Television
1:05 am
Fri April 25, 2014

Where Jokes Go To Die, And Other Observations From Comic John Oliver

Originally published on Fri April 25, 2014 7:40 am

British comedian John Oliver made a name for himself as a correspondent for Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where he spent his time lampooning the media and the politicians on it.

Now, as sometimes happens with an actual star reporter, Oliver has his own show. It's called Last Week Tonight and it premieres Sunday on HBO.

He joins NPR Steve Inskeep to discuss mocking the U.S. with an English accent and why the White House Correspondents' Dinner is where jokes go to die.


Interview Highlights

On Daily Show segments in which he seems to get genuinely angry about a story

I think if there's real anger, it's provoked. Anger cannot be your default setting 'cause it's draining to perform and it's draining to watch. But there are some times that what you're talking about is so frustrating that the whole day has been a process of trying to channel that anger into something funny.

On whether his jokes would still be funny without his English accent

Well, let's hope so, because that's basically been my business model for a decade. ... I'm telling you, the kryptonite is if the jokes I tell — if you see them written down, that is no good. ... I am exposed in script form.

On whether he feels the need to differentiate himself from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report

For sure. You know, if a story happens early in the week and they cover it, we probably won't touch it. So, I think we'll end up looking slightly off the regular radar.

On whether it ever feels strange to mock the U.S. as someone who isn't from here

I don't think so. I mean, I've lived here for nearly eight years now, and I love it here, and, you know, I've married an American. ... And also, I think sometimes it helps to have a slight outsider's voice in comedy, whatever that voice is. And as it happens, my voice sounds like I don't belong here. Or at least, I haven't belonged here post-1770.

On whether an outsider's perspective is good for journalism

It would be if journalists were more outsider than they were, but there is a coziness. You see something like the warmth of response ... at the White House Correspondents' Dinner [where] everyone is so comfortable being in the same room as people that they are supposed to be the check and balance on. If the system worked right, you would think that would be the most excruciatingly awkward room to be in, and it's pretty comfy and that comfort is a problem.

On whether he would accept an invitation to perform at the White House Correspondents' Dinner

Oh, definitely. ... Of course, because as a comedian you're attracted to sometimes doing the things that are the most difficult. That room is not a good room for comedy. The people in it and the way it's laid out — that is where jokes go to die. But the challenge — when you see something like the speech that Stephen Colbert gave, when he did it, is just — it's a master class in comedy.

On what concerns him about America's engagement with its wars

You know, this comes from — I have a slightly closer perspective on this because I married an Iraq war veteran, and this does not feel like a country at war.

And I went to Afghanistan to do a USO tour for a couple of weeks ... and it was a fantastic experience, but the disconnect between America and what we are asking young Americans to do is incredible. I honestly think if you ask people in this country whether we were at war, lots of them would forget.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The comedian John Oliver spends a lot of time watching cable TV news. And he has an opinion about the coverage.

JOHN OLIVER: If you honestly think that people would rather see you cover as close to nothing as possible than something that might be interesting, then you hate your viewers.

INSKEEP: John Oliver made a name for himself as a correspondent for "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central. He spent his time lampooning the media and the politicians they cover.

Now, as sometimes happens with an actual star correspondent, John Oliver got his own show. It's called "Last Week Tonight." And as he prepares for the premiere on Sunday night, on HBO, Oliver took our questions on doing fake news.

When you were filling in for Jon Stewart, say, some months ago on "The Daily Show," where you're look at the camera, do you have in your head what you're talking to?

OLIVER: No. That's a good question. No. You don't really have because especially because if you really thought about it, some of the people you're talking to are probably asleep on the couch.

(LAUGHTER)

OLIVER: So in which case, you're just concerned about talking too loudly and waking them up. No, really, you're just trying to kind of emotionally go through the story that you have emotionally gone through in writing. So, you know, if it's a difficult story then, you know, the whole process of writing is to try to come to some kind of catharsis to make it easier to cope with, and so you just need to go through that again, really, that process again in performing it.

INSKEEP: OK. Emotionally going through the story.

OLIVER: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about that...

