John Oliver rarely gets a break from his job as a correspondent for The Daily Show to do stand-up, but last November, I was lucky enough to catch him at Boston's Comedy Connection. The election cycle was already in full swing then – the field of candidates hadn’t been winnowed down much, and multi-candidate debates seemed to be springing up every week. Oliver studied English at Oxford before striking out to write comedy for the BBC and test his hand at stand-up. But he was always interested in politics and comedy, including American political satire. He admired Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce, but never got to see America firsthand until he was hired by The Daily Show. And it’s all been a strange trip since then.
Oliver’s hour-long stand-up special, Terrifying Times, debuts tonight on Comedy Central, so I thought I would give an almost full transcript of our interview for the Boston Globe (you can see the full article here). Only a few boring bits were left out. Those were mostly my fault. Oliver is an engaging fellow, and based on his show at the Connection, I’m looking forward to a thoughtful and incisive special tonight.
Have you played America much as a stand-up?
Yeah, I guess, that was my job before I came here. And so, when I can, which is maybe not that often. I’ve done college gigs and clubs in and around the east coast.
Had you played America before the Daily Show gig?
I’d never been to America before The Daily Show. I’d never even visited. So it happened pretty fast. It was quite a major life change.
I know when they were auditioning people, they were looking a lot of different places and they didn’t know exactly what direction they were going to go.
To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure what happened. You always have imposter syndrome with stuff like this and I’ve deliberately not asked how it came about out of fear that something went wrong. I don’t want to highlight the mistake and have them go, "Oh, oh yeah, that’s not who we meant at all." So I don’t really know entirely what happened or what they were looking for or why they were looking abroad.
Did you audition or did they know of your work and hire you that way?
They asked me send a tape. I don’t know how they knew who I was. They asked me to send a tape, I think it was maybe through, Ricky Gervais met Jon and said, "you might want to look at this person." But I don’t really know. I sent the tape and then got invited over, and then it all moved very quick. It was a pretty amazing experience.
Did you get any time to adjust before you were thrown on the job?
No. I got in really late Sunday night and thought, I guess they’ll break me into work slowly. I got in Monday morning, having woken up on the sofa, and they said, "All right, you’re on tonight." Bush had said something to Blair. It probably worked out best because I didn’t have time to realize how scared I was. It worked out pretty well. I had absolutely no time to acclimatize to either America or this show. It’s really knee-deep in both.
Have you gotten time to look around and explore at all?
America? No. The only way I’m able to travel is through work, so I guess it’s going to get worse as the year goes on, especially once we get to the twelve-month countdown for the election. The traveling I’ve done has usually been for field pieces. So it’s either been to things like the presidential debates – we’re going down to Baltimore tonight for the Morgan State Republican Black Debates, that only half of them are bothering to turn up to. And then I guess big places in the middle of nowhere where the classic field piece crazies are, the middle of Colorado or Ohio. So yeah, I haven’t gotten to see much.
Do you think you’re getting a strange view of America?
It’s really warped. Also what makes no to me, the first time I flew to the west coast, as a European, it makes no sense to me to fly for five hours and land in the same country. That just makes no sense. You couldn’t even be on the same continent where I’m from. To see the same flags, it’s something like that that really brings home how enormous this country is.
What was your expectation before you got here?
Of what? Of the country?
Of the country or of New York. I realize it may be way too broad of a question, but I wanted to get a sense of what you thought you may be coming to.
I had no idea, really. It all happened fast, and this was my favorite program when I was back home. I kind of knew it pretty well. But that comes with being sort of intimidated as well. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Obviously the European perspective on American politics is relatively negative. I’ve always been very interested. I’ve always followed American politics, I like politics. So it’s been interesting to delve slightly closer, in more detail.
Have you been surprised about anything you’ve found about American policy?
Not really. We know quite a lot about American policy in Europe because it has significant effect on how we live our lives. So there’s no real way to not, unless you really stick your head in the sand, but American policy is largely our policy as well. Both the European and even more so in the British sense because of our incredibly special relationship, which we’re very grateful for, don’t get us wrong. Don’t listen to what anyone says. We’re very lucky to have you.
