Though the charmingly aloof John Oliver made his mark in the U.S. after joining The Daily Show With Jon Stewart in 2006, he got his true start in stand-up comedy. During a September 2011 stand-up tour across the States, we chatted with him about his recent Emmy win, his daily routine, and how food in America is confusing because it has flavor. (Oliver performs at the Pabst Theater Jan. 27.)
The A.V. Club: You got your start doing stand-up. When did you get back into stand-up after joining The Daily Show?
John Oliver: I never really stopped. So, I guess, maybe the first weekend I was here [in America]. Stand-up, for me, is really more of an addiction, so you have to feed the beast whenever you can. So I’ve never really stopped. It’s been a good way to see different parts of the country and get away from New York and just clear my head a bit.
AVC: And you do that with The Daily Show as well.
JO: I do. That’s a good point. But, when I travel with The Daily Show, I tend to be upsetting people. So, this is kind of the opposite. I’m not going to people and insulting them to their face. When you’re doing stand-up, you want to stand onstage and, to the extent that you can, uncomplicatedly entertain.
AVC: Do you look at your stand-up in a similar way you look at The Daily Show—as a kind of reactive analysis of the world? Or is it just more of a set act?
JO: Well, that’s part of the fun of stand-up. You can be reactive in the same way that you can on The Daily Show. So, yeah, I have bits that I do, and I do them for a few months, but also I talk about what’s been happening this week.
AVC: From other interviews, it’s pretty apparent that you’re always working on multiple projects. The Daily Show has more standard office hours—but the other projects do not. Are you just trying to fill your life with more work?
JO: Sometimes you just have an itch that you want to scratch. It’s not that—well, I like balancing things with other stuff, different kinds of projects. But this job is so all-consuming; it’s nice to just clear your head. Now, I realize that you could clear your head by taking some time off, by relaxing like a normal human being and going on vacation or something, but I really like doing things like stand-up, and I occasionally do the sitcom Community—and, really, I find that good for my mental state. So, I like to balance stuff. But that’s all work-work balance.
AVC: Sounds tiring.
JO: Yeah. I just got back from L.A. late last night from the Emmys, so I’m crazy exhausted at the moment. I’ve had zero cups of coffee for the day yet.
AVC: Yeah, I saw you at the Emmys. Congrats on your wins.
JO: It was very weird.
AVC: How was the whole weekend?
JO: It’s odd. I happened to be out there last week shooting for The Daily Show anyway, so it wasn’t just like a tiny, little two-day trip. But it’s strange standing up onstage with the cast of Mad Men handsomely hanging around on the same stage, and you just think, “We should probably get off this stage.”
AVC: Did you hit up any parties?
JO: Well, we did. I went to the Comedy Central party for 15 minutes. I had to get to bed early to catch an early flight, because I needed to get back to work this morning. So, it’s not a particularly rock and roll experience—if you have to get right back to work.
AVC: Was The Daily Show one of your first gigs that was like a regular 9-5 gig? Granted, you’re putting in much more than the hours of 9-5.
JO: I’d done similar jobs in England for TV shows, but certainly not for the length that The Daily Show has run. They would run for six or 10 months, and they’d be done. This is definitely the job I’ve had where for a series of years you turn up at a certain time every morning, every day. So it’s definitely a routine
AVC: Do you like that kind of routine?
JO: I find it very productive. It’s exhausting. But, like I said, I bring that on myself by doing stuff outside of it. I really like it. And luckily it doesn’t become monotonous because things shift so much. So it’s fundamentally reactive, and every day you are solving different problems and doing different work.
AVC: When you’re working for The Daily Show, you have to be very critical of American media—
JO: You don’t have to be. It’s really more of an opportunity.
AVC: Did you have a similar experience criticizing media when you were in England? What’s it like watching news media there versus in the U.S.?
JO: The British media is sinking down, as the American news media has lowered the bar for all of humanity. British news media is definitely trying to stoop down to that level. Everyone is stooping to the lowest common denominator.
JO: In terms of news media, it’s hard to imagine stuff much worse than here. But really it’s not that much better anywhere.
AVC: What has your success in the U.S. done for you in Britain?
JO: I really haven’t been back. I went back briefly recently to shoot a piece about the royal wedding. But that was almost my only experience in the last few years with going back there. I think a small, hardcore group of comedy fans, of which I was one before I left, really do love The Daily Show, but it certainly doesn’t have the same kind of national cultural significance that it does here.
AVC: Do you miss England?
JO: Not really. I don’t know if you’ve seen the news, but it’s basically been in flames. Young people rioting in the streets and smashing stuff. So no, I don’t miss it a great deal at the moment. I miss flavorless foods though. It’s much less challenging on your senses, much less challenging when you put it in your mouth. It’s easier to understand. Food here is confusing.
AVC: When you go out on the road for The Daily Show and you’re presented with difficult situations that you’re trying to make light of, or find the humor in, are you ever taken aback by the situation to the point where it’s hard to do your job?
JO: Well, yeah, you definitely have to be quick on your feet, because things can change, or the atmosphere in the room can change very fast. So you have to try and stay as focused as you possibly can be on what it is you traveled away for. You have to have the story at the front of your mind and let that dictate the way that you are variously rude, cheeky, or outright hostile.
AVC: Do you enjoy that kind of improvisation?
JO: Yeah, I like that sort of quick-on-your-feet aspect, but at the same time it’s an exhausting and occasionally demoralizing job. But, when you get it right it can be quite rewarding.
AVC: The last time we talked with you, we asked about your favorite recent stories you’ve done, and you told us that you couldn’t remember, just because of the pace of it all.
JO: Yeah, just because of the amount you’ve done, you’re always getting ready for the next thing. Your memory of events tends to burn out quite quickly. I’m sure that after, when this show is over, we’ll look back on the show and everything we’ve done, and it’ll be like a series of quite odd family photos, allowing us to look back at all of the terrible things that we’ve done. I got to go up to the space shuttle launch, and I definitely remember that because it was just such an incredible experience. So that was probably the most fun for me.
AVC: Does that bother you that you don’t really remember what you do?
JO: I like it. It doesn’t give you too much time to dwell when you’ve done stuff not as well as you’ve wanted. When you do a bad piece or a bad show, there is literally one the next day. So you don’t have much time to wallow. It’s nice.
AVC: What was your first stand-up experience like?
JO: Terrifying. I thought it would be an absolutely frightening thing to do. And I was right about that. Occasionally people liken it to heroin. You hear it’s exhilarating; then you figure you’ll give it a go, and before you know it you’re hooked on it. Not that I’ve taken heroin. But I knew straight away after doing it [stand-up] that it would be something I would always do. A lot. It was an amazing experience—not that it went down especially well.
AVC: It’s funny that you wanted to do because you thought it would be horrifying.
JO: Yeah, I’ve never been one to want to bungee jump, but I think this thing has the same kind of emotional pull to it.
AVC: What’s doing an act like here versus in England?
JO: The people in England are more aggressive and generally drunker. You wouldn’t think that Americans would be the more polite ones, as it bucks the stereotype, but they are generally more demure and polite. Drunk English audiences come out to shout at you. They see stand-up as a conversation, not a monologue. Here in America, people come out to see what they’ve known you to do. In England it’s like everyone comes out to tell you exactly how well they think you’re doing.
AVC: Maybe that trained you a bit for The Daily Show.
JO: It did. I’m used to taking an emotional punch.