“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” premiered on HBO in 2014 and has been nominated for 45 Emmy awards, winning 20. The show won its fifth consecutive Emmy award for Outstanding Variety Talk Series Sunday night at the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards hosted by Jimmy Kimmel.
In March, like many of its peers, the late night show made the shift online to continue filming episodes virtually.
On the heels of the show’s fifth Emmy award win for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series, writers Daniel O’Brien, Owen Parsons and Ben Silva responded to Annenberg Media reporter (and former “Last Week Tonight” intern) Maya Tribbitt over email about the pivot to writing during the pandemic, their three season renewal and Adam Driver. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you deal with coronavirus monopolizing your [main story segments]? How did you make these stories feel fresh?
O’Brien: Purely from a story-navigating perspective and nothing else, I found the coronavirus to be helpful when it came to framing things, because it was so universal. Everyone can already see and feel how the coronavirus has made things worse in their own lives so, to begin with, we’re starting on the same page. I just think it’s easier to get people to care about a story about, for example, the US Postal Service, right now because between our sudden reliance on deliveries and mail-in voting, people are paying more attention to the postal service than they would have been a year ago. Say what you want about the coronavirus (I, for example, am against it), but the immediate, short-term impact it’s had on institutions we all rely upon and in some cases take for granted has exposed all of the much larger, systemic problems baked into those institutions that might have otherwise gone unnoticed or under-discussed.
Parsons: In the beginning we were doing shows just introducing people to the concept of coronavirus, but as the crisis worsened, the ways in which it touched society grew deeper and more varied. So for better or worse (worse) there’s plenty to talk about. Prisons, immigration, voting... coronavirus has further exposed the massive flaws that those systems had to begin with. I guess our government’s response to the pandemic, that is, to just let the lil' sucker run wild and tucker itself out, has been as good for framing issues-based comedy shows as it has been bad for human life.
Silva: Keeping things fresh has not been an issue, since COVID really puts the “fresh” in “a fresh hell.” Keeping things funny has been more difficult, especially when you don’t have an audience to tell you if it’s working. Is it working?
What positives have come from writing remotely?
O’Brien: There are obvious things (I control the temperature, I can decide that my ‘office’ is my bed one day, etc.), but it’s also nice to have the freedom to do any of the things that (I’ve convinced myself) help me write that are far too weird or embarrassing to do in an office. I like to pace a lot, I talk to myself and just generally bounce around my apartment. Behavior that would surely make my coworkers uncomfortable or annoyed. I also often silently stare off into space for minutes at a time while I try to wrap my dumb brain around something, but I’m self-conscious about doing that at work because it’s visually identical to “doing nothing.”
Parsons: Because our pieces tend to be deeper dives into obscure subjects, writing here already involved a lot of solo computer time even before the pandemic. In that sense, the actual act of outlining and drafting stories hasn’t changed too much. I miss in-person meetings and being in the room with other writers, but my daily commute is down to the ten seconds it takes to walk from my bed to my desk, which is a small kindness.
Silva: I got a dog in February, so he’s been the biggest positive of writing remotely. If you need a picture of him for this story, just google “the cutest damn dog in the whole stupid world.”
The news coming out of 2020 has been hell. How have you made time for your mental health when you have to cover and make jokes about depressing stuff? Is the writing therapeutic at all?
Parsons: It’s helpful in that it clarifies why you’re feeling bad. Hours of research can help take you from “I feel anxious and scared and upset about the world in general” to “I feel anxious and scared and upset for these specific reasons.” But if that sounds therapeutic to anyone, I would recommend actual therapy.
Silva: If writing for this show is therapy, therapy is bad and does not work. Still, I probably underrate the positive effects of having a constant outlet for political discourse. If I didn’t write for this show, I might have a Twitter account, and the world absolutely does not need another Twitter account.
You finished last season with “Eat Shit, Bob” which was one of the biggest stunts the show has ever done. What were the challenges in writing something that big? How have you had to re-conceptualize the stunts for this season that can’t be as big or in person due to coronavirus?
Parsons: We had to scrap the big ender where John french kisses everyone in America. Real shame. Had the Smoochmobile rented and everything.
Do you feel any responsibility to the audience to make sense/make light of the heavier subjects you have to cover each week?
O’Brien: I think if I thought about what I contribute to this show (and what this show contributes to the world) as a “responsibility,” I would get too into my head and then I’d explode. My personal goal when writing these stories is to pretend I’m talking to one person. What would I say and how would I say it if I wanted to spend 18 minutes telling one person at a party that prison labor in the United States is awful, immoral, and racist? Clearly, and with a few jokes to hold interest. Incidentally, I am no longer invited to parties.
Silva: Never in human history have there been more media outlets trying to explain more things to more people, so I certainly don’t feel an individual responsibility to make sure our audience knows a certain thing or thinks a certain way. If you’re getting all your information from this show, please stop doing that. I do feel a responsibility, however, to make our pieces somewhat enjoyable. I’m always trying to write a joke good enough to make you forgive John for saying: “So tonight, let’s talk about lethal injection.” I rarely succeed, but that’s the goal.
Parsons: I think our responsibility to the audience is to give them a great show, or at least to not wake them up if they’ve drifted peacefully to sleep in the back half of Westworld. Speaking personally, I know that I as an audience member like learning about things, even sad and scary things, and that I like laughing at absurd jokes, preferably about cute animals in hats or how tall Adam Driver is (many fathoms). So that’s the kind of audience I think about when I’m writing.
This is the show’s seventh year and 5th Emmy for writing. How has the tone of the show changed over the course of its run? What direction do you see it going through 2023?
Silva: The tone of the show got a lot better when I started working here in 2017, and it will get a lot worse when I start hosting the show in 2023.
Parsons: In the early years, our office dog Bruce might stop by to visit while you were working, to see if you wanted to take a break from writing about genocide to give him pets and maybe ham. That was great. In 2020 we work at home, so no Bruce. By 2023 I hope we’re back to the old system, with Bruce in it. We were a better show then.
How did the Adam Driver bit come to be and has he commented on it? (So sorry, I had to ask! Haha)
O’Brien: Weirdly, no one remembers writing this bit and in fact there’s no record that it was ever written down. John just launched into it one day during taping. He claims he blacked out and doesn’t remember saying it, but then it just kept happening. At this point—much like Adam Driver himself—it is bigger than all of us and no one knows how to stop or contain it.
“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” airs on HBO on Sundays at 11 p.m.