I think it goes beyond politics in that way, I think that at a certain point, the populace of England and America sort of realize, or at least I hope they do, that whoever’s in office isn’t necessarily your country.
Yeah. That is the big thing, I think. That is the big problem with the way America is perceived in Europe is that America is presented to us as a united front, you see the news footage is very much people standing behind their country. And I think it’s easy to forget that you’re looking at a president who, at whatever time, who is usually dotting the margins in terms of votes, you know, 51/49. You’ve easily got half the country unhappy with whoever’s there. And that is not presented to us.
It’s probably similar here, in that people probably look to the prime minister and that’s largely what they think of the politics in that country.
I think so. It’s convenient that way. It’s convenient to ignore significant dissent, which people do to other countries and governments do to the people in their own countries, as well.
Do you think that’s changing at all? It seems there’s an acknowledgment of the opposition as something other than that umbrella description of them – prime minister and opposition. Now it seems a little more varied.
Sure. Partisan politics, I don’t think is ever going to be particularly healthy. Although you always want a strong opposition. It doesn’t do anyone any good to have the opposition party in chaos. But the way that America is at the moment, it’s a fascinating time to have no incumbent and some relatively significant choices which the electorate is going to make in terms of where they want their country to go and how America will be perceived worldwide. Because there’s no doubt that either a woman or a black man will have enormous repercussions straight away in terms of how America is perceived abroad, if we go down that road.
Have you gotten to know many of the candidates, not necessarily personally, but –
Not personally, very much not personally. I’m watching closely, but…What’s more odd is them knowing what you’re doing. When we turned up to the first debate in Simi Valley, you just see them out of the corner of their eyes going, ‘Uh-oh.’ How can you know? I’m sure they’ve not watched but they’re clearly briefed, that’s ‘The Daily Show’ over there, they’ll be coming over here and asking ludicrous questions.
Is "The Daily Show" printed on the camera or anything so they sort of know?
Yeah, you have to say at the start. If it’s the spin room you have to say who you are. But it is amazing. It’s I guess the key difference in terms of American and British politics is the role of religion, where it seems impossible for any candidate to campaign with anything other than an overt faith in god. Whereas the opposite is the case, Blair was a devout Catholic and he could never talk about that. He’d never be photographed going to a church because people would be suspicious of that. You should serve the country, not any idea of what is right in a Biblical sense. And that’s taken a lot of getting used to.
That first debate when Huckabee and two others put their hands up for, "Who here doesn’t believe in evolution," I think that’s ludicrous. He cannot surely be a credible candidate now, but his approval ratings are going up. That’s absolutely insane.
I’d imagine that doesn’t speak well for us abroad. I know that in Europe they’re familiar with policy, but do things like this get play on the news, on the BBC.
People are concerned, I think. The worried thing was ’04. You kind of get cut slack electing someone once and then not knowing how they’re going to behave. But to reelect, that was troublesome.
Do you think you have to work harder to get an American audience to except political humor or your critiques of America?
Not really. I don’t know. The places I’ve tended to play at the moment around this east coast area, just for geographical simplicity, are probably areas that are not big fans of this administration anyway. And also of course, the people coming to see me are ‘Daily Show’ fans. So there’s an element of preaching to the choir, as well. But I would certainly want to go and do stand-up elsewhere, a place where people would not be happy to hear you insult the commander-in-chief, let along a Brit, who they successfully kicked out of the country a hundred and fifty years ago.
Yeah, not really, I’ve not had any problems with it. Also, I tend to talk, as well, to balance that out, I tend to talk about how, you have no idea what it’s like to be British. We’ve done terrible things to the world, and you’re not even getting close to our record. You watch the news, there’s trouble in Kashmir and Iraq, that’s essentially our fault. Take it any distance of time back, we did that. We did all that. We’ll be sitting back here, doing absolutely nothing about it now.
Is there any sort of recognition of that do you think in general in England when they look at what America is doing now? Is there resonance?
That depends. If you want to take a black and white lazy view of the world, you get a lot of idiotic British people saying, yeah, well, they’re history tends to start from the second world war onwards because it’s a lot more convenient. But I would hope that people have an awareness of the shame which is flecked across British history. It’s certainly more interesting that way.
You look at the historical view of it, it’s easy to get discouraged, looking at the people in charge now. But then you take a historical view of it, if you read Candide, the world wasn’t much better off then, and you wonder, well, should you just ignore all of this and hope the world is going to be okay just like it was?
That’s the thing, it’s like with the Candide thing, you’ve just got to have some half-hopeful voice saying, let’s hope our gardens grow at the end of the day. That’s pretty much all you can hope for.
I’ve labeled myself an optimistic curmudgeon.
I think that’s the best way to be, though. That’s the only to balance it out. There’s no point in being cynical all the time. But equally, blind optimism just seems willfully inappropriate.
If you can’t let yourself laugh at a fart joke –
That is why I’ve always been, this comedy offering’s always been about more serious issues, I guess. I guess that has always been my coping strategy with the world. If I can’t laugh at something, I don’t really know how to relate to it. That’s kind of got even more entrenched working here. Because now, when you see the news, something terrible, it’s the same awful things. And my instinct is always no, oh, that could be funny. There’s something funny in that. Well, wait a minute, let’s just let the gravity of the reality sink in. Then we can trivialize it.
Were you always a political comic or did that evolve later?
Pretty much. As I got better as a stand-up, I became better, that’s the way it works, I became better at talking about the things I was interested in. As I moved into my twenties I got interested in kind of single-issue protest politics rather than party politics. From then on, I became very interested in it. And it’s what I think is most funny.
Where did you start as a comic?
I left university and worked as a comedy writer, and I started doing stand-up around the same time. And I went to the Edinburgh Festival every year, and that’s really how I learned how to do it and how to get better.
You were a writer for BBC radio shows?
Lots of stuff. I guess I did three series of this show called The Department which was this fictitious government think tank that was solving a different world problem every week. That was a substantial project. That took a long time to write each series.
What made you move on to stand-up from that?
I was always doing stand-up at the same time. I’d get really bored of one, or frustrated at one thing. So I like to do both all the time. I would get bored of stand-up and want to do writing.
You said on your Web site that people might have seen you looking bored on Mock the Week. Do you find that the political shows on the BBC don’t offer you as much as The Daily Show does?
They’re terrible. Absolutely universally appalling. Panel shows are not the way to go about political satire because you have to have a kind of uniform voice to it. That’s where The Daily Show works, it’s all based around Jon Stewart’s voice. So, we’re all pulling in the same direction. But when you have six disparate comedians, it’s just going to become a macho jokefest where usually the quickest and the most lukewarm style of comedy is going win out. That particular show isn’t being particularly political now. It’s just kind of about the news in general, not a political element of the news.
Do you find the American and British traditions of political stand-up comedy terribly different?
Not really, I think they’re pretty similar. Both have their best practitioners, I guess Jon Stewart being one of the best here, and Colbert. The you have Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris back in England. Political people who were just stand-ups but who were extremely good.
I know this is the standard hack question, but who influenced you as a comic?
Oh, a lot. In terms of stand-up in England, Stewart Lee I think was amazing, and Tommy Ginn. And I wrote with a guy named Andy Saltzman. We learned a lot from each other. All of the stuff that Armando Iannucci did on radio and TV was fantastic. And I was also really into American comedy, as well. In terms of stand-up, again, obviously Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce, but also I really loved Dennis Miller. I loved his way with words. I’m a comedy nerd, really. I’ve always loved it.
There ought to be an organization for comedy nerds. I write the comedy column every week for the Globe and my wife gets tired of me dragging her to comedy sometimes.
There is no doubt I have invested throughout my life far more importance than is appropriate. And so, a lot of ex-girlfriends in the past, just the despair that crosses their face when I run into someone who also has an overblown sense of its importance, and has to sit back as two people yabber away about something that is really just supposed to instigate laughter.
I got lucky that my wife is a Monty Python fan.
Oh, wow. Great. You did get lucky.
We went to Spamalot together and she actually enjoyed it more than I did. I was nitpicking.
Wow. That’s fantastic.
Do you do anything similar on The Daily Show that you got to do on the BBC?
No, the BBC shows were more panel shows. So they weren’t a kind of sppof news program like this is where you’re kind of playing a correspondent, or being a correspondent. So no, not really similar to this.
Do you find people back home are watching more now that you’re on the show?
Oh, no. I doubt that. If anything, I would imagine less so. If anything, I’ve damaged the ratings rather than advanced them at home. You’re talking a very small digital channel. So I think it only gets a hundred thousand people watching. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that went down to 90 after my first appearance. The show is ruined now. It’s ruined.
I’ve especially enjoyed the Wilmore/Oliver Investigates clips.
Oh, great. We’re going down to this debate tonight, it’s on tomorrow night. That should be fun.
You guys have a really good chemistry. It seems pretty natural, like you’ve been working together for a while.
It’s pretty weird, obviously we’d never met each other and then with the ‘N’ word piece, we just… All I had was this idea of, every time I needed to say the word I would point at Larry in the interview, and from that point it was very odd. It was like being a married couple. We were able to kind of weave in and out of each other’s sentences. But also, in terms of a technique for an interview, it makes it very hard for the interviewee because we change our points of view all the time. And it’s just completely unfair, you just get blindsided. That’s what we’re planning to do tomorrow.
Is it tough to pull off? It seems to me there’s a dynamic at work where you have to make yourself the butt of the joke and still pull off intelligent satire.
That’s right. It’s a balance. It just takes constant thought, really, so you just think, what is this? Is it clear enough that the joke’s on me?
I read your comment about how you can’t listen to Bush anymore when you see him on TV. There’s a political satirist by the name of Barry Crimmins out of Boston who said that that’s what’s been saving Bush, that no sane person can listen to him for more than fifteen seconds.
When he did that Vietnam comment, we were all in the office walking past TVs, you could hear people say, ‘Did he just really say it was like Vietnam in a good way? Is that my mind rearranging stuff? Oh, he did actually say that and he’s not winking? That’s terrifying.’
Is there any similar sort of dissatisfaction with politicians in England? I mean, I know that there is, but is it the same sort of screaming at the TV frustration?
Absolutely. Blair was loathed. People will never ever forgive him for what he did. It’s very sad. And inexplicable. I will be really interested to know what he thinks he did, whether he regrets it at all.
It seems he had a real chance to bring people together.
Yeah. The biggest democratic mandate we’ve had in years. His first term he played very safe when he really could have been much more bold with the majority that he had. And for a man so obsessed with his legacy, Iraq just makes no sense. I have no idea what he was thinking.
Are you surprised at the amount of handicapping that goes on in political races here, especially on network TV?
I saw one local station that put the names of the candidates on horses, and when they answered certain questions, would put them farther ahead on the track.
We’re getting closer to that. Our last election, it was talk of a landslide, so they decided we’re going to have this graphic, they’d be walking along, the candidates, and then land would gradually collapse on top of them. How old are you people? How bored is your graphics department.
Fox is always trying to downplay The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, saying they don’t get many viewers and it’s just a basic cable show. Have you seen that criticism?
They got it right. We are on basic cable, we don’t get many viewers. They may have inadvertently stumbled upon a fact there.
How do you go from [studying] English to political satire?
I wasn’t that interested in the ins and outs of my degree. I did footlights and was writing comedy while I was at University and quickly decided that was what I wanted to do, rather than analyze Chaucer, to the significant distress of my tutors. I don’t really know how. It seemed like a natural progression to me.
Do you expect to do more as a stand-up? I know the election cycle will probably be hellacious for you.
I think I’m going to do an hour special for Comedy Central for Indecision. But otherwise, next year I’ll be doing almost nothing but working on this show. It’ll be great. I’m not saying that in a bad way. But I don’t think I’ll be able to do much stand-up.
Do you think audiences will be surprised at who you are as a stand-up as opposed to who you are on The Daily Show?
I don’t know, really. It’s probably pretty similar. I’m not going to come out with a bag of props like Carrot Top.