The comedian talks 'Last Week Tonight' season 3

By Ray Rahman
February 12, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST
Eric Liebowitz/HBO

The news has been wild these past few months, what with gravitational waves and some guy named Donald Trump dominating the headlines. If it all sounds like too much to handle, worry not — John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight returns this Sunday to help you process the world around you. We spoke to Oliver about what we can expect to see this season — and to find out what we should do for Valentine’s Day. (Hint: The answer involves John Oliver.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So let’s talk about season 3. What can viewers expect to see during the election year?

JOHN OLIVER: Our election coverage is more likely to be about the process than the people. We’re more interested in the process itself than the personalities involved — we want to look at the underlying machinery of how elections work.

What kind of stories will that result in?

It’s hard to say because we have a built-in failure rate in the stories that we research, so right now, we’re banking a bunch of research just trying to make sure that we’re on solid ground when we start putting them together. There’s a bunch of different things that we’re looking at, but I don’t know which are going to stand up yet.

Last season you had a few surprise episodes and a lot of big running gags — there was the Edward Snowden interview and, of course, the church you founded. Do you have anything big like that planned for this season?

We do, we’ve got some long, germinating ideas. You know, the church took around six months, because we were involved in a correspondence with a seed faith pastor, and that took … that was about six months of back-and-forth. And then there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with lawyers to set up the church and the mechanics [so that we could] take people’s money accurately. So, we have a couple of ideas. If they come off right, they’ll be really fun, but most of the work right now is just setting things up.

One of the things we like is that it’s nice to try and have some of the stories be a surprise. I like the idea that people will watch without knowing necessarily what we’re going to talk about. And I guess Snowden was probably the apex of that.

And the interesting thing with that was we didn’t tell HBO we were going. I didn’t tell them until we got back from Russia, and then said, “Surprise! We just went to meet a fugitive, don’t be mad,” and then said I needed more time for that show because we couldn’t fit his interview into it.

So, we needed 45 minutes [of show], and then I thought it would be more fun if they didn’t publicize it. And amazingly, they were fine with all of it. So in terms of testing the boundaries, that really did seem to imply that there are not many. [Laughs]

That’s impressive, in this day and age, to score such a huge get and the network letting you keep it totally under wraps, with no publicity.

Yeah. It was an amazing thing for them to do. I think the temptation with most people is to try and maximize interest in advance of it happening, but we managed to just let it slide out there and keep a lid on it. Even with the studio audience. Once we’d shown it to them, there were [about] four hours before the show went on, and I said to them, “Please don’t tell anyone for four hours because I think it’ll be really funny if we just kind of blindside people with this.”

What is that conversation like with HBO?

They don’t say much. In a very real sense, they have more important s— to be worrying about than our show. I think most of their primary concerns are dragon-based. “Are the dragons doing okay? What’s going on with the dragons?” The dragons, they’re really important in that building. I think we are like very small fish.

Is there a pressure to out-Snowden yourself this season?

I don’t know if you can out-Snowden. There are not many famous fugitives on earth! [Laughs] But I think we’re trying to plan on some surprises. And here, the reason I’m kind of being elusive about that is that you kind of want to maintain surprises. But yeah, we’re always looking to try to do something which is a spectacular waste of HBO’s resources.

The show is returning on Feb. 14, which obviously is Valentine’s Day. What is your pitch to viewers to justify watching your show on Valentine’s Day?

Listen: Valentine’s Day, as I think we all know, is a nightmare. It is a human emotional minefield. And the safest way to deal with a minefield is not to engage with it at all. Therefore, I will make the pitch that you are actually safer just watching our show than trying to book a restaurant, which is probably already full. It’s already too late. If you’re still wondering what to do for Valentine’s Day, it’s already too late. So go in the other direction and watch the least romantic television show currently available.

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver returns to HBO this Sunday at 11 p.m. ET. 

A version of this story originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1403-1404, on newsstands or available digitally here.

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