My experience attending Last Week Tonight

Hello everyone! Today is 9 October 2019. I attended the 8 September 2019 taping of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

I want to start off right away by saying that no photography was allowed inside the studios, so don’t expect any behind-the-scenes photos here. But I do have behind-the-scenes details to share!

Let me just start off by saying that the photo above, which has the ‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’ and ‘HBO’ text on a poster above a door, is not actually the entrance. It’s close, though, but the same street carries two ‘CBS Broadcast Center’ signs and entrances, along with a wall advertising ‘CBS This Morning’. I’m therefore making a guess that CBS is actually taping the series for HBO, something I did not know before this taping.

Once we got inside the building, there were security checks and then we waited for the crew to guide us into the studio.

The studio itself is relatively small. There’s obviously John Oliver’s desk and the background of world monuments, there’s also several cameras and lots of monitors in the space above our heads, but as we walked over to the seats, we walked right past a darkened section showing what looked like seats in a government legislature. While we were seated in the audience and waiting for show start, an audience warmup asked for countries/regions of origin, and made some jokes to get us all in the mood for laughing.

The audience warmup only talked for a few minutes, before he introduced the various monitors to us and told us to watch them. They then showed a trailer for the series on those monitors. It was similar in ways to the show’s public season 6 trailer (linked below), but it was longer, featured more content from the series’ history, and seemed designed to refresh everyone’s memory about the series’ accomplishments from its 6-year-history. Being such a huge fan, I remembered all of those moments, but obviously not everyone has either the memory or my level of interest, so it’s nice that they increase the length of the trailer to show more notable moments.

Right after the trailer was finished, John Oliver walked onto the set. Huge applause followed, and the applause continued even as John was trying to start speaking. In typical Last Week Tonight style, he said, with self-deprecating humor, “That’s literally too much”.

Before beginning the show, John stood in front of the audience and took some questions. After a few minutes, he was told by a crew member that they needed to start the taping, at which point a crew member with a microphone attached the mic to John’s clothes and he sat down on the famous chair.

When we, the audience, watch the show on television, we see a small screen to the left of John featuring what he is talking about; if it’s Trump, it’s a picture of Trump; if he’s referencing an article, the screen will show the exact quote. Obviously there’s no floating display next to John’s face during the taping, so the crew told us that the monitors above our heads will display the relevant video, quote, or person. Another crew member told us that he would wave around a piece of paper to indicate when we should start applauding for the opening intro. And then… it was time to begin.

Moments before filming started, though, they stopped it, as John’s microphone apparently wasn’t working properly. The crew member who placed the mic on John came back up on the stage to fix it, while the audience cheered him on in delightful fashion.

Second attempt. The Last Week Tonight intro started on the monitors, the music was blasting from speakers, and then the crew member with the piece of paper started waving. Everyone in the audience started wildly applauding and cheering, including myself. As the camera pointed at John Oliver and he began talking, I actually couldn’t hear what he was saying for a few short moments due to audience applause and cheers that continued. He always says the standard phrase of “Welcome, welcome, welcome!”, so I wasn’t missing out on anything, but it was a surprise that audience cheers were that loud. As people calmed down, John talked about the “quick recap of the week”, and started with the United States and Trump’s use of a Sharpie on the weather map to extend the area of impact to cover Alabama.

I was seated in an ideal place in the studio. I was on the left side of the audience, having full view of John, as well as a conveniently-placed teleprompter facing my view. John does talk fast on the show, and even though I understand English very well, it was nice to be able to glance over on the teleprompter once in a while to understand every word spoken.

John himself didn’t actually make any mistakes, though two retakes were necessary. One concerned the length of the show; John needed to retake a part of the episode immediately following a Trump clip to slightly speed up his talking to get the episode’s run-time down to 30 minutes. And the second time happened when he walked out from his chair, to the right of the studio, where they had recreated the Senate. This was the episode focusing on the filibuster in the Senate. When John initially walked off the stage, his head was apparently half-way out of frame, so they needed to re-tape his walk off the chair.

Whenever you hear John say “That’s our show! Thank you so much for watching! We’ll see you next week! Good night!”, it is usually followed by a few seconds of audience applause while John sits in his chair. If they have extra time to spare, they have historically shown some bloopers, extra clips, or slowly moved the camera away from John. In episodes with very short time left, they quickly show all credits on-screen before fading out. I was curious how they knew how much time they had for credits, and I’m guessing they might not actually know during the taping. At the end of this show, John is laying on the floor, and they filmed multiple seconds’ worth of him laying there, as well as pretend-Senators in the back looking at him. They probably give the post-production crew a set number of seconds afterwards, and the people responsible for editing cut it to whatever length is needed. That’s my guess, though, nothing I can confirm.

After filming was done, John stood up, consulted with a crew member, before they announced that it was a successful taping. They asked everyone to stay in their seats while cameras were moved back to original placements. A crew member came over to me and my mom to guide us out first, as we were also booked for a meet-and-greet with John Oliver himself. We were seated in a couch outside the studio for a few short moments while another crew member came up to us and said that he was going to walk us to the right room. And that room was apparently not even in the same building, but on the opposite side of the road.

I had spotted a ‘CBS’ logo on the stairs of the opposite building before entering the studio for the taping, so it seemed like the whole street was a CBS-production area. We were guided into an elevator, up a few floors, and into a small lobby decorated with ‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’ logos. It was the development area for the series!

I was allowed to take personal pictures here, but I don’t want to share it due to the visibility of faces and any potential confidential documents. We were guided into a hallway, were greeted by some crew members as we walked down, and then we were shown the writers’ room!

The writers’ room had a couch, desk, monitor, an upside-down map of the world, and several pieces of documents pasted on the walls. Those documents included all the main story segments from the past 5 seasons of the series, and a document of main stories from the current season 6. The crew member who had guided us in here told us to wait a few moments for John Oliver to meet us. On the desk was an envelope, two bottles of water, and a goodie bag. The envelope featured a signed photo of Oliver, while the goodie bag was filled with lots of cool Last Week Tonight-themed items. There was a small John Oliver figure, as well as an umbrella, a phone grip, two t-shirts, a cup, and a notebook. Had no idea that was going to be there, so that was an exciting surprise!

Me and my mom walked around and looked at all the stories the series has done while we talked, and suddenly we heard John Oliver’s voice. He walked in, we greeted each other, and we proceeded to have an actual discussion. A “meet-and-greet” often only means a handshake, a photo, and maybe a question or two, but he actually stood and talked with us for about 10 minutes! I don’t want to advertise that as the standard, though, as this might have been a one-off thing he only had time for with us, but it was an amazing surprise to get to really talk with him! He was so nice!

Not going into details about the conversation, but Oliver was curious about how Norway views what is going on in the world, while he was able to answer plenty of questions we had. Our auction win meant we could get some photos and autographs, so we didn’t want to take up too much of Oliver’s time talking. After those 10 minutes, he signed the Marlon Bundo book I had purchased, as well as two Last Week Tonight posters we had brought, and then it was picture time! We got photos of me and John, and my mom and John. Not going to share them to protect identities.

We then said goodbye and we got a few moments to pack all the items in the goodie bag into my mom’s purse. A crew member came into the room and guided us out.

My mom and me could not stop laughing and smiling on the way back to the hotel. Not only was it a funny episode, but we got excellent seats and an amazing experience afterwards that none of us had anticipated. It was awesome!

Below is the YouTube video from the official Last Week Tonight account of the main story of the evening, the filibuster in the United States Senate. Enjoy!

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