OLIVER: OK.

INSKEEP: ...because when I watch "The Daily Show," when I have watched you on "The Daily Show," you get angry a lot. And I sense that often it's not acting.

OLIVER: Yeah. I think if there's real anger, it's provoked. No, because you - anger cannot be your default setting 'cause it's draining to perform and it's draining to watch. But there are some times when what you're talking about is so frustrating that the whole day has been a process of trying to channel that anger into something funny.

INSKEEP: I was just watching a clip of you reporting that the Supreme Court, as it did last year, overturned a portion of the Voting Rights Act.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

OLIVER: Basically, the key part of the Voting Rights Act that they've removed was the one that applied strict scrutiny to states with a previous history of racial discrimination. Those states, of course, are being Whiteslvania(ph), Palefornia(ph), Caucasica(ph), Pranasas(ph) and Mississippi.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: You start out joking and then you get more and more pointed and then you start throwing out facts.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

OLIVER: ...obsolete. Well, when does the Justice Department ever need to protect minority voters for invoking Section 5? And the answer is, basically never. If basically never means - and this is true - 74 times since the year 2000.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: It's clear that you're just really disagree with that decision.

OLIVER: I did. I did. I think surely most people did. That particular decision was pretty horrifying and the consequences of it were felt immediately. I think it was Texas, I think they might have rolled back some of the laws the next morning.

INSKEEP: There were very rapid efforts to apply voter ID laws that had been blocked in the past.

OLIVER: Yeah. It was a series of consequences as - it was almost like they were on the starting blocks.

INSKEEP: Now as someone who did not come from the United States...

OLIVER: True.

INSKEEP: ...is it ever a little bit strange to be mocking the United States?

OLIVER: Well...

INSKEEP: You ever feel self-conscious about that?

OLIVER: I don't think so. I mean, I've lived here for nearly eight years now, and I love it here, and, you know, and I married an American. So...

INSKEEP: (Unintelligible)

OLIVER: Thank you very much. And also, I think sometimes it helps to have a slight outsider's voice in comedy, whatever that voice is. And as it happens, my voice sounds like I don't belong here.

(LAUGHTER)

OLIVER: Or at least, I haven't belonged here post-1770.

INSKEEP: Do you think you could tell a bad joke, but with your accent, it'll be funny because the British accent.

OLIVER: Well, let's hope so 'cause that's basically been my business model for a decade.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: So if the accent went away, if you worked to get rid of the accent...

OLIVER: I'm telling you, the kryptonite is - if the jokes I tell, if you see them written down, that is no good.

(LAUGHTER)

OLIVER: I am audio related. I'm exposed in script form.

INSKEEP: But I think that's true of a lot of comedy. It's true, actually, a lot of radio interviews because I see the transcripts of some of our radio interviews and often the people do not make any sense.

OLIVER: Right. Right.

INSKEEP: But if you listen you know what they meant.

OLIVER: That's true of everything. Congressional investigations may seem futile. You have not seen futility until you've read transcripts of those investigations. That's when you realize the low bar of human communication which is being said on a daily basis.

INSKEEP: Yeah. But the difference there is if you watched the hearing, it still is futile. It doesn't get any better.

OLIVER: It's even worse. It's almost a poem when written down, a poem towards futility.

INSKEEP: Tell me one other thing. You described yourself as having a bit of an outsider's perspective.

OLIVER: Yeah.

INSKEEP: And said that that can be useful as a comedian, and can also be useful as a journalist, by the way. And I...

OLIVER: It would be if journalists were more outsiders than they were.

INSKEEP: Go on.

OLIVER: But there is a coziness. You, know, you see something like the warmth of response of jokes at the White House Correspondents' Dinner is everyone is so comfortable being in the same room as people that they are supposed to be the check and balance on. If the system worked right, you would think that would be the most excruciatingly awkward room to be in, and it's pretty comfy and that comfort is a problem, I think.

INSKEEP: So if they invited you to...

OLIVER: Oh, definitely. Of course.

INSKEEP: After saying it's a ridiculous exercise, it's very wrong?

OLIVER: Yeah. Of course, