- Sarah Polley on laying her family history bare in the new documentary Stories We Tell
- Noah Baumbach on how Frances Ha helped him see New York City with new eyes
- Amy Schumer had to be talked into making the show of her dreams
- Joe Hill on his new novel, Locke & Key’s end, and why ideas are just glue
- Kristin Scott Thomas has no time for nonsense
As a correspondent for The Daily Show, John Oliver uses a sincere, formal delivery to mask his comedic intentions. He rarely breaks character, whether he’s talking with a UN ambassador or a Tea Party “bounty hunter.” While he’s traveled to places like South Africa to cover serious issues like race relations, Oliver is quick to assert that his desire to make people laugh separates him from the real journalists. As one of The Daily Show writers, he spends much of his time in a nondescript office (distinctive only for the oversized portrait of Rob Riggle that hangs on one wall) writing headlines for the show. During breaks, he’s made memorable appearances on Community (as the psychology-turned-anthropology professor Ian Duncan) and filmed a second season of his Comedy Central stand-up series, John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show (which premiered March 24), which introduces audiences to some of Oliver’s favorite up-and-coming comedians, including the hilarious Mike Lawrence. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Oliver at his Daily Show office about how he develops stories, his role on Community, and the 2012 election cycle.
The A.V. Club: What’s the lead-time for stories at The Daily Show?
John Oliver: It varies between stories that are relatively evergreen or longtime that we’ll bank, so those don’t come with any kind of time pressure. Then there are what we call “crash pieces,” which are quite timely news that’s unfolding at the time. Hence, us doing some stuff about Wisconsin.
AVC: When you go on location for a crash piece, do you have an angle in mind before you arrive?
AVC: You took a surprising approach covering the protesters.
JO: The Egypt angle. People were walking around saying it was just like Egypt, which it is not. It is in the sense that it’s a protest. In the sense that it’s a violent insurrection to depose a ruthless tyrant, it is not like Egypt. To attempt to go up against a democratically elected new governor will be to do something deeply unpleasant.
AVC: Was that your initial angle?
JO: We were going to do something like that, and then it turned out that people were understandably upset, but were also quite hyperbolic in how they spoke. That was our take for that one, but it changes. On Monday, it was Northern Illinois as basically Waziristan—that you’re in a lawless province. We found the Tea Party bounty-hunter guy who’d been tailing [the missing Wisconsin Democratic state senators].
AVC: And he was just putting the photos he took on his Facebook page, right?
JO: Yeah, that’s all he was doing. The one thing we didn’t get to put in was the fact he said, “And so I filmed them, and they got in their cars and drove away.” And we said, “What? You let them drive away?” “Yeah, I wish in hindsight I filmed them as they drove away.” Oh, no no no no. That’s not bringing them to justice.
AVC: Did he know the show?
JO: He did, but he believes he’s doing good work.
AVC: He wasn’t reluctant to talk with you?
JO: He knows that we’re going to behave weirdly, but he means what he says. I think it might be one of those things where you have our audience laughing at what he’s doing, and him sitting at home watching it, thinking, “Why are they laughing? That sounded perfectly reasonable to me.” That’s why often in the these pieces, the people who you think come across the worst are usually the ones that call up the next day and say, “Can I have 20 copies of that on DVD for my friends?” “You can if you really want that….”
AVC: What are your favorite stories recently?
JO: I can’t remember. This is a sausage factory. We’ll be using some of the least appealing ingredients imaginable in our sausages. I don’t really have much memory of this stuff, because you’re always moving on to the next thing. I remember that piece from Monday. We were in South Africa doing stuff about race. That was really interesting. We did something on the RNC’s meeting in Hawaii last year, which was fun.
AVC: When you get an assignment, are you happier with going to Hawaii than, say, Wisconsin?
JO: No. Wisconsin was fucking cold, but Hawaii was emotionally difficult. We were staying in the same hotel as the RNC. Then for two days you’re just seeing the people you’re making fun of, and it’s pretty awkward … You get looked at with total contempt, looks bordering on—and I think going into—genuine hate, but what are you going to do? Unfortunately for them, it is a free country.
AVC: You have an office here at The Daily Show, but are often sent on assignments. What’s your schedule like?
JO: I’m a writer on the show as well with Wyatt [Cenac]. That used to be a writer over there. [Motions to an empty desk.] That was Tim [Carvell]’s chair. He’s become head writer now, so he moved.
AVC: You share offices?
JO: Yes, there’s two to an office. I don’t know who’s going to come in now that Tim’s left. I have a bad track record, because the previous one I shared was with [Rob] Riggle. Now Tim’s left, so I don’t know.
AVC: Are you scaring them away?
