STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
John Oliver returns to HBO this weekend, starting a new season of his satirical news show "Last Week Tonight." Just to avoid any confusion, the program returns on Sunday, which technically means that "Last Week Tonight" returns next week, not actually tonight. Oliver is struggling with how to cover President Trump. And he spoke this week about "Last Week Tonight" with NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. And we have the talk this morning.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: When we sat down at NPR studios in New York, Oliver was expansive, sharing his thoughts on his mentor Jon Stewart.
JOHN OLIVER: I kind of learnt at his feet. He is the L. Ron Hubbard to my Tom Cruise. Let me immediately retract that comparison.
FOLKENFLIK: And Oliver offered some enduring truths.
OLIVER: Teenagers falling off skateboards - funny. Nut shots - funny. Breaking wind - funny. The world cannot change those. Those three things are columns upon which humor is built.
FOLKENFLIK: You think flatulence - always funny?
FOLKENFLIK: I'm kind of ambivalent on flatulence.
OLIVER: Always funny.
OLIVER: Always funny. When I heard that Hitler had problems with flatulence, it's funny. What - does that make him a funny man? No. It means he had funny moments when his rear end was speaking louder than his mouth.
FOLKENFLIK: Yet "Last Week Tonight" traffics in subjects that aren't immediately funny and aren't much funnier on second or third review.
OLIVER: One of the things that we looked at last year was the fiduciary rule and retirement savings - right? - which, again, sounds like not a half an hour of television that you would be anxious to fall over yourself to watch.
FOLKENFLIK: Oliver blends a distinctly liberal sensibility and a seriousness of purpose in his humor, as he did in this episode on civil asset forfeiture.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT")
OLIVER: Now, I know it sounds like a Gwyneth Paltrow euphemism for divorce, but incredibly it's actually even worse than that.
EZEKIEL EDWARDS: Civil asset forfeiture is really a mechanism by which the state and federal government can seize people's property without having to convict them of a crime.
FOLKENFLIK: Other topics include school desegregation, opioid abuse, pharmaceutical pricing and Brexit.
OLIVER: When we feel we're doing what we do best, it's highlighting stories that perhaps are under-covered or have been underreported and where we can show people things they haven't seen before.
FOLKENFLIK: The show hasn't been seen in three months. When last spotted in his indigenous habitat, Oliver was sharing his perception of 2016 and what was to come - a dystopian hellscape. Now remember, it's on HBO, and there's a lot I just can't play from that show. Oliver was really angry. He had kept his distance from Trump for a while, but after mocking him last year the candidate responded by tweeting that Oliver had invited him repeatedly to appear on the show, but that he wouldn't because "Last Week Tonight" was so boring. Oliver rises to his own defense.
OLIVER: By any rational metric, I am boring. I probably agree more than I disagree with him there.
FOLKENFLIK: Then Oliver turned to the meat of that allegation, a spurned invitation.
OLIVER: But the first half is just demonstrably a lie. And it's - I think even in one of our stories last year we tried to articulate just how confusing it is to be on the receiving end of a lie that confident because he seemed absolutely sure. I know it was as sure that I had never invited him.
FOLKENFLIK: Oliver says he asked every staffer is it possible that someone had invited him, someone had sent an invitation even by text. Oliver claims nothing.
OLIVER: Absolutely nothing. So it was just a totally empty lie, which doesn't matter at all except for the fact that person with the tendency, the tenacity and the confidence to make that lie is now leader of the free world.
FOLKENFLIK: My own inquiries to two Trump aides went unreturned. The whole thing drives Oliver nuts. Oliver's segments are produced by a team of comedy writers and a team of researchers, many of whom are pulled from such journalistic outfits as The New Yorker magazine and the investigative site ProPublica
OLIVER: I care about facts the way I care about oxygen and imbibing enough water a day to live. Everybody should care about facts. That is something all of us should agree on.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, interesting you should say that.
FOLKENFLIK: We live in an age - don't know if you're aware of this - where we have a president and a presidency that doesn't embrace that worldview.
FOLKENFLIK: How do you as a satirist who cares about facts address a new administration that seems to be hostile to them?
OLIVER: Well, that is what we're wrestling with at the moment, right? It's a - like, it feels interminable to kind of talk about that in theory other than to say we're trying. We'll give it a go, and we'll see.
FOLKENFLIK: Oliver says Trump is a funny target, and he takes him dead seriously. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.
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