Praised for his long-form stories, HBO's John Oliver adding more research staff

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NEW YORK — John Oliver says that he's 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.

Oliver's show, "Last Week Tonight," returns Sunday after being on hiatus since November. He'll make 35 new episodes between now and November 2015.

His boss, HBO chief executive Richard Plepler, said Tuesday that he can't think of any HBO show that has broken through in the zeitgeist as fast as Oliver's, which debuted last April. "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 said. "There has to be more. There has to be protein along with the dessert."

Initially, "Last Week Tonight" had one person on staff with a background in journalism at the New York Times Magazine to help with newsier segments. The show has since added another person who used to work for the Times magazine, someone who worked at ProPublica and another former Al Jazeera staff member.

The idea is to have more time and planning for the segments, he said.

Oliver lets his staff members bring him these ideas, and it's the job of him and his writers to sprinkle them with comedy. He enjoys the challenge of taking a serious topic like the racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri, and finding ways to make people laugh.

"Last Week Tonight" leaves room for the silly, though. A news 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."

It also ratchets up the pressure, since he doesn't want to disappoint the people who enjoyed the first season. But, Oliver said, "it's a good pressure."

"It still feels like we have so much to learn," he said. "I don't feel like we have settled in yet."

He dropped few hints on what subjects to expect in his second season, but one on 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."


Follow David Bauder at twitter.com/dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder

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