If there’s one thing John Oliver loves about making a show that has no ad breaks, it is the freedom to break ads.
The comedian’s star turn on HBO, the satirical news show Last Week Tonight, has created fake ads in which the taste of Bud Light is described as “if a nickel could urinate”; Fanta’s ties to 1940s Germany are mocked with images of Nazi troops marching on Paris alongside the slogan “Annex your thirst”; and Volkswagen tries to recover from its emissions scandal by touting the Jetta’s “not-at-all-fraudulent features.”
It’s an area where he felt more restricted as a correspondent on The Daily Show.
“It would occasionally come up. A company would be a sponsor. That is something that you’re always aware of,” Mr. Oliver says in an interview at HBO’s Manhattan offices. “Like, you can make a joke about Delta Airlines being shitty, and you don’t have Delta Airlines calling and saying, ‘You don’t tell jokes like that because we pay this amount of money every quarter for you.’ …On the most childish possible level, it is really fun to be able to say dickish things about companies without any consequences.” But it goes deeper than jokes: Mr. Oliver also credits the freedom from advertising for the aggressive longer-format stories he has done, and will continue to do when the show returns from hiatus on Sunday night.
For example, in the spring of 2014, just four episodes into the new show, he delivered a 10-minute invective against General Motors over the ignition switch recall scandal. After pointing out that GM knew about the problem in 2001, but did not take action until 2014, he said: “That means a child attending her first day of school the day you found out would be old enough to die driving one of your cars the day you [expletive] did something about it.”
GM was mocked for its list of banned “judgment words” advising staff of language not to use when reporting problems, including “death trap,” “rolling sarcophagus,” and “grenade-like.” The team then created a fake GM commercial using many of those words, and ending with the slogan, “Why walk through the valley of the shadow of death when you can drive.”
(Segments like this stand in sharp contrast to fellow Daily Show alum Stephen Colbert, who as host of The Late Show has agreed to product placements and, perhaps consequently, pokes fun of advertisers only in a far gentler manner.)
And there is a structural benefit as well: Because Mr. Oliver’s show does not have to tell stories in nine-minute arcs built around commercial breaks, there is time for longer segments – which often last for as much as 20 of the show’s 30 minutes – that take deep dives into meatier topics.
“You don’t end up talking for nine minutes, and then have to stop so Doritos can tell you about their new flavour of abomination,” he says. “Which seems like nothing, but it’s actually a big deal. … You can’t keep the stuff in your head unless it’s one coherent, linear storyline.”
One example is Mr. Oliver’s sit-down in Moscow with Edward Snowden, for which a special episode was extended to 45 minutes. In the 33-minute segment, he pushed “the most famous hero and/or traitor in recent American history” to explain why he had leaked secrets about the U.S. government’s surveillance practices. Mr. Oliver pointed out that many people did not understand what Mr. Snowden had revealed or why it mattered. So he asked him to frame the issue in terms that people would care about: whether the National Security Agency could see photos of their genitals sent over e-mail or text message. “I guess I never thought about putting it in the context of your junk,” Mr. Snowden said.
Mr. Oliver has become known for longer segments, which – counterintuitively in the age of digitally truncated attention spans – have become incredibly popular online. More than 10 million people have watched at least some of the 33-minute Snowden interview on YouTube; an additional 12 million plus have watched the 13-minute screed against the corruption at FIFA.
The Web has become a more important marketing channel for other comedy shows, with Key & Peele and Inside Amy Schumer becoming well known largely because of skits passed around by millions on YouTube and Facebook.
But if Last Week Tonight benefits from not being beholden to advertisers, it’s because HBO demands that people pay to see its content (assuming they don’t want to watch it illegally): As such, even more than the cable channels that host those other shows, it is a walled garden. “Do not upload any HBO content to the Internet,” reads a white and pink sign in the hallway here, which advises employees to lock up hard copies of videos and not to post them even for personal use. By posting these long-form clips online, Last Week Tonight is wandering further outside the walls of that garden than is usually permitted.
But executives believe that giving out free samples on social media has been a worthwhile marketing vehicle. Viewership for Last Week Tonight quickly grew from a standing start to four million U.S. viewers on average in its first season and 4.7 million in its second season.
“With HBO, all they really are concerned about is whether the dragons are okay,” Mr. Oliver jokes in reference to the blockbuster hit Game of Thrones, saying he’s not surprised at the leniency. “I think we’re a very small concern.”
HBO chief executive officer Richard Plepler begs to differ. “Even the biggest shows don’t necessarily propel new subscriptions immediately,” he says in an interview. “It is part of a brand mosaic.”
The more widely buzzed-about Mr. Oliver’s pieces are, Mr. Plepler says, the better marketing it is for the network at large.
That’s helpful as HBO attempts to contend with changing viewer habits that are upending TV’s business models. Some of the changes are irreversible – such as the popularity of digital on-demand viewing and the demand for unbundling of TV channels. Others, less so: Yes, young people relentlessly gobble up content for free online, but as they grow up, and their incomes and families grow, Mr. Plepler believes they will grow into paying customers, at least for some of their favourite entertainment.
