John Oliver visited Danbury in a fake hazmat suit and exchanged gifts with the mayor. Here's how it happened.
DANBURY — John Oliver’s visit to Danbury was his first time leaving his New York City home since the coronavirus pandemic began.
That’s what HBO producers on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” told city officials and was the main reason for the privacy and secrecy surrounding the comedian’s Saturday, Oct. 10 visit to cut the ribbon at the sewer plant named after him.
“They had a very strict COVID protocol that we had to follow,” Mayor Mark Boughton said. “We had to be very careful about it.”
Boughton and his communications coordinator Taylor O’Brien were ordered to get tested for the virus before the filming, both testing negative.
The “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” episode featuring Boughton and the much talked about sewer plant aired Sunday night, featuring Oliver showing up in a plastic suit and face shield. That outfit, Boughton said, was a riff off of Jude Law’s character in the 2011 film “Contagion” and the first time the mayor saw the comedian in person.
“That suit was absolutely hysterical,” said Boughton, who did not see Oliver before filming started.
“They didn’t want us to meet until on camera,” he added.
Very few people knew Oliver was coming to the Hat City. Boughton announced last Thursday the comedian would be at an eventual ceremony. The ceremony, however, had already been filmed days earlier.
The public works director was told, as well as another staffer who helped coordinate, but was not permitted once Oliver arrived, O’Brien said.
O’Brien said she did not have to sign anything keeping the visit a secret, but due to the coronavirus pandemic HBO staff wanted to prevent crowds from gathering. A COVID safety officer is on set, and staff have their temperatures checked, she said.
Oliver had another appointment afterward, she said.
“I know a lot of people wanted (Oliver) to stop and hang around,” O’Brien said. “Unfortunately, he was very busy.”
‘A lot of excitement’
The city got its first indication that Oliver would come to the ribbon cutting when teachers said he had donated to their Donors Chose’ projects. HBO called the city a few days later and O’Brien helped coordinate the visit, she said.
“I just feel like you knew him after this back-and-forth for so long,” O’Brien said. “There weren’t too many nerves, but a lot of excitement.”
The back-and-forth started in August when Oliver ranted about the city on his show, inviting its residents to “come get a thrashing.” After some playful banter in which Boughton offered to name the sewer plant after the comedian, Oliver offered a $55,000 donation in exchange for the renaming. They mayor and City Council agreed.
Producers shot footage of the Danbury Railway Museum and Uncle Sam statue before Oliver arrived, Boughton said. The comedian was in the city for about 1 1/2 hours, but did not go inside the plant.
O’Brien met the producers around 6:30 a.m. and Oliver arrived at 9 a.m.
“I was actually standing by his car and I didn’t realize it,” she said.
He came out of the car, they introduced themselves and he saw the “John Oliver Memorial Sewer Plant” sign his producers had already installed.
“He just said ‘This is amazing,’” O’Brien said. “He was really excited.”
Oliver was wearing his mask, so she directed him to a different part of the property to change into his suit.
Beforehand, Boughton had wondered whether he would need to come up with any funny lines.
“Him (Oliver) being in that moon suit—that was the comedy,” Boughton said.
The producers told Boughton to do a standard ribbon cutting and “be yourself.”
“It was pretty easy to do,” he said.
Besides Oliver, about a half dozen crew members came, Boughton said. The crew battled the sun and shot multiple takes. Boughton pretended to cut the ribbon in the different shots until they were ready.
Oliver gave a speech after the ribbon cutting, where he describes the renaming of the plant as “inspirational.”
“He did that without any notes or cards,” Boughton said. “I was pretty impressed with that.”
There was little variation in the speech in the three to four takes, he said.
“He (Oliver) said ‘I know what the theme is and I just riff off the theme,’” Boughton said.
Oliver’s episode also featured clips from the Danbury City Council meeting where the name was approved. Oliver said on his show that he watched the meeting with “bated breath.”
Boughton said Oliver did not have the Zoom credentials for the meeting, so he watched on YouTube like the public.
City Council member Paul Rotello, who was featured on the show, said about 50 people have texted him about the episode.
“John Oliver works very hard to be funny and, for the most part, the bit succeeded,” Rotello said.
Oliver told city officials he enjoyed the letters from residents in support of the name and loved the video responses from the Danbury Hat Tricks and 8-year-old Caio P. Leaf.
Gifts and donations
Off camera, Boughton thanked Oliver and the two exchanged gifts.
Boughton gave a mock toilet bowl, an official copy of the resolution renaming the plant and a quarter zip that said “John Oliver Memorial Sewer Plant.”
Oliver gave merchandise from his show and signed some T-shirts that will be auctioned to benefit a fundraiser for area food banks that was started in honor of the renaming. He also promised to donate $55,000 to area charities.
“It was all really in good spirit,” Boughton said.
But Oliver did not a get “Danbury Dundie”—an award based on the NBC show “The Office” that Boughton has been giving to his guests on his “Live @ 5” Facebook updates.
Boughton said it is unlikely Oliver will be able to appear on the Facebook show.
“You never know though,” he said. “Maybe we’ll get him on ‘Live @ 5’ when we complete the fundraiser.”
That fundraiser has raised more than $55,000 in about a week, with $45,000 of that money coming from local banks. Oliver mentioned the fundraiser on his show, using a screenshot from an article in “The News-Times.”
“I’m really excited about being able to help people and put food on their tables,” Boughton said. “Definitely it gave me a good chuckle with all the things going on in 2020.”
Oliver told Boughton that he did not pick on Danbury in his Aug. 16 episode for any particular reason.
“He said it was totally random,” Boughton said. “He said they just threw a dart at a map of Connecticut and it hit Danbury.”