A version of this story about “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” first appeared in the Down to the Wire: Comedy/Variety/Reality/Nonfiction issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
When the Television Academy shuffled the variety categories this year, it moved “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” from the variety talk category, where it had won seven years in a row, to the new scripted variety category where it would be facing off against another juggernaut in “Saturday Night Live,” the most nominated and winningest show in Emmy history.
But for “Last Week Tonight” director Paul Pennolino, the move was nothing new: In the Outstanding Directing for a Variety Series, he’d been going up against (and losing to) “SNL” director Don Roy King, an idol of his, for years.
“I knew I was racing against Usain Bolt,” he said with a laugh. “There was no way I was going to win, and everybody knew it.” (In fact, Pennolino lost to King and “SNL” four times and to “Inside Amy Schumer” and “A Black Lady Sketch Show” once each.)
King has retired and Pennolino is back with his eighth nomination this year for a “Last Week Tonight” episode that featured an elaborate mock wedding between Oliver and a giant head of cabbage. (Yeah, it sounds strange, but it makes perfect sense if you watch the episode.)
“That was pretty complicated,” he said of the show-ending sequence, which was overseen by Whit Conway. “The bulk of the show is done on standard Sony studio cameras, but the producers wanted it to have a different look, more saturated and cinematic than the regular show. So once we got John from the home base to where this wedding scene would take place, the challenge became how to electronically interface those new cameras with the regular broadcast switcher.”
The set itself, he added, had its own challenges. “We created a wedding chapel with flowers everywhere — I think we spent 50 or 60 grand on flowers alone. It was like a movie set and there were five cameras, each with one or two focus pullers.”
He laughed. “And we had to create a cabbage about the size of a basketball, or a little bigger, and it had to look real. There were a lot of moving parts to that one.”
The elaborate setup contrasts with most of the show, which is, he said, “a very funny British guy at a desk.” That’s been the basis for “Last Week Tonight” for 10 years, and it remains unchanged. “We’ve done some tweaks, but why change a formula that seems to be working?” he said.
Still, even that part of the show is painstakingly mapped out with an actor, Ben Hauck, who has an uncanny ability to capture Oliver’s mannerisms, gestures and cadences. “Even if it’s just a guy at a desk, we have to rehearse,” Pennolino said. “Those shows make me more nervous because you can get complacent.”
To fight that complacency, he said, he has a ritual. “Generally we load i the audience and warmup person does a few minutes, and then he introduces John to come out for a Q&A, which lasts about 10 or 15 minutes,” he said. “At that point, I will get up and take a walk down the corridor and do these breathing exercises. And I’ll even go into the studio about two minutes before air, as John is wrapping up, just to look at the audience and feel their energy.
“It makes me it makes me nervous, because I look at them and I say, ‘OK, these people have waited a long time for these tickets. They’ve come a long way to see this show.’ And not that I need to do this, but it reminds me that I’ve gotta do my best. And if it’s just a regular, simple formulaic show, I find that if I make myself just a little nervous, it makes me sharper and more in tune with the host.”
The attention to detail on “Last Week Tonight,” he said, is remarkable. “A couple of years ago we did a show where we dropped 800 pounds of raisins from the ceiling of the studio, and we did 18 or 20 test drops to see how we could do it without the raisins clumping. Every time we did it, it took an hour and a half to clean it up, but I never saw so much as an eye roll from the stagehands.
“I can’t explain to you how great a culture it is on this show. As a director, they give you any tool you need, and they generally don’t ask you why. It’s almost hard not to get nominated with the infrastructure they set up for you.”
But, he insisted, Oliver and the people who work for him aren’t paying much attention to those nominations. “I’ve worked a few places where the primary goal is winning the golden idol,” he said. “I don’t judge that by any stretch of the imagination, but I would bet half my pension that if you were to put truth serum into John Oliver, he’d say, ‘We’re not thinking about awards at all.’
“Their focus is making the show as funny, as real and as relevant as it can possibly be.”