'Last Week Tonight': John Oliver's future molded by a crushing school embarrassment

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John Oliver's HBO series, "Last Week Tonight," premieres Sunday, April 27. And a month before the show would bow, Oliver hadn't a specific clue as to what he would be doing opening night.

"It is an odd situation," Oliver tells  Zap2it, taking in a majestic view of the Empire State Building. "The jokes we will tell on the first show have not happened yet, but we are building a machine to be flexible enough to trivialize vastly important stories."

Though he has goals and a strong concept, Oliver could not say for sure what his show will be because it is predicated on the news.

"We did our first technical show last night," he says. "I did GM, the recall of 5 million cars, the ignition problem they knew about. It was between 12 and 303 deaths. They say 12; 12 is their defense."

In a month, this could be bigger news, or it could have faded. Oliver did not know -- no one does -- but he's relishing taking the news as it comes.

"The idea is we can do anything," Oliver said. "We are not going to get told to not do anything. You have to survive by your own moral compass -- and mine was probably broken in 1995 -- and an innate sense of decency, and mine was probably lost when I was 6."

Oliver did a terrific job when he filled in as host of "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" last summer, and he credits that stint for leading to the new show. The Sunday show will be "as loose as possible," he says. 

Oliver isn't planning to do a monologue but wants "pre-taped segments because we have extra time," he says. "We can make it a virtue rather than a curse. It should be possible to be reactive to stories."

For instance, given Russian President Vladimir Putin's occupation of Crimea, it's not inconceivable that he might fancy annexing another country. Oliver ponders the possibilities.

"Putin could wake up and say, 'Warsaw looks good this time of year,' " Oliver says and starts laughing at the prospect -- the comedic prospects, not potential wars.

"As we have been gaming out hypothetical shows, we are working out which stories go away because the meat is picked off their bones or if there is something to tackle, whether there is still a deeper story," he says.

As far as guests, Oliver does not want reality show contestants, starlets or the usual red carpet brigade. He does, though, want policymakers.

Had the show been on the week he was chatting, Oliver would have tried to have on a Ukrainian ambassador or someone in the NSA.

"I like to take serious things and treat them with none of the gravity they deserve," he says.

Oliver is self-deprecating and told a hilarious story to a room full of television critics about seven years ago. It was such an insane story that it had to be made up, but Oliver insists it was not, and the crushing embarrassment helped mold him.

Oliver was 10 and running in his school's 400-meter race. "At that point, British sports shorts had a slit down the front, and I came loose," he says. He was not wearing anything underneath and thus became completely exposed.

"I was faced with a choice - keep running or stop," he says. He chose to run, thinking it could be his moment of glory, albeit tempered. "I came in fourth.

"It is good for children to have a moment so cartoonishly dramatic it underpins your security for the rest of your life," Oliver says.

Armed with that bit of psychological underpinning, Oliver naturally decided on becoming a stand-up comic after studying English at Cambridge University. He had a taste of making people laugh as a child (aside from that race) when he played shepherd No. 3 in a Nativity play.

"I was supposed to walk out and say, 'Lo! A star,' " he says. "I tripped, and people laughed, and I quite liked that. Shepherd No. 3 was upstaging shepherds 2 and 1 and the baby Jesus."

By 20, Oliver was doing stand-up at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which is also where he had his worst experience onstage. All comedians can cite a moment when a joke not only went south but also triggered an alarming reaction. A man at a table broke a bottle, held the jagged edge to his friend's face and told him that if he laughed at Oliver, he would cut him.

"There was no gray area at all," Oliver says. "He was firmly in the not-for-me camp. I can't believe that level of anger is entirely about me."

In between stand-up gigs, Oliver has also acted, notably on "Community" and in "Love Guru."

Oliver, 37, is married to an Army medic.

"I have no standing to complain about anything," he says of his wife's work. "The week I got the HBO job, I couldn't tell her because she was in the Philippines doing trauma triage after the hurricane."
Photo/Video credit: HBO