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‘Last Week Tonight’ returns Sunday to deal with President Trump

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Late-night TV shows may be grappling with how to handle comedy in the age of Trump. and how to avoid, as John Oliver puts it, “the low-hanging fruit” of the president’s combative tweetstorms in favor of substance. But as he touted Last Week Tonight, his Emmy-winning HBO series that returns for a fourth season Sunday (11 ET/PT), Oliver says Trump’s flurry of executive orders since Inauguration Day should astonish no one.

“Any surprise at what he’s doing is not necessarily earned, because this was the only way this was heading,” Oliver said in an interview Monday. “I always believed he was going to do what he said, which is why I was so against him becoming president.  That doesn’t make it any less viscerally horrifying.  It’s just that when he said things like ‘Muslim ban,’ I kind of assumed he was going to do some version of that. I think he’s going to try to put that stupid wall up, (and) I know there are lots of people who thought that wasn’t going to happen.”

Last Week aired just one post-election show before taking an extended winter break, during which Oliver and his team of writers have been working on long-term, deeply researched segments that can take up 20 minutes or more of the half-hour show. Only eight of last year’s 30 episodes featured main stories on the presidential race; the rest veered from Herbalife and other multi-level marketing schemes to medical debt, how to create a fake church and the fate of print journalism, with a spot-on parody of Spotlight, the Oscar-winning 2015 film.

Oliver’s personal favorite: “Irredeemably stupid” segments that represent “a silly, spectacular waste of HBO’s resources,” such as a segment last March in which audio of Supreme Court justices accompanied a tableau of dog jurists, in a commentary on the court’s ban of cameras.

Last Week averaged 5.7 million viewers last season across all of HBO’s platforms, its largest audience yet, and millions more for YouTube clips of the show’s segments.

But the new Trump administration, a likely focus of Sunday’s season opener, is not an automatic fountain of satire.

“One of the most frustrating things that well-intentioned people say is, ‘Wow, your job is really easy now. He does your job for you.’ And that’s really not the case,” Oliver said. “In a sense it’s harder, because there’s so much appealing stuff to get through before you get to something which is really difficult.  But the Obama administration was fascinating to pull apart in its own way; the hypocrisies in there were very interesting to mine.”

He wouldn’t discuss other segments in the works, but told an earlier press breakfast Monday that he has no plans to go all Trump now that the presidency has begun.

The election was so all-consuming that late-night hosts have been forced to weigh in on politics even if they don’t want to, he said, for fear of seeming irrelevant.

“I’m very anxious to not make it all Trump all the time, just on the level of interest and what the human soul can sustain.”

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