How John Oliver tried to shake up the late-night writers’ room

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oliverby Nicole Levy

Writers’ rooms for television shows have been historically dominated by white men with previous TV writing experience, but HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” took measures to up the diversity quotient of its writing staff.

Oliver’s team, including showrunner Tim Carvell, narrowed down applicants through two rounds of blind selection, the host of the late-night news parody show told Cosmopolitan editor in chief Joanna Coles in a Q&A session at the Hearst Tower yesterday evening.

Numbers were assigned to applicants’ packets of material, which contained potential jokes for the show, during both rounds of elimination.

“The numbers were for what?” Coles asked. “So you find people from different places and you weren’t biased toward names—“
“Yeah, exactly,” Oliver said. “You don’t want to kind of be prejudicial when you’re reading it. … You’re just trying to blend the voices, like some that were clearly going toward deep research or heavy, aggressive jokes, some that were sillier.”

This slightly unconventional method of selecting writers (the first round is typically blind, if not those following it) assembled “an eclectic bunch,” Oliver said. “There’s not a huge amount of experience—in a good way.”

Staff writer Jeff Maurer used to work as a speechwriter for the Environmental Protection Agency. Juli Weiner’s last job was blogging for Vanity Fair.

The show’s recruiting process for talent was also unique in that former “Late Night with David Letterman” writer Nell Scovell actively encouraged women writers with no experience in television to apply. Typically, applicants find out about open positions through their agents and friends in the business.

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