killed 300 people," says Oliver. "It's as bad as it gets, and yet there's been a slightly peculiar lack of outrage."
In his seven years on The Daily Show, Oliver has developed a nuanced understanding of America's political and social foibles and exposed them in brilliantly crafted field pieces on everything from gun control to the bankruptcy of Detroit. He has a gift for guilelessly stringing along interview subjects until they make the joke for him.
"He's improvising with someone who does not realize they are in a scene," explains Stewart. "The law of improvisation is, 'Yes, and …' But to get to a point that is going to crystallize your idea is not easy. He's always had sort of a strange affinity for it. I've seen people improve on it, start to understand it, start to see the field a little better. But I've rarely seen anybody do it as well as he does."