John Oliver on Investigative Journalism, Russell Crowe’s Jockstrap, Donald Trump, and Deadly Hippos

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
John Oliver on ‘Last Week Tonight’ season 5 (Photo by Eric Liebowitz/HBO)

John Oliver took a break from Last Week Tonight to meet with the Television Critics Association for the first time since launching his HBO show. In his first session, Oliver was simply breaking out from The Daily Show and trying something new. Now Last Week Tonight joins his previous comedy news show as a real source of news for viewers. John Oliver himself debates that fact.

“Do they [get news from me], though?” Oliver said. “I’m not sure how much I’m buying the premise of that. Some of our main stories, people may not know much about, so we might be presenting [new information]. It depends what you mean by news. Whether it’s getting the current affairs of the week from us? I think there’s many, many different sources people get information from now. I don’t think they’re waiting to hear us on a Sunday about that.”

Perhaps not the breaking headlines, but some of Oliver’s in depth reporting is unique to Last Week Tonight.

“Yeah, we work on stories for generally a month, those 20-minute stories,” Oliver said. “We fact check everything, mainly because you just don’t want to get something wrong, not just because you would be in legal problems. You can be in legal problems without doing anything wrong, hypothetically. But also because you don’t want to build all that work on foundations that fall apart. So, you don’t want to undercut your own argument by it being inaccurate.”

One example of those stories was Oliver’s coverage of predatory companies who buy people’s medical debt.

“That would be a pretty good example of when it feels like you want to show as well as tell people about something,” Oliver said. “So you want to demonstrate that what you’re saying is accurate. Like, you give people a kind of real world proof of concept. So it’s one thing to say, you know, there are predatory companies that can buy people’s medical debt, and then turn their lives upside-down in the process, and the barrier of entry is too low to get into this. Saying that is true, but it feels like it kind of lands a little harder occasionally if you say and the barrier is too low to get into this, and I can prove that’s true. I am now a medical debt company, and I have done this. It’s kind of like showing that you have the ingredients for an atom bomb, and you shouldn’t have had access to those.”

For the opening segments on the week’s news, Donald Trump is unavoidable.

“He’s a gift that keeps on giving the way a fire hose keeps on giving, and you wish it would stop occasionally,” Oliver said. “We try and compartmentalize him on our show so that to the extent that we talk about what he’s done that week, we’ll try and do it in the first 10 minutes and, ideally, in the first couple of minutes of those 10 minutes just so that we can kind of say, ‘Yes, we know he said that thing,’ and then we can move on and talk about something else. The problem is, we try to be wary of him cannibalizing the show. So we try and protect that main story from him as much as is humanly possible.”

More important stories, like buying Russell Crowe’s jockstrap from Cinderella Man on eBay, and giving it to the last Blockbuster Video store in Alaska. Now even that store is closing.

“We initially bought it thinking this would be fun to do something with and then tried to force it on a Blockbuster in Alaska,” Oliver said. “They were extremely gracious in taking it and displaying it in the manner in which it deserves to be displayed. Sadly, it does not sustain that dying business model. But, you know, maybe that jockstrap will kind of orbit businesses like a Zelig in the future, just wherever there’s a problematic business seemingly in its last embers, Russell Crowe’s jockstrap will be there.”

John Oliver’s animal impersonations were a topic of conversation too. Raccoons aren’t the only creatures on his hit list.

“I’d like someone to impersonate a hippo and be honest that they’re killing machines,” Oliver said. “They’re one of the most dangerous animals on Earth, and I just don’t understand why they have such a prevalent friendly face in children’s literature. I have a tiny child, so it’s hard to see friendly hippos smiling in stories and not say, ‘You do realize how many people they kill, not for food, but just to watch someone die each year. These are monstrous animals who have no place in your book. Anyway, next page. It’s a giraffe. I’ve got no quarrel with them.’”

It’s rarer that Oliver will feature an in-studio interview, or go on location. Those times he did were too important to overlook.

“Talking to Snowden in Moscow was a production nightmare, and we didn’t tell HBO we’d gone until we got back, but they were fine with it,” Oliver revealed. “With Snowden the reason to do that was that he’s incredibly smart, but like lots of people who are smart, in very particular ways, he’s not the best communicator of what’s in his head. So I wanted to kind of try and find ways to get what he was saying to carry to people who do not have the technical knowledge that he has, which is most of us.”

Oliver also loves to feature renowned people who are secretly hilarious.

“With the Dalai Lama, I’d read one interview where he talked about how much he liked to laugh, how much he kind of liked the utility of laughter,” Oliver said. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’d be an interesting side of him to try and play with.’ Similarly, Stephen Hawking, I knew he was a funny person, and he often kind of got reduced just to this emblem of science, and I kind of wanted to get to the human being in him, because he was a cheeky, cheeky person.”

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver airs Sunday nights on HBO.