John Oliver is still kind of baffled by America
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A lot is happening in this country, and John Oliver, a stalwart of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, remains at the center of the political storm. But that’s not stopping the excellent stand-up comic from hopping on stage any chance he gets. John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show, which he hosts and curates, has its third season première July 20 on Comedy Central, and in the meantime Oliver has been performing all over the country, including a special Daily Show live show in Central Park at the end of June. We chatted with Oliver almost exclusively about stand-up, covering his ever-changing outsider status, his celebration of audience participation, and the balance of producing genuine, raw stand-up on television.
The A.V. Club: Are you still curating the lineups for the show like you did at the very beginning?
John Oliver: Yeah, it is a back-and-forth between me and Comedy Central. We both have a list of people we like, and then we come up with a mix.
AVC: How do you continue to maintain an eye on younger talent when you’re busy working for The Daily Show during an election year?
JO: When I go out and try material, I tend to see people around. Just at small gigs. And other people Comedy Central sends videos of. It’s just a process of trying to see as many people as I can when I’m up and around trying stuff out. And watching clips, and taking recommendations from people as well.
AVC: What does the New York aspect bring to the show? It’s still called John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show. What’s the New York-iness?
JO: The New York-iness pretty much stops at the fact that that is where I am all the time. So the only way to shoot over a weekend is to do it so that I can work during the day at The Daily Show, and go somewhere in the evening and shoot it. So I don’t know if there is any particular New York-iness. I guess we’ve got a subway map behind us. And it’s definitely in New York. But I guess there’s really a lack of people saying, “I’m walking here!”
AVC: It just seems like it could easily be appealing as John Oliver’s Stand-Up Show or whatever.
JO: Yeah, exactly. I’ve no idea. It happens to be where we are. You have already given it much more thought than myself or anyone involved in it has.
AVC: Recently Comedy Central changed the name of Comedy Central Presents… to The Half Hour. When you initially conceived of the show, how much emphasis was there on bringing new comics into the fold? How much was that the mission?
JO: I’m not sure what their reasoning was for it. I just liked the idea of trying to curate something. I generally did not like the stand-up shows they had on, which seemed not to have any real cohesive sense to them, and to just be people thrown at an identical stage. Everything kind of looked the same and sounded the same. And we tried to make a little more effort into putting on bills that made sense together. So that they were different enough, but also in the same ballpark of the kind of comedy they were trying to do.
AVC: Even though you’ve been in the U.S. for six years, you still mention being an outsider in your stand-up act, especially as it pertains to politics. How much of that comes from people’s perceptions of you as a correspondent on The Daily Show, and how much of that is you still feeling like an outsider?
JO: I still do feel like an outsider here. I spent the last five years on a visa. So you are physically an outsider, in that you could be sent away or denied the ability to return at any time. I only got my green card less than 12 months ago. It’s pretty physically unsettling, living life on a visa. I guess I still do feel sonically different, culturally different. I still have an outsider perspective on America in general, even though I probably do find myself more than I ever have before saying “we” instead of “you.” Especially stuff on The Daily Show—I kind of have it both ways [Laughs.] I’ve constantly cut in and out of saying “we” and “you” as to whatever fits better comedically.
AVC: Well, you started at that show as the “Senior British Correspondent.”
JO: Yeah, it doesn’t really matter now. If there’s a stupid British story, I’ll slap that title on again. And if it’s a time that I’ll want to be particularly accusatory of America then fine, I’ll, all of a sudden, play the national outsider again. I have it both ways.
AVC: In your stand-up act, do you feel you’d like to trend more toward talking about personal things?
JO: Maybe. I’ve always been interested in socially political, or overtly political, comedy. And I guess I’ve always liked to channel some kind of personal element to that. So it’s always been a discussion about whether you feel a sense of place in the country you live in. It’s less dictated by what I think people have come to see, and more that it happens to be all that I want to talk about at the moment. I guess I tend to intertwine more personal stories around the socially political stuff, just to vary stuff up a bit. But it’s partly where I work, and just the sheer amount of news that I have to imbibe on a daily basis, that means my material tends to be some of the stuff that I’m thinking and percolating in my head the most.
AVC: I would imagine that the stand-up writing process for you has changed a lot since coming here and working on The Daily Show.
