John Oliver would like you to know that nobody is more surprised than he is that he has landed his own show on HBO. While he may not be a household name just yet, when Last Week Tonight With John Oliver — a satirical weekly news program — premieres on April 27, it will join the cable channel's distinguished Sunday-night ranks, which have included The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Game of Thrones, Girls and Veep.
"It's an odd piece of premium real estate — I feel like I'm polluting the landscape a bit," says the 36-year-old import, best known for his seven years as "senior British correspondent" on The Daily Show and the two months he spent filling Jon Stewart's chair when the anchor was away last summer. "It's like seeing a gigantic empty lot on Park Avenue and someone just built a tent on it. It's like, 'How did you get there?'"
Three weeks before his first broadcast, we sat down with the compulsively self-deprecating, lightning-witted comedian to find out the answer.
TV Guide Magazine: As of today, your show's format is still being tweaked. Any idea what it will look like?
Oliver: It's gonna change week to week. We did our first test show last night, and one of the topics we covered was [New Jersey governor] Chris Christie's rigorous investigation into himself, where he was found completely innocent. It's like Colonel Mustard saying, "We've investigated the murder in the dining room, and it turns out Colonel Mustard had nothing to do with it." But since we can't really write ahead, we're just trying to build the machine that will one day make fun of stories that haven't happened yet. The broadest possible format is that it will be me behind a desk, breaking down stories from the news and then talking to someone at the end of it. In between those things, basically we can do anything we like.
TV Guide Magazine: Such as...?
Oliver: We could do man-on-the-street interviews. We might go overseas to shoot a piece or make a fake documentary. It's kind of exhilarating and terrifying having that kind of freedom — we'll just have to feel it out as we go.
TV Guide Magazine: What types of guests are you going after?
Oliver: Mainly political and news figures. We have an offer out to [former CIA director] Leon Panetta. What category is he? And obviously we'll want Oprah and the queen — Oprah dressed as the queen. I have a soft spot in my heart for David Beckham. One of the things he's truly bad at is speaking out loud, so he could just sit there and kick things. He sits beautifully and kicks beautifully!
TV Guide Magazine: Since you're on premium cable, can we expect lots of full-frontal nudity?
Oliver: I don't know what the contractual obligation is on that, but I know it's not none. I'm not sure if flashing a testicle is going to be enough. I think I have to be naked from the waist down — I can be behind a desk, but the desk has to be completely clear. We'll work it out.
TV Guide Magazine: You aced your stint as guest host of The Daily Show. Was that your career tipping point?
Oliver: I guess so. I didn't really pay much attention. The whole summer went by in such a blur — I just didn't want to screw it up for Jon, because I felt like he trusted me so much to let me do it — that it wasn't until I came up for air afterward that I started thinking about other things. In fact, Jon was more aware than I was. Just before he left, he said to me, "We'll need to talk about what you're going to want to do when I get back."
TV Guide Magazine: Does that mean there's no scorched earth between you two — even though you managed to nab Daily Show head writer Tim Carvell as your showrunner?
Oliver: Oh, no. I'll do anything Jon asks me to do. There's no scorched earth there — that earth is deeply precious to me. I tend that earth like a 90-year-old in his small patch of garden.
TV Guide Magazine: What were Jon's words of wisdom for you, now that it's your name on the marquee?
Oliver: So many, but they all relate to this very narrow process — like, "Trust your discomfort when the script is heading in the wrong direction, because if you let it go an hour longer, it's going to be hard to fix" — so it might sound like the kind of thing you'd find inside a Chinese fortune cookie. It's like, "Oh, thanks, Confucius," but it actually makes a tremendous amount of sense.
TV Guide Magazine: Here's the big question: What will set you apart from the other programs that send up the news, like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and Real Time With Bill Maher?
Oliver: I think we'll have to work that out — some stories will unfold over the week and, by Sunday, all the meat will be picked off the bones. We'll either have to look at different stories altogether or do a slightly deeper dive.
TV Guide Magazine: You're British, but you describe your wife, Kate Norley, as "quite an American" — she's a former U.S. Army medic who served in Iraq. Humbling?
Oliver: I have no leverage to complain about anything — it provides nonstop perspective for me. When I got this job, she was doing triage for hurricane victims in the Philippines. She doesn't really care about my sense of humor. She likes the Real Housewives — they crack her up. That's as hard as I hear her laugh. And she really likes [comedian] Jim Gaffigan. We did this charity gig together, and she was laughing so hard at his act. So hard! He was doing this one bit about Subway sandwiches, and she was banging her leg with laughter, and then she turned to me angrily and said, "Why can't you be that funny?"
TV Guide Magazine: And what makes you laugh the hardest?
Oliver: Any YouTube clip of someone getting hit in the nuts. It's so sad to think that I'll torture myself all day long trying to come up with some funny analysis of the corporate malfeasance at General Motors, and it's never gonna get close to the elemental, joyful laughter of seeing someone wrap his testicles around an electrical wire.
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver premieres Sunday at 11/10c on HBO.