Oliver relishes being able to do show without restrictions

FILE - In this Nov. 7, 2017 file photo, comedian John Oliver performs at the 11th Annual Stand Up for Heroes benefit in New York. Oliver's show, which begins its fifth season on Sunday. (Photo by Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP, File)

HBO's John Oliver says he and "Last Week Tonight" would go down screaming if new corporate management imposes restrictions

NEW YORK — HBO's John Oliver so relished being able to trash AT&T's cell phone service that he can't imagine doing "Last Week Tonight" under corporate restrictions.

His network's corporate parent, Time Warner, is waiting to see whether a proposed takeover by AT&T will be approved. Oliver's show, which begins its fifth season on Sunday, has been able to operate with freedom in part because HBO's business depends on subscribers instead of advertiser, and he's become quite accustomed to it.

"We were drawing a line in the sand," Oliver said on Monday, referring to an episode last season that discussed corporate mergers, including Time Warner's. "I don't anticipate the ground underneath us shifting and if it does, that is going to be a problem. We'll go down screaming."

He said he realizes that "Last Week Tonight" is lucky to have the ability to do the lengthy, journalism-style explorations of issues and the jokes it gets to do along the way.

"Being able to point out that this product is (lousy) and that tastes terrible, it's really great to have that kind of freedom," he said. "It's addictive."

Besides some topical jokes, the show's centerpiece is one lengthy exploration of an issue each week. Oliver tackles topics that would seem television-unfriendly, like net neutrality or health care financing, and teaching an audience while having some laughs along the way.

He's reluctant to talk about any topics that the show will cover during a new season, both to preserve the element of surprise and because they probably wouldn't sound appetizing.

"If we say to people, 'look, we're going to talk about Sinclair Broadcasting,' you'll think 'good, that's a half-hour extra sleep I'll have,'" he said.

The show constantly has to weigh how much of the day-to-day actions of the Trump administration to address, both because he doesn't want to change its formula, and since many topics are picked clean by daily topical comedy shows. News, and the humor pulled out of it, moves so fast that programs like the "Late Show" had to go live after Trump's State of the Union address because the jokes would seem stale 24 hours later, he said.

But there are some topics — like when Trump commented upon the demonstrations in Charlotteville, Virginia — where not talking about it would be like an editorial decision in itself, he said.

Despite starting its fifth season, Oliver said the show still feels new. He's contracted to do two more and an HBO executive sitting near him at a news conference indicated the network would like more.

"I still feel there is a lot of room to get better," Oliver said. "I don't feel like we're at cruising altitude yet."

Oliver attracted attention during the show's hiatus for being on a panel discussion with Dustin Hoffman in December that sparked an uncomfortable discussion about women who had made sexual misconduct allegations against him. Hoffman should have been expecting that he would be questioned about it, Oliver said.

"The first person that he talked to (publicly) was going to have to ask him questions about it," Oliver said. "Unfortunately, that was me."

The discussion continued largely because his answers "were pretty bad," Oliver said.

"I wanted to try and get him to a point of self-reflection and to try and get something out of the conversation, but that didn't happen," he said.

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