JO: Yeah. I have less and less chance to get up and try little gigs around town. It’s kind of an ongoing project that I tend to do in fits and starts. So over the last few years, I’ve been structuring stand-up around when this series is on, because I need a new hour for every show. I do, whatever it is, six 10-minute slots [over the course of a season]. So I know that five months before we’re recording, I need to start work in earnest so I can develop an hour over that time.
AVC: I noticed this time around that when you introduce comedians, you don’t list their credits. You just say, “Please welcome the very funny Hannibal Buress,” or whatever. No TV credits or anything.
JO: No! I don’t. I’ve never done that. I just don’t see the point.
AVC: What do you mean?
JO: Well, because you’re about to see them on our show. So it doesn’t matter whether or not you have or haven’t seen them on another show. You’re about to see them now! And it doesn’t make them any better or worse, whether they’ve been on Conan or not. It’s a really bizarre thing to me, that even at live gigs, it’s a very American insistence that you need to be credited before you go onstage. So an audience can feel that somehow you have qualifications to make them laugh. You just could not do that in England. People would take against you straightaway if you start basically having a boxing intro before you come onstage. Yeah, I’ve always found that extremely strange. And with a TV show, where you’re always so tight on time, you want to give people as much time as possible. So just say their name, and then they can come on and you know they’re good. They’re going to be great. It just seems bizarre to me, that whole system of reading out your qualifications before you come onstage.
AVC: Is it just that American audiences feel like they need to be primed before they’re ready to laugh?
JO: Maybe. I don’t know if there is some psychological thing of wanting to know where your doctor got his degree from before he comes into the medical room.
AVC: I have this amateur theory that if you know a comedian and have seen them before, even if it’s their worst night, people will still laugh; because when they’re laughing, they’re not just laughing at the jokes this person is telling, they’re laughing at the entire history of that person telling their jokes and remembering them.
JO: I think that’s true, but that is not helpful. As a performer, you’d better be able to see through the laughs of respect at what they have known you’ve done before. Or, just laughs of, [adopts a dumb voice] “Well. Must be funny. I’ve heard he was on Jimmy Kimmel recently.” I just think it’s probably better for you to earn those laughs on their own accord. I find it weird enough live, and to do it on a TV show, I find just inexplicable. We tend to just get on with it.
AVC: Do you notice those different laughs?
JO: Oh, definitely! You always have to have an internal barometer of quality control. Where you can have all these laughs just because they like The Daily Show, or they’re happy to see you there, or they like the sound of your voice. And you always have to have an internal gauge of, “That is not nearly as funny as they just thought it was.” Just because that got a laugh does not mean that that joke is finished or okay in any way.
AVC: What’s your barometer, then? Does it have to get a laugh a certain number of times, or is it just a feeling that you have?
JO: It’s more just a feeling. You can feel if something is taking shape or if it just seems like it’s meaningless or half-baked. It’s more just a personal thing you develop of whether something is worthy of the laughter it’s getting or not.
AVC: You seem to enjoy engaging the audience at your shows, including one of the episodes of the new season where you ask a guy what he thinks of when he hears Egypt; he says, “Pharaohs,” and you jokingly give him a hard time for not giving you the answer you were expecting. What do you enjoy about interacting with the audience?
JO: I don’t know. If you’ve just flown four hours to go to a place, it feels weird to somehow deny the fact that you’re actually there. I don’t particularly like just doing it like it’s a theatrical monologue. So there are places or, sometimes, bits in jokes where I’ve built in stuff where you want some form of interaction, or you actually want an answer. It’s not like setting someone up to fail. That guy, for the pharaoh thing—I didn’t see that coming. He was just supposed to say, “Pyramids,” and I would say, “Exactly,” and that’s the joke. The poor guy—then that became something else, because he said “pharaohs” incorrectly. [Laughs.] He is, I guess, the less than one percent of people that would have pharaohs in his head at that point. That in itself makes it a live experience. The best thing about stand-up is that it can’t be a completely pre-scripted thing. It’s not like just pressing play on a comedy album and listening to something the same way a hundred times. You want to do it differently, and react off either the kinds of laughter you’re getting, or the kind of room that you’re in, or the kind of people that you’re talking to. I’m always interested in audience interaction. Not so much aggressive audience interaction—I’m genuinely interested in how people see things.
