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'Utterly joyful': John Oliver tells NPR about returning after 5 months off the air

John Oliver returned to TV with season 10 of his show.
John Oliver returned to TV with season 10 of his show.

This week, you might have indulged in a long-forgotten pleasure: sinking into your couch for your favorite late night shows, like John Oliver's Last Week Tonight.

Shows hosted by the likes of Oliver, Fallon, Kimmel, Colbert and Meyers have been off the airwaves since May because of the writers strike.

But now that writers and studios reached a tentative agreement, late night TV is back, and hosts are ready to talk about it.

All Things Considered host Juana Summers spoke to Oliver on Friday about the last few months off air, his thoughts on the tentative agreement, and what he hopes for his writers in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

Juana Summers: Can you just take us behind the scenes a little bit? What was it like for you and your writers to prep this episode after all of those months away of not being able to work together because the strike was ongoing?

John Oliver: Well, I guess it was kind of a two-pronged approach, because one half of the show really was the story that we had planned for the first week of May, which was about prison health care.

And then the other half of the show really was trying to recap five months as fast and as fully as we could.

Summers: Was there a moment that you remember from when you all were able to come back together where you kind of just felt like, "This is what I've been missing, this is what we needed to be doing?"

Oliver: Well, honestly, I was checking in with the writers. We checked in with them throughout the strike because, strikes are very isolating experiences. And I think we remembered that, Tim Carvell and I, who I run the show with, from 2008. It's a really isolating experience.

So we were checking in with them a bunch and whenever we were on those Zoom calls and they were making each other laugh, part of the sadness was, "Oh, it would be really nice to direct these incredible senses of humor at the targets that you want to direct them at."

And so, yes, it was very, very fun to give them assignments and to watch them excel and make us laugh. It was utterly joyful.

Summers: As you were spending those five months waiting to see what the outcome of the strike would be — obviously hopeful that it would be one that was beneficial to the writers — was there a particular moment in the news cycle that you were sitting there that was painful for you to miss, to not be able to play with?

Oliver: It wasn't so much individual stories flying by. It was more, knowing the big stories, those main, deep dive stories that we work on, knowing how badly we wanted to put some of those on air.

And honestly, it was really more concerns about practicalities. When you run the show, you're responsible for a lot of people. They have to be paid. You can't just cut them off.

So that was much more of a concern rather than scratching the itch of this new story that it would be fun to make jokes about, it was more kind of a constant background terror of how are we going to make sure that people are paid?

Summers: How were you all able to keep everyone paid? Obviously you love your jobs, but people do not do this for fun. They do it because it pays the bills.

Oliver: Stand up [comedy]. I'm so, so grateful. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for people that came to see me around the country, doing some very hastily written standup.

You could make a case for the fact some of that standup was not yet fit for human consumption. But people consumed it, and I'm massively grateful because everyone who came to see me do stand up really directly helped us pay our staff.

Summers: Is there one thing that you think it's important for people to understand about what goes into making a show like yours, and the people who you work with day and in day out that help you put it together?

Oliver: It's a massive collaborative effort. So I know this strike was just about the writers, but we have researchers, producers, graphics. At its best, this show functions as something that ends up much better than the sum of its parts, so that everyone, there's value added at every point of our process.

So only as you get people all together can you kind of take these stories and have them rigorously researched with fascinating footage and with absolute, utterly silly jokes on top of it, hopefully making the whole thing go down easier.

It's a hugely collaborative experience, which is why when you take one component out of that machine, it's frustrating, because you think, the whole thing only works if everyone is pulling in the same direction.

Summers: So the Writers Guild has called the deal that it struck with studios "exceptional." And I know that that contract is still being ratified. But what terms in the new agreement were most important to your team? What have they told you about it?

Oliver: I mean, it's so broad, right? So much of the contract honestly doesn't really apply to late night variety shows. But I think it's really more incremental gains across the entire industry going forward at a point where it seems like the industry is undergoing something of a seismic shift. So how well it works, you can never tell right on the page, right? The proof is in the pudding, so we will see if it's as good as everyone wants it to be going forward.

Summers: Does it feel like the studios have a new understanding of what these writers need?

Oliver: I have no idea. I have no idea. You would really hope so, but I would have hoped that understanding was evident on day one. So I could not crawl into a studio executive's head, partly because I cannot imagine what kind of a place that is to live in.

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Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.