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Eileen Rivers, USA TODAY Opinion

NEW YORK – John Oliver has but one diversion from the perpetual nightmare of the current news cycle. 

As dad to a 3-year-old and 8-month-old, “I never really turn off, but I do watch a lot of ‘Paw Patrol’ and the pseudo-spinoff ‘Mighty Pups,’ in which for reasons that don’t seem narratively consistent, they occasionally have superpowers because of an asteroid,” Oliver says, sighing. “I honestly wouldn’t watch either unless you physically have to, but if you’re a parent with small children, you’re in that category.”

The sardonic British host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” has been off the air since mid-November, but has dutifully spent most of that time away prepping for the late-night series’ sixth season, premiering Sunday (11 EST/PST). As usual, he’s evasive when asked what topics the half-hour show might explore in depth this year, but allows that episodes centered on trade, cryptocurrencies and Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate hearing are among previous pieces he’s most proud of. 

The Kavanaugh segment was difficult: “We were planning on doing something else that week, but it became pretty clear there was only one thing people really wanted to unpack, so we had to write that in a day and a half,” Oliver says. “(The writers) did an amazing job, and it really helped to have (Philadelphia Flyers mascot) Gritty present for it to help pull people out of their deep, deep despair.”

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So which recent news stories does Oliver, 41, wish he could have mined for laughs on his show? We ran through the last three months in headlines and asked him to weigh in. 

The government shutdown. Late last December, President Donald Trump ordered a partial shutdown of the federal government after failing to reach a deal with lawmakers over funding for his proposed border wall. The shutdown lasted a historic 35 days, but Oliver says he has no plans to revisit it on “Last Week” – unless he covers the second one that’s looming this week. “There’s not been a government shutdown that hasn’t been pretty (expletive) dumb, and this one definitely adhered to that tradition,” Oliver says. “Government shutdowns are stupid when they happen for three days, they’re stupider when they happen for a week, and they’re downright insane when they happen for a month.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The freshman congresswoman from New York became a social-media star and target of right-wing attacks days before she was sworn into office last month, when her college-era dance video resurfaced and was mocked online. “That was ridiculous,” Oliver says. “We’re relatively early into the year, but that may be the dumbest news cycle that happens across the whole year. I think the Yanny-Laurel (audio clip) debate had more content in it than (the outrage over) her dancing video.”

Trump’s White House fast-food feast. The president became a Twitter punchline last month when the White House shared pictures of him surrounded by towers of Wendy’s, Burger King and McDonald’s meals, which he served to the Clemson Tigers football team to celebrate their national championship. Oliver was not amused by the stunt: “The perfect encapsulation of him as president for me is family separation,” he says. “The fact that he said “hamberders” (in a tweet) is objectively funny. But it’s just not even in the list of the top 100 things he does each day that are cause for concern.”

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2020 presidential candidates. In the past few weeks, Democratic senators including Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris have announced plans to run next year. Oliver, frankly, isn’t interested in discussing any of them just yet. “We’re so far from the election,” he says. “It feels like the attention that anyone is getting is because they’re running for office against the current president. There’s something appealing about that conceptually. If a tortoise announced it was running for president, there would be a constitutional problem, but I still think people would be like, ‘Oh, great, that’s an option as well. There could be a tortoise instead of (Trump).’ The bar is pretty low right now.” 

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