AVC: There seems to be some fear in audiences that they’re going to become part of the act. I’ve been to shows with people who say, “I do not want to sit in the first seven rows,” for fear they’ll get called out.
JO: Yeah! Neither would I! I would hate it! I would absolutely hate to sit in the front row of a gig. And I personally would feel that sense of, “Please don’t talk to me, please don’t talk to me.” Because you just don’t want to be made fun of. So in the stuff that I do, generally, it’s not making fun of someone. Now—[starts laughing]—that pharaoh guy, he threw me. I can’t even remember what I did with him, but I hope it was more celebratory of his slightly maverick view, rather than, “He’s an idiot”. I’ve tried that piece of material out—I don’t know how many times. People had said “pyramids” all the time, so you think, “Oh, this will be okay.” The one time… And I remember, even as I was halfway through the sentence before it, thinking, “Okay, so who should I talk to? Oh, that guy looks like a nice guy.” I say to him, just thinking, “Obviously, he will say ‘pyramids.’ He seems like a regular guy, and everyone has said ‘pyramids’ so far.” [Laughs.] They even said, when we were doing the edit, that we could just cut that out and just get on with the bit. “No, why?” No! I think it’s nicer to have a bumpier moment in it. Makes it feel more like a gig.
AVC: Do cameras change the vibe of stand-up? Can you have a pure stand-up show with cameras there?
JO: Not really, no. It’s a constant trade-off between thinking you are trying to make a television show, so you need people to [do] a certain amount of time, and then you need to go to breaks. You need to come back on and say, “We’re back after this.” So there’s no point pretending it’s not a television show, and yet at the same time, you have to create a gig in that room, or it won’t work in that room. So it is a tricky balance. When we’re shooting them live, I tend to talk to the audience quite a lot in between the bits, in between the breaks. Just to try and make it feel more like an actual gig. So then they’re not watching cameras get repositioned or lights moved. Because then it’s just like you’re going to watch The Price Is Right, and who wants to do that?
AVC: This is your second time doing election coverage for The Daily Show. What have you noticed has changed this time around?
JO: I was discovering everything for the first time [then]. I guess quite a lot has changed. Just in terms of money alone, I thought the last election would be the most you could possibly spend on an election. It turns out I was completely mathematically wrong about that. It is absolutely chilling; the Citizens United ruling, and the fact that it seems like President Obama and Romney are likely to spend—or their surrogates will spend—a billion dollars each, is absolutely breathtaking. So I think the money alone is making this extremely different. And of course, having an incumbent this time as well. Having no incumbent last time gave it an extra frisson of drama.
AVC: Have you changed in the way that you’re viewing your job?
JO: I don’t think so, because I think I’ve always been pretty clear on what we’re doing, which is trying to navigate the complexities and depressing nature of the presidential campaign in as comedic a way as possible. The mission that we have is pretty straight. You just want to find new ways to make fun of this, or to process it cathartically into laughter. I guess the only thing you find yourself sometimes catching yourself doing is, “Whoa, oh no, we did that last time. We did a take on it being like a horror movie last time, so let’s think of something else.”
AVC: You’re out in L.A. now taking meetings and such. Is it about other projects you’re going to work on next year?
JO: Oh yeah, just stuff on the side. I don’t have any time this year at all. It would be more about setting up anything that might be fun—it’s just general stuff.
AVC: I’m not really sure if you’re going back to Community, but is acting something that you would still be interested in pursuing?
JO: Yeah, sure! Sure, I mean, it’s such a strange situation that I have over there, so I have no idea what’s going on. I think they’ve only just started production again. But I loved the small part I played on that show, I’m really proud of it. It is a really fantastic, imaginative, bold show. It’s amazing they got away with it for as long as they have, and it still seems to be so. I think it’s brilliant.
AVC: Well, there’s a whole trend now of superheroes being played by non-Americans in movies. So I feel like that should be your next goal.
JO: Oh yeah? What, you want someone to end the Batman franchise again? I could clean Batman away for another decade. [Laughs.] Name a superhero, and I will completely destroy it!