Is John Oliver's Show Journalism? He Says The Answer Is Simple: 'No' | KUOW News and Information

Is John Oliver's Show Journalism? He Says The Answer Is Simple: 'No'

Feb 12, 2016
Originally published on February 16, 2016 12:49 pm

On Sunday, John Oliver returns to HBO with the latest season of Last Week Tonight. The satirical current events show doesn't shy away from complex topics — drones, net neutrality, the NSA; Oliver even landed an interview with Edward Snowden last year.

Facts are always the backbone of the show, Oliver tells NPR's Kelly McEvers. After sorting through lots of pitches, stories are aggressively researched.

"You can't build jokes on sand," Oliver says. "You can't be wrong about something — otherwise that joke just disintegrates. ... You try to be as rigorous as you can in terms of fact-checking because your responsibility is to make sure that your joke is structurally sound."

That's a lesson Oliver says he learned while working as a correspondent on Comedy Central's The Daily Show. It was Oliver's stint in the host chair — while Jon Stewart was away for the summer — that was a trial run for Last Week Tonight.

Oliver talks with McEvers about the kinds of topics he tackles on the show, casting dogs as Supreme Court justices, and his aspirations for next season.


Interview Highlights

On what Last Week, Tonight does differently from The Daily Show

There were a couple of stories that we did that were slightly different than what we would normally do at the Daily Show. ... We liked the idea of using the skills that we had learned from working with Jon Stewart for so long to some longer-form stories — things where we're not reacting so much to the news cycle and we were more looking at single issue stuff.

On the episode that made fun of televangelists

Televangelism feels like a relic of the bouffant-haired 1980s. ... There's also this concept of "seed faith" which has been misinterpreted by some of these preachers and pastors to basically mean that they can offer an investment scheme whereby you send money to them and they promise that you are "seeding" the ground and will receive riches in the future. Which you would think is dancing pretty close to the legal line ... but you can absolutely do that. You can promise that — and not only that — but you can operate without any tax liabilities. ...

It's like — it's one thing to, in theory, say to people you can make these promises and you can take people's money and there are no consequences to that. But we wanted to show that in practice you can actually do it. So we could on TV say: Give us your money, you will get more money in return, and we could take people's money and not be taxed on it and it was like showing the proof of concept really that this seems to be a problem.

On creating a church

We created a church — it was called Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption. And my wife, Wanda-Jo, who was played by Rachel Dratch, she and I each week screamed at people to give us their seed ... and they did, to the tune of $70,000 in single dollar bills. ... We took it — which we're allowed to do — and then we asked for more, and then we got more and then we kept asking for more. And all of this is inexplicably OK.

On what they ultimately did with the money

We gave it to Doctors Without Borders. ... The church, I guess, is lying dormant until we decide to pick it up again. So I think if we ever want another $70,000 we can just start asking for money.

On whether his show is investigative journalism

No. There's a pretty simple answer to that. No, it is not. No, we are a comedy show so everything we do is in pursuit of comedy. ... It's confusing to me somehow the fact that this is often the line of questioning. ... It almost makes me feel like, when people say: "This is journalism," it almost makes me feel like: Am I a terrible comedian? ... Is it like looking at a sculptor and saying: "Well it's not art, so are you trying to build a wall? What exactly are you working on here?"

On what makes the best stories for the show

I don't know. We're two years in now, so we're about to start a third year and we're still changing our process. The scope of what our production is capable of has started to be really exciting so from the very silly examples such as making an entire miniature Supreme Court with dogs as the justices — it's just an amazing waste of HBO's resources — or trying to get an effective interview with Edward Snowden about incredibly complicated things — both of which we did last year and both of which are kind of equally fun in different ways and equally challenging.

On how he's going to approach next season

[We're] going after the things that seem most complicated — whether that is trying to explain some of the NSA's detailed programs, or whether that's putting a cowboy hat on a cat.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

This Sunday, John Oliver is back with the latest season of "Last Week Tonight" on HBO. The show is a hilarious look at current events, and it's not afraid to take on big, complicated subjects - drones, net neutrality, the NSA. Oliver even got an interview with Edward Snowden last year. And he told me facts are always the backbone of the show.

JOHN OLIVER: Lots of people pitch, and then we'll generally - if we're interested in something - give that to a researcher to find out if there is a story there, you know, if the story's accurate, if it's been reported accurately. And if we're confident in it then we'll start building foundations on which to write stupid jokes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER")

OLIVER: (As himself) Our main story tonight is income inequality. A good way to figure out which side of it you're on is whether you're currently paying for HBO or stealing it.

(LAUGHTER)

OLIVER: (As himself) Last December, some of you laughed a little too hard at that.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: The show has a lot in common with "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central. John Oliver used to be a correspondent there, and for one summer, while Jon Stewart was away, he got to host the show. Oliver says that summer was kind of like the trial run for "Last Week Tonight."

OLIVER: There were a couple of stories that we did that were slightly different than what we would normally do at "The Daily Show." There was one on aluminum price-fixing.

MCEVERS: Super fascinating.

OLIVER: Yeah, that's right. It rights itself.

MCEVERS: It does.

OLIVER: You're already chuckling.

MCEVERS: Like, 40 minutes on that, right?

OLIVER: And we liked the idea of kind of using the skills that we have learned from working with Jon Stewart for so long to some longer form stories, some things that we're not - where we're not reacting so much to the new cycle and we're more looking at single-issue stuff.

