Behind the Desk With John Oliver |


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)

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?”