“Our research is pretty clear about this: There’s a very big audience of what we call ‘persuadables’ out there – millions and millions of people,” he says. “… Our job over the next couple of years is to go bring those people into the family.
“Shows like John’s are a delivery of the promise that something great is going on here. … He punches above his weight,” he says. “The segments … become not only part of the cultural conversation, but part of the political conversation. You see that reverberating months and months later in op-eds, in news coverage. So it’s beyond just the viewership.”
The most prominent example is perhaps Mr. Oliver’s 2014 segment on the issue known opaquely as “net neutrality,” in which he explained more clearly than many journalists were able to do why people should care whether Internet providers are allowed to force companies that operate Web-based services to pay for faster speeds. He compared the U.S. Federal Communications Commission employing former lobbyists for cable companies to “hiring a dingo” as a babysitter. Mr. Oliver told his viewers to take advantage of the small window in which the FCC would be taking public comment on the issue, and in the following days the agency’s website was felled by a stream of more than 45,000 new comments. FCC chair Tom Wheeler even said at a hearing, “I would like to state for the record that I’m not a dingo.” In March of this year, the FCC voted to uphold net neutrality.
Mr. Oliver continues to take issue with the claim that what he does is anything like journalism, even though he employs researchers with journalism backgrounds to fact-check pieces and even to do investigations – such as when they combed through Miss America documents to show how the beauty pageant’s claim to offer academic scholarships for women was greatly inflated. He insists that this isn’t in service of the news; it’s just a vehicle to get to a punchline. Call it public service comedy.
This perspective is assisted by his background: Mr. Oliver was born in Birmingham, England, and has what he calls “an immigrant’s crush” on the United States. (He and his wife just had their first child, and Mr. Oliver says he was just struck recently by the idea that his son would have an American accent.) But it also changes how he looks at the issues, he says.
It’s not his first time living in North America as an outsider, though. That credit goes to Canada. Mr. Oliver has an aunt in Kingston, Ont., which led him to spend eighth grade there while his father was on sabbatical and brought the family to Canada.
“I find the inferiority complex in Canadian politics immensely appealing, and something I can identify with directly,” he says. “The lack of coverage of the Canadian election in America was pretty fascinating, seeing as you share a gigantic border … and to think it was somehow irrelevant, what was happening up there, was absolutely astounding to me.
“… And I’m really interested to see how Justin Trudeau disappoints people,” he adds. “I’m really interested in how he publicly deals with his father issues. Especially with Pierre Trudeau, it is like having ‘Jordan’ on the back of a basketball shirt and not being Michael Jordan. ‘Oh yeah, I remember your dad. He was amazing at basketball, the best ever. You just missed.’”
“But, undeniably, nice hair.”
John Oliver on one time when he saw another creative person’s work and thought, “I wish I’d made that.”:
“This was a while ago, but there was a whole section of stand-up that Louis C.K. did based on this one verbal turn, saying, ‘Of course, of course… but maybe.’ ”
(The routine looked at good thoughts and bad thoughts: “Of course, of course, children who have nut allergies need to be protected. Of course. … But maybe, maybe, if touching a nut kills you, you’re supposed to die,” went one of Louis C.K.’s jokes in that routine. “Of course not, of course not,” he then said to an audience laughing and gasping in shock at the same time.)
“That. That. I definitely got that sense there: ‘I wish I’d thought of that so I could say that out loud, so I could do that to an audience, so I’m going to need to work a lot harder at stand-up.’ But that’s a good thing, I think. There’s nothing more exciting than watching your learning curve being steep. Because it stops everything being boring. Those are some of my favourite moments. … Whenever that does happen, I find that not so much a demoralizing thing. It’s quite inspiring. Because you think, ‘Oh. I have to work harder.’ ”
On marketing his show online:
“When the show just started, we wanted to give people a sense of what it was, behind the velvet curtain of HBO. And then the popularity of them [the segments] was slightly inexplicable to us. All of a sudden, people were watching, in weird numbers, pieces about net neutrality or something that had none of the ingredients that would suggest any level of human interest or popularity. They were taking off. …
“It’s weird to say that you’re marketing something when it’s completely unintentional and there’s no money involved. It is very, very inadvertent marketing, in that there was no real design or intention behind it. …
“There are countries around the world that don’t have HBO where they will take off. When we first did the FIFA piece and we were thinking, ‘Why on earth are there millions of people watching this the next day?’ You realize some of those views are coming from around South America, where FIFA are behaving pretty badly at that time. That’s the most fun part of it. You can really extend the reach.”
On spending a year in Canada as a child:
“I loved it enough that it was quite confusing to go back to England because I wasn’t sure if I was going home or not. You get very attached when you’re a kid. I really did enjoy it there. It was fun.
“The winter was amazing. As an English person, you’re not exposed to extremes of temperature of any kind. The fact they would hose down the park and you could skate between the trees, it’s awesome. I loved it.”
- Susan KrashinskyReport Typo/Error