MCEVERS: I want to talk about one episode in particular, and this is the show about televangelists. What made you decide to tackle this subject?

OLIVER: Well, it feels - you know, televangelism feels like a relic of the bouffant-haired...

MCEVERS: Yeah.

OLIVER: ...1980s.

MCEVERS: I think watching it, I was kind of like, really? Still?

OLIVER: Exactly. So, you know, there were those high-profile scandals, but lots of those people on the receiving end of those scandals are still operating. And there's also this concept of seed faith, which has been misinterpreted by some of these preachers and pastors to basically mean that they can offer an investment scheme whereby you send money to them and they promise that you are seeding the ground and will receive riches in the future, which you would think is dancing pretty close to the legal line.

MCEVERS: By suggesting that if you send us your money, you're actually investing in getting some sort of return.

OLIVER: But you can absolutely do that. You can promise that. And not only that, but you can operate without any tax liabilities because the IRS does not investigate churches. So it's like it's one thing to in theory say to people you can make these promises and you can take people's money and there are no consequences to that, but we wanted to show that in practice, you can actually do it. So we could, on TV, say, give us your money, you will get more money in return and we could take people's money and not be taxed on it. And it was like showing the proof of concept really, that this seems to be a problem.

MCEVERS: Right. You created a church.

OLIVER: We created a church.

MCEVERS: What was it called?

OLIVER: It was called Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER")

OLIVER: (As Reverend) Brothers and sisters, welcome to our Lady of Perpetual Exemption. I am your mega reverend. Thank you, brothers and sisters...

(APPLAUSE)

OLIVER: ...Your mega reverend and CEO, John Oliver. And can I tell you, I am so blessed.

OLIVER: And my wife, Wanda Jo, who was played by Rachel Dratch, she and I each week screamed at people to give us their seed.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER")

OLIVER: (As Reverend) Wanda Jo, I have heard the word of prophecy.

RACHEL DRATCH: (As Wanda Jo) Hallelujah. What did it say, my John?

OLIVER: (As Reverend) I'll tell you. I'll tell you, my Wanda. It says the viewers at home must plant a seed.

DRATCH: (As Wanda Jo) A seed, an almighty seed.

OLIVER: (As Reverend) Yes.

DRATCH: (As Wanda Jo) Preferably in the form of cash, although we do take checks.

(LAUGHTER)

OLIVER: And they did, to the tune of $70,000 in single dollar bills.

MCEVERS: And so then what did you do with the money?

OLIVER: What did we - we took it from people.

MCEVERS: Right.

OLIVER: We took that money.

MCEVERS: Yes, and (laughter) then what did you do with it?

OLIVER: We took it, which we were allowed to do, and then we asked for more.

MCEVERS: You proved a point.

OLIVER: We could - and then we got more and then we kept asking for more, and all of this is inexplicably OK.

MCEVERS: Right. What did you do with it after that?

OLIVER: We gave it away. We gave it to Doctors Without Borders.

MCEVERS: And so then what - and then what happened to the church?

OLIVER: The church, I guess, is lying dormant until we decide to pick it up again. So I think if we ever want another $70,000, we can just start asking for money.

MCEVERS: This episode and other episodes that you do gets at a really big question for your show - like, is this journalism? Is it investigative journalism?

OLIVER: No. There's a pretty simple answer to that. No, it is not. No, I mean, we're a comedy show so everything we do is in pursuit of comedy.

MCEVERS: I mean, you're dealing in fact.

OLIVER: Of course, though, but you can't build jokes on sand. You can't be wrong about something otherwise that joke just disintegrates. So that's the - that's why it's most important. Now, that's a lesson I've learned from Jon Stewart at "The Daily Show." We were - you know, you try and be as rigorous as you can in terms of fact-checking because your responsibility is to make sure that your joke is structurally sound.

MCEVERS: Right, but there's a lot of people out there telling great jokes and not tackling the issues that you are tackling.

OLIVER: But that's a different question. Like, in terms of making sure that the things that you're making jokes about are rooted in facts, that is one thing. Now, in terms of what we talk about then that's just kind of a choice. It's confusing to me somehow, the fact that this is often the line of questioning that people want.

MCEVERS: 'Cause we're all journalists and we're all totally paranoid. (Laughter).

OLIVER: Yeah - it almost makes me feel like when people say, oh, but this is journalism, this is - it almost makes me feel like, am I a terrible comedian? It this almost like, well, this definitely isn't comedy so what is this?

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

OLIVER: Is it like looking at a sculptor and saying, well, it's not art so are you trying to build a wall? What exactly are you working on here?

MCEVERS: (Laughter). What is the formula - in your mind, what makes the best stories on your show? What are the key elements?

OLIVER: I don't know. We're two years in now so we're about to start our third year, and we're still changing our process. The scope of what our production is capable of has started to be really exciting. So from the very silly examples such as making an entire miniature Supreme Court with dogs as the justices, it's just an amazing waste of HBO's resources, or trying to get an effective interview with Edward Snowden about incredibly complicated things, both of which we did last year and both of which are kind of equally fun in different ways and equally challenging.

MCEVERS: So your ambitions are to keep your ambitions just as broad as that.

OLIVER: Yeah, I think so. I think so. It's like going after the things that seem most complicated, whether that is trying to explain some of the NSA's detailed programs or whether that's putting a cowboy hat on a cat.

MCEVERS: (Laughter). That is John Oliver. "Last Week Tonight" has its season premiere this Sunday. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

OLIVER: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.