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Behind the Desk With John Oliver

In anticipation of ”Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”’s April 27 debut on HBO, we talked to the British comedian, 37, about the series, what he learned from ”The Daily Show,” and why you shouldn’t trust him (just yet)

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How has the process been of creating a weekly topical news show from scratch?
It’s quite hard, because you’re building a machine that will be able to be flexible enough to make jokes about stories that haven’t happened yet. You’re building a thing, but that thing is not funny. The idea is that it’ll be something that you can put serious stories in one end, and then jokes will come out of the other end. That’s what you’re trying to do: build a machine of bulls—.

You’ve said that you plan to shy away from project-plugging celebrities. What kinds of guests should we expect, then?
I’m more interested in getting, say, [former secretary of defense] Leon Panetta than Brad Pitt. Which I guess puts me in, like, .5 percent of the planet. I’m not even sure Mrs. Panetta is as interested in that! But that’s the thing: There isn’t quite the same pressure of ratings. When I hosted [The Daily Show] for Jon [Stewart] over the summer, the people who were most interesting to talk to were slightly more off the grid. We spoke to the American coach of the Egyptian football team, because football in Egypt is directly related to what’s happening in Tahrir Square. And we had Joshua Oppenheimer, who did the documentary The Act of Killing. To me, that’s generally more interesting than Brad Pitt…although Brad Pitt is significantly more good-looking than those men. And all other men!

Who are your dream guests — other than Panetta?
I don’t know if Leon Panetta is anyone‘s dream guest. If he ever reads this, it’s going to be so creepy to him. Like, “What’s wrong with this guy? I’m not really relevant anymore!”

What about historical figures? Who would have been a good get?
Mandela. I’d like for him to still be alive! Both to interview him and just on a general level — it’d be nice if he were still here. To go way back: Churchill, who’s interesting because he was quite a s—ty prime minister, outside of a gigantic war. Also: Genghis Khan — an inherently ludicrous figure! It would be interesting to make fun of him.

You’ve been filming test shows in front of a black curtain. Why the set delay?
Studio space is so cramped in New York that it was very, very hard to find anywhere that didn’t have a kitchen in the middle of it. We literally went to talk to Rachael Ray’s studio. We were shown around, and there’s this enormous functioning kitchen in the middle of the set. I said to the guy, “Does that move?” He said, “No, it has to stay there because it’s connected to gas and everything. But you can use it if you want to!” The segments will be cooking, Syria, dishes. People will be like, “What is he doing? He left to do a baking show on HBO?”

Have you coordinated with your new HBO colleague Bill Maher, since he also hosts a weekly current-events show?
Instinctively, I don’t think there’s going to be any problems in terms of being on his toes. But I have not actually talked to him. I’ve never met him. I don’t go to L.A. a lot. I go sporadically, but it’s always for work. I do Community, so I’ll fly out there to do that the whole time, and I don’t have a lot of time to hang around and meet people who aren’t directly related to what I’m doing at that moment.

Will you still be able to do Community?
I’d love to. It’ll depend on whether Community is still doing Community! [Laughs] But I’d like to try. I have a real soft spot for that show. They try hard. They do not take the easy option at any stage. But that comes with a punitive element, ratings-wise.

How do you plan to cover darker, unfunny events?
I actually had a little taste of that last summer. That was one of the main things I was concerned about when taking over for Jon: I feel like you earn the authority to talk about subjects like that. You earn the right to be people’s point of catharsis at the end of the day. And it did happen, because I went on right after the Trayvon Martin verdict. That was a tough day. I really felt Jon’s absence. On a day like that, where you’re trying to process immensely painful things, you want him — you want Jon, not the show that Jon has built. I tried as hard as I could to write something that felt more from the heart than you’d normally do in comedy. So it’ll depend on the actual event. When those things come around, you just have to take extra care to make sure you know where each joke is coming from.

Do you think you have that level of authority and trust now?
Nope! [Laughs] To some extent, it was given; I was working on credit. It was like, you’ve got the moral credit card of another man. I still have to earn people’s trust; I’m just going to have to. So if nothing horrendous could happen for six weeks, that’d be great.

Six weeks, huh?
Any more than that, people are just being ridiculous. Six half hours? Come on! What more moral backbone can I show than that?