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For 'Daily Show' alum Oliver, 'Last Week' is 'fresh turf to ruin'

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Launching a weekly Sunday night news comedy show in an era of ever shorter news cycles is both a blessing and a curse, as John Oliver freely admits.
/ Source: Reuters

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Launching a weekly Sunday night news comedy show in an era of ever shorter news cycles is both a blessing and a curse, as John Oliver freely admits.

As he chooses current events topics to skewer, the bespectacled British comedian will have to pick over what other late-night shows, most notably "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," where he used to work, have already feasted on.

"If something happens on a Monday, realistically all the meat is going to be picked off that bone by the time it gets to us - there's probably barely a point in doing it," he said of "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver," which premieres on HBO on April 27.

But Birmingham-born Oliver (who turns 37 this week) said in an interview that both global news and late-breaking stories explored in the U.S. networks' Sunday talk shows will provide plenty of fodder for "Last Week."

"I think we'll be attracted to some extent by stories that are off the grid," he said, mentioning the ongoing Indian elections, in which he said five candidates had criminal records, as the type of event that is barely covered by U.S. mainstream media - or political satire shows.

"Our show may end up skewing more international in terms of stories," said Oliver, who also co-hosts a weekly satirical podcast called "The Bugle" with fellow Brit Andy Zaltzman.

The U.S. political satire space is getting crowded. Not only Stewart, but also fellow Daily Show alum Stephen Colbert weigh in on the news on weekdays. Others from HBO's Bill Maher to "Saturday Night Live" do so weekly. But Sunday in particular - while a competitive TV night overall - is virgin territory, he said.

"There's no kind of comedic look on the week at all," he said in an interview at HBO's New York headquarters. "So you're actually on nobody's toes. It is a relatively fresh turf that we can, uh, ruin."

Oliver says he leaped at the chance to switch to a weekly format and has not looked back even as nightly shows have grabbed the headlines. Colbert in particular has been in the news after snagging the coveted CBS "Late Show" chair of soon-to-retire David Letterman.

"I'm used to that sausage factory of producing something every night," Oliver said. "There's something I love about that pace. But that's what is one of the most exciting challenges about this, was how to take that pace and do something else with it. So to do a deeper dive into stories."

So attractive was the offer from HBO, in terms of flexibility and freedom from editorial interference that Oliver put an end to early exploratory talks with CBS and others after his successful run last summer as "The Daily Show" host while Stewart was away.

"When this turned up, when the idea of Sunday night on HBO turned up, it all went away," Oliver said of the talks, which The Hollywood Reporter has said included the possibility of succeeding Late Show host Craig Ferguson if he didn't renew his contract. "It never went that far," he added.

Oliver, also known for a recurring role on the cult comedy series "Community," said he plans to stick it out at HBO "as long as I'm not fired."

His test shows so far have taken on topics including General Motors Co's 2.6 million-car recall and faulty ignition switches linked with a series of lethal accidents - a story that has not gone uncovered exactly but that he says has failed to trigger enough public anger.

Outrage has underpinned some of Oliver's most memorable work, which at the Daily Show also tackled such themes as gun control, money in U.S. politics and the shortcomings of the U.S. Veterans Administration. The latter is a subject Oliver takes personally; his wife, Kate Norley, is an Iraq war veteran.

The show will sometimes feature guests, though Oliver says he wants a flexible enough format to fit whatever the story dictates. It will likely have some pre-recorded footage, but nothing like the "fake news" correspondents on the Daily Show.

That's not to say that Oliver has completely left his former boss's orbit.

He still sees the Comedy Central show as must-see TV - if for no other reason than to avoid repeating it. And he confessed to bouncing ideas off Stewart via email just recently.

"He is the barometer by which I kind of judge myself," he said.

HBO is a subsidiary of Time Warner Inc, and Comedy Central is owned by MTV Networks Entertainment Group, a unit of Viacom Inc.

(Reporting by Christian Plumb; Editing by Mary Milliken and Steve Orlofsky)