The world keeps changing, and “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” keeps staying the same. As it begins its fifth season on Sunday, this topical HBO comedy series is sticking with the format that has helped it stand out in the crowded late-night field: a mix of quick tongue-in-cheek takes on current events and longer, satirical contemplations of topics like the state of American coal mining and the Equifax security breach.
Though its last new episode aired in November, Mr. Oliver said in a telephone interview this week that he and his staff had not been idle the past three months. “What we’re doing is researching stories, trying to make sure the structural foundations are solid, trying to bank research that we know we can stand on top of,” he explained.
At the same time, Mr. Oliver said he appreciates that his show can do what his competitors on ad-supported broadcast and cable channels cannot. “To get people into a narrative for nine minutes, have a Doritos Locos Tacos ad, and then come back and say, ‘Oh, what were we talking about?’ — it’s hard,” he said.
But during the recent news cycles when “Last Week Tonight” was in reruns, Mr. Oliver was still in the spotlight: He drew attention in December for moderating a public panel discussion where he persistently questioned Dustin Hoffman about a statement the actor released after being accused of sexual misconduct.
Mr. Oliver spoke further about the coming season of “Last Week Tonight” and his exchange with Mr. Hoffman. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
At this time last year, you spoke about not wanting “Last Week Tonight” to be overrun by coverage of President Trump. Do you think you succeeded?
I was quite anxious that we protect the main body of our show from being cannibalized by him. So, I think we were able to do that. We tried to contain talking about whatever he had done that week — to the extent that we could — to the first section of the show, leaving the majority of the show for those long pieces that have nothing to do with him. Still, it’s hard to ignore the president, right? Even though we did a piece on vaccines, he was in that, only because the president has expressed vaccine skepticism. It felt irresponsible not to mention the fact that there is someone in the Oval Office who’s expressed skepticism for vaccines, which is dangerous.
A year into this administration, do you feel a certain futility in your task, that all this satirical sunlight you’re providing is not serving as any kind of disinfectant?
When we take a position, we try to keep people on board who might disagree, so that at least they can watch our thought process. We don’t want to be another haranguing voice, which turns people off. We did a long piece about the Confederacy, and I understand that people have different feelings about what those monuments mean. We didn’t want to do the shorthand, which is “blah, blah, blah, you’re all wrong, they’ve got to come down.” We tried to explain who Jimmy Savile is, who was a genuine hero in Britain, who we had built statues of because he was so iconic. Then his memory became recontextualized when it turned out he had done terrible things and those statues had to come down. When you talk about that for a few minutes, you get people to at least buy into the idea that history can recontextualize people’s actions. Then, hopefully, you’ve approached it in a way that you’re working from a basic point of agreement. Even if you don’t agree with our conclusions at the end of it.
A complaint I sometimes hear is that late-night shows have all become the same, too political and reflexively anti-Trump. Is it possible to do a topical comedy show anymore that doesn’t fit this description?
The idea that people are being turned off to the concept of comedy that’s on at night is kind of absurd to me. I wouldn’t make it a general argument. We’re just tending our own garden. We were doing this kind of show before the Trump presidency, even before the Trump candidacy, and hopefully we’ll be doing it after he’s gone, whether that’s in four, eight, 12 or 16 years.
It can take several weeks to research and produce the segments for your show. How do you keep them timely?
A lot of the segments don’t feel that timely, really. I don’t know if anyone watches a comedy show going, “It’s crazy that they didn’t talk about Sinclair Broadcast Group enough.” That’s the problem with letting a Trump presidency cannibalize everything — those things are happening. It’s sometimes harder to detect because they’re throwing out so many verbal smoke bombs, it can obfuscate some very important things that are happening behind them.
Since your last season ended, there’s been a significant rise of #MeToo stories — prominent men being accused of sexual misconduct and the movement’s wider impact. Is there a way for a comedic show like yours to take on such a sensitive topic?
That’s just true of everything that we talk about. We’re sometimes attracted to things that seem hard to write comedy about. You don’t want to make fun of victims, whatever the story is. But you want to tell it delicately, with thought and rigorous attention to detail, and be unyielding over the quality of data you use. That takes a lot of work. That involves reading the studies that people cite, and even with the best ones in the world, advocacy groups are sometimes trafficking in data that is not as solid as you need it to be. So you then you try and find something else. But that is a meticulous process.
Attitudes on the topic are shifting rapidly, if your encounter with Dustin Hoffman was any indication.
Not his attitude! [Laughs.] That remains at square one. That became painfully clear.
How did you feel after that interaction?
What was really dispiriting to me was the extent to which that story became about me. The story, to my mind, was about how poor his answers were, not how good my questions were. Because it’s not like they were great. It’s not like there was any great insight coming from me there.
Do you think people responded to it because you were doing what they want to see journalists do, which is speak truth to power and confront those accused of wrongdoing?
There were the allegations that had been reported out by The Hollywood Reporter, and I knew there were some more coming. He was going to have to address this with the next person he spoke to. Now, sadly, for everyone involved, that person was me. I’d have moved on if the answers were not that bad. But I can’t just let him say that, and say, “O.K., well put.” I felt bad for some of the people in the room that did not want to be watching that, but I didn’t feel it was my fault. What helps for me is that I’ve disappointed so many audiences in that past. The concept of a room full of people being angry with me is by no means new to me.
Does a moment like that start to blur the line between your identity on the show and in real life — now you have to be a radical truth-teller in all situations?
I don’t think that was radical truth-telling, by any stretch of hyperbole. That was just asking some basic questions that had to be asked and then not backing down when the answers were bad. Where it intersects with this show is — it doesn’t, really. People are more than one thing. I don’t know if I subscribe to the idea that, because you take a stand on one issue, you must take a stand on all others. That feels absurd.
Are you getting fewer invitations to moderate these types of events?
I will say, I had almost no invitations beforehand, and I’m anticipating rolling snake eyes for the rest of my life. I’ve just freed up many evenings for myself in the future. That’s how you get rewarded for moments like that.