John Oliver’s show packed with protein

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

John Oliver says that he has hired three new researchers to help with what has become his HBO show’s signature, a long-form take on a newsy subject where it’s often hard to figure out where he will find the comedy.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver clocked 720,000 viewers in its premiere telecast at 11 p.m. this past Sunday. That’s compared to 1.1 million viewers in April, when HBO unveiled the show and Oliver debuted as host of his own weekly program. He will make 34 new episodes between now and November 2015.

Last Week Tonight has become known for segments, often longer than half of the 30-minute show time, that have taken on topics like net neutrality, the Miss America pageant’s finances, translators in the Afghan war and anti-gay laws in Uganda.

To hear Oliver tell it, the format evolved by chance: He did a 12-minute story on the death penalty in his second show almost as a dare. People have responded to these in-depth segments, pushed along by HBO’s decision to post them online afterward — an unusual step for a pay cable network to give away some of its content for free.

“You have to have a pretty intense level of contempt for the American people if you think everything has to be two minutes long, and it has to have someone being smashed in the nuts,” Oliver told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “There has to be more. There has to be protein along with the dessert.”

Last Week Tonight leaves room for the silly, though. A story last year on a chute that propelled salmon upriver was made into a segment where fake fish flopped onto celebrities like Jon Stewart, David Letterman, Tom Hanks, Anderson Cooper and Jimmy Fallon. The fact that so many people agreed to be a part of it indicated how quickly Oliver had gained respect in the industry.

“I’m still slightly bamboozled by the level of success of the show,” he said. “It’s a nice thing.”

He dropped few hints on what subjects to expect in his second season, but one what you won’t see: stories on the 2016 presidential race. Oliver finds stories this far in advance of the campaign another way of journalists saying they don’t have anything better to talk about.

“I have no interest whatsoever in the 2016 election at the start of 2015,” he said. “There’s a time and place for that, and it’s in 2016.”