JO: I’m doing something. It’s hard to feel it’s not some anti-British agenda. Yeah, so I’m either writing headlines or working on field pieces. I can get sent away with almost no notice. There’s no fireman’s pole, and it’s not like the Batcave. There’s no alarm, like, “Woo woo! Come on, let’s go. Who are we making fun of?” But it can be that I turn up for work and will be writing a headline when they say, “Okay, you have to go to Arkansas.”
AVC: How do you decide which correspondent gets sent where?
JO: Sometimes it’s scheduled around who’s shooting where and editing what, and sometimes just who would be the funniest doing it.
AVC: In an Economist lecture last year, you said, “Americans are fucking idiots” as a compliment and explanation of our dominance in the Guinness World Records. Do you see this “unbridled enthusiasm” on display as you travel around the country?
JO: Yes, definitely. It’s one of the things I love most about this country. It’s a much more eccentric nation than you give yourselves credit for.
AVC: Speaking of eccentric, you just started Indecision 2012 coverage.
JO: Yes, only 600-and-something days early, so it’s a late start.
AVC: Do you see any frontrunners emerging?
JO: I don’t know. I see nothing but frontrunners. Frontrunning is in the mind. It’s going to be a lot of fun to see that particular race. Seeing as some of their biggest names are all working for Fox and will have to stop as soon as they announce, there is no reason for them to announce anytime soon. I would fully expect for [Mike] Huckabee and [Sarah] Palin to not even think about running until way down the line.
AVC: It’ll be interesting and/or depressing.
JO: That’s the perfect way to sum up politics in America.
AVC: England has a markedly different way of doing elections.
JO: Yeah, we like to do it over four weeks. There’s a happy medium, I think, between four weeks and two years. You don’t really get much done in those four weeks. England is flawed democratically in a different way. I think four weeks is closer to what you want than two years, and the amount that we spend on it is closer to the amount that you spend on balloons alone. It’s pretty expensive, democracy. Look at the governor race in California, and how much it cost Meg Whitman to lose, not even to win.
AVC: But isn’t that kind of refreshing, that she could spend so much money and lose?
JO: Sure. It’s certainly a funny sign.
AVC: Speaking of funny, what do you think is the fundamental difference between British and American humor?
JO: I don’t think there really is, besides pronunciation. There’s a huge amount of cross-fertilization between American and English TV shows and American and British comedians who work in each other’s countries. We might be slightly more sarcastic, but maybe even that statement is sarcastic. We do have a stiff upper lip when it comes to everything. We’re emotionally repressed, so we put up with things. We put up with the Germans bombing our country and were not defeated. We put up with being served inedible food with no complaints. Now I think there’s an American side of me that comes out when I go back. For the first time, I was sitting in a British restaurant and thought, “I have to send this back. This is just not good enough in any sense.” It was a big step for a British person to go, “Try again. I’m not going to give you any specific notes, but this is flawed on a number of levels. Just give it another go and ask yourself at the end of it if you should eat it. Not would, I know you would, but should.”
AVC: And American food?
JO: It’s a little cheesy. It’s a little heavy on the cheese. We were in Ohio once, which is not a gastronomical capital. After being there a few days, I ordered just a side dish of boiled vegetables, and it came with melted cheese on top. You don’t need to do that, but I guess it’s just instinctive at that point.
AVC: How do you decide when to green-screen something and when to pack up and travel to a place?
JO: Increasingly, much more than in the show’s history, we are starting to go to places. Jason [Jones] went to Iran. We’re just taking fake news up a notch. Egypt would be tough, because objectively, what’s happening on the streets there, you can’t really undercut it, because it’s so serious. You kind of have to have a very firm take to be able to go and do jokes about events that are unfolding.
AVC: When you’re in a hostile place alongside journalists from major news outlets, does the line between fake and real news blur?
JO: There’s never any time I think I’m a real journalist, because I don’t have any of the qualifications or the intentions for that. We address serious stories, but only ever in a comedic way. It’s supposed to make you laugh.
AVC: You’re also on Community and host a stand-up show on Comedy Central. How do you juggle them all?
JO: It’s not bad. I’m basically here all the time, and Community’s been really good about working around my hiatus week. They’ll fly me out there to shoot a couple of episodes, and it’s a different sort of pace, so it’s kind of relaxing. The stand-up series is pretty easy. We did it over three days. They gave me Friday off here, so we shot Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and I came back to work on Monday. Then the edit is just giving notes back and forth. It’s not that hard.
AVC: Community’s an incredibly evolving show, and your role seems to keep growing.
JO: I had no desire whatsoever to be in a sitcom, but I really like Dan Harmon and what they’re trying to do. I really admire how hard they work there. It’s really easy, I think, on a sitcom to not work that hard. You can cut a lot of corners, but it’s so detailed and so imaginative.
AVC: The Claymation Christmas episode was wild, with you as a wizard tour guide of sorts.
JO: It’s exciting to have a role in anything that’s Claymation, just because you’re always intrigued by what a clay wizard version of yourself would be. Now I know. It’s slightly creepy. I think they were generous with looks as well. I was clay-brushed. Someone has taken some clay off my nose. It was very nice of them. With Community in general, we like to make a lot of stuff up and mess around with takes. With the Claymation thing, though, you kind of have to—unless you want to make an animator commit suicide—stick more or less to the words. Just running your mouth off can add six days to production.
AVC: Was that kind of discipline liberating or constricting?
JO: It’s just different. It was really interesting to see the process of how it was put together. That’s kind of half the fun. They don’t get bored there.
AVC: Are you open to your role on Community expanding further?
JO: I can’t do any more than I did this year. I did eight episodes this year, and I think that’s about as much as I can do while staying here. They’ve been amazing working around my schedule, and I’d love to continue if they’ll have me. It’s great fun messing around with Ken Jeong and Chevy Chase. Right from the pilot, it was a good laugh, and I think they’re surprised with what they’ve been able to get away with on network television. A friend of mine from back home in England [Richard Ayoade] has just directed an episode that’s on this week or next week that’s a Pulp Fiction thing.
AVC: You’re also friends with Daniel Kitson. Did you see his recent one-man show, The Interminable Suicide Of Gregory Church?
JO: He’s my best friend. Yeah, he kind of has two interests now. He’ll do a stand-up show and a theater show, Spalding Gray-style. Lou Reed went to the show one night, and he was sitting in the front row. Within five minutes, he was asleep. He slept through the whole thing and woke up at the end. The box-office manager said, “Oh yeah. He comes here a lot and does that. He can still hear you.” No, he can’t. You don’t need to lie to me. All he got there was 55 minutes of good rest.
AVC: So even Lou Reed is susceptible to old age?
JO: Yeah, I guess it was warm in there. The chairs were pretty comfortable. It was just one man’s voice. “I’m going to have a nap…”
AVC: The new season of your stand-up show debuts this week, and you have a bit where you talk about getting stuck in Hanover, Germany. What happened?
JO: I flew to London to go home for the holidays, and I got diverted. We flew into a snowstorm, and I was stuck in Hanover for two and a half days. I guess I was angry, frustrated, upset, nauseous. There’s only so much meat you can eat, and I don’t think the Germans have the same top level of what that should be. We stayed in the airport most of the time, and then we stayed one night in what seemed to be an all-smoking hotel an hour out. It was a smoking room, so I walked downstairs and said, “Well, is there a non-smoking room?” And the woman just looked at me like I was insane, so I took it that such a thing does not exist.
AVC: Where do you test new material?
JO: Once I’m pretty sure what material I want to do, I want to finally test it somewhere that isn’t particularly friendly, because audiences can be very forgiving. So I picked the Pittsburgh Improv, and I got that hostile audience. They will enable you to see where the cracks are in your material. They’ll be sitting there going, “Well, that certainly wasn’t good enough.” There was no sense of them giving you enough momentum to say, “Oh well, don’t worry about that bit being ill-formed. Let’s enjoy the next bit.” You got a problem there. You can sense it with the aggressive silence, a flash of fury across someone’s face. It’s very useful, especially if you’re trying to finish pieces of material. I was going to do (for the stand-up series) six 10-minute blocks, so you want to make sure each bit works.
AVC: How do you deal with hecklers?
JO: You talk to them. There are two kinds of hecklers: the destructive and constructive hecklers. Either way benefits from someone being talked to, because if someone’s being very aggressive, it’s just fascinating to know where that comes from. Whether it’s honestly you who annoyed them so much, or it’s another aspect of their day that they’re projecting onto you. I would never heckle someone. That’s why I think I’m so interested in someone that would. I would never have the balls to heckle someone. People in the audience might think they wouldn’t have the balls to do stand-up. I wouldn’t have the balls it takes to sit there and shout at a stand-up, because you’re going to lose that battle. The odds are not in your favor. You’re in the dark. You’re unamplified. You do not have the audience on your side. You’re drunk. You’re at a disadvantage in almost every way. You had not been heckling in that room for the previous three nights. It’s a ballsy move. In some ways, I admire it.
AVC: What’s it like for you being on the other end of the interview?
JO: Awkward. I don’t love it.
AVC: Is that why you rarely do them?
JO: It’s not that I’m pulling a J.D. Salinger so much as I don’t have a great deal of time. Also, I don’t really like pontificating. I prefer asking the questions.
AVC: How do you prepare for interviews?
JO: When I first got here, I looked at [Stephen] Colbert’s unedited tapes of an interview, because it was interesting watching how he would listen to what people were saying, and then edit his questions in his head as he went. When you see an hour rather than the four-and-a-half-minute piece—that was interesting. All your favorite stuff rarely makes it in.
AVC: Have you thought about releasing deleted scenes?
JO: Yeah, definitely. Like a director’s cut. That would be great. Maybe one day it would be worth going through those and assembling some uncut versions of our favorites.