How John Oliver’s show is put together

His weekly show Last Week Tonight blends a mixture of long-form investigative reporting and humor, a formula that fellow Daily Show alum Hasan Minhaj has adopted in his own successful show Patriot Act.

Last Week Tonight draws 5 million viewers each week, is consistently among the top series on HBO’s digital platforms and routinely penetrates the helter-skelter news cycle (the 2016 segment “#MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain” racked up 85 million video views in its first month, a record for any piece of HBO content).

In this long profile of Oliver, he explains that he became a US citizen in December of last year, after arriving here in 2006 to be the “senior British correspondent” on The Daily Show. He explains why he became a citizen.

For Oliver, though, there’s another component to it: Now when he scathingly sends up America’s ruling class, it’ll be with skin in the game. “If you’re going to take swings, you’d better take ownership of the ground you’re standing on. It’s one thing being lectured to by a tourist; it’s different being lectured to by someone who lives here. So that feels meaningfully different to me. It’s your right to speak critically about the country that you have chosen.”

I had similar reasons when I became a citizen back in the day. I could have continued indefinitely as a permanent resident (‘green card’ holder) but being a citizen made me feel more comfortable about making strong criticisms of the country’s politics. Also it enabled me to make political contributions and vote and serve on juries, all strands of the civic fabric.

What interested me most about the article was how the show is put together, especially given that investigative reporting requires long lead times while topical humor has to be timely.

The staff begins putting together the show’s shorter opening segment that recaps the week’s news on Thursday so that it still will feel fresh by Sunday, when Last Week Tonight is taped before an audience at 7 p.m.

The show’s deeply researched second segments — often on unsexy issues like bias in medicine (which featured cameos from Wanda Sykes and Larry David), standardized testing and mobile home leases — take about five weeks to produce (longer if they involve a Broadway song-and-dance number about a litigious coal baron that necessitates 50 dancers, a 21-piece orchestra and multiple all-night shoots in Times Square, like last season’s penultimate episode).

Each piece typically begins with the show’s six researchers (many with journalism backgrounds from outlets like The New York Times, ProPublica and BuzzFeed) who scour information about potential topics from media reports, academic studies and government documents. In the second week, the four footage producers gather the video they’ll need to tell the story. A writer then creates an outline — a joke-free skeleton of the story with a coherent arc. The show retains outside lawyers to vet the script each week. There also is an HBO attorney assigned to the show who is involved throughout the whole process, including engaging with the target of the piece, which often “turns to extreme aggression,” Oliver says with a laugh.

The show also will consult legal experts for specific segments. For instance, they hired a nonprofit attorney for the piece on televangelists and consulted with an employment lawyer for a segment about Vince McMahon’s WWE. Only after the piece feels structurally sound do they begin making it funny. Finally, one or two days before air, the full writing staff gathers for punch-up. “You don’t want them writing jokes on a beat that’s about to get cut or on a fact that’s about to get destroyed,” Oliver says. “It can be really disheartening to see a fantastic joke on a statistic that turns out to be wrong.”

Comedy is hard.


  1. johnson catman says

    The correspondents from the days of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show tenure are an intelligent and insightful group that have gone on to spread his style of using comedy to bring hard news to people who hate watching the hard news. John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, Hasan Minhaj, etc. have carried on Jon Stewart’s message that comedy can be used to motivate people politically. We need more of them in these days when political forces are trying to move our country towards outright fascism.

  2. says

    Considering that Sri Lanka is about 10% Muslim, and considering that Trump is now adding new “suspicious” countries to the Muslim ban list, it’s probably best for you that you are no longer a “green card” holder.

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