John Oliver Shoots Without a Live Audience in Latest Episode About the Coronavirus Pandemic

Paste magazine published this article on March 16, 2020.

If there’s one statement from the latest Last Week Tonight with John Oliver that summarizes the entire episode, it’s this one: “Our personal actions are really going to count.” In this unusually somber episode, Oliver says that the show was shot without a live audience, since the building where Last Week Tonight typically tapes might be infected with coronavirus.

As a result, Oliver speaks with an added sense of urgency. In a room with stark white walls that “looks like the place where movie characters go when they’ve just died,” the host focuses on the coronavirus pandemic. But the pared-down set design for the show helps draw attention to the gravity of the issue, without an audience’s laughs for distraction.

In this season’s second episode dedicated to coronavirus, the host discusses how “deeply frustrating” it is to watch the U.S. government’s handling of the pandemic. For him, “it’s very difficult to say exactly where things stand, especially because despite Trump repeatedly claiming otherwise, tests for this virus are still not available in most places to those who need them, which means that we can’t yet properly track the virus or know how quickly it is spreading.”

As Oliver points out, Trump is not communicating effectively, with his fumbled address to the nation on March 11 and a dismissive attitude to PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor’s question about him disbanding the Whitehouse Pandemic Office. In contrast, the host praises Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy & Infections, for his candidness and clarity on the current public health crisis.

Speaking about the relative inaccessibility of coronavirus test kits, Fauci says, “The idea of anybody getting [a test] easily, the way people in other countries are doing it, we’re not set up for that. Do I think we should be? Yes. But we’re not.”

Amid confusion over test kits and the difficulty of obtaining an accurate count of the number of people actually infected, Oliver stresses the importance of social distancing—avoiding unnecessary travel and crowded spaces, and staying at least six feet away from other people—to highlight how we can all play a role in containing the spread of the virus.

As the risk of hospitals potentially reaching over-capacity looms, the host reinforces just how important it is to try to manage the spread of the virus and misinformation. “We all have a real responsibility to one another right now because the choices we make in the coming days and weeks will contribute directly to how bad this crisis gets,” says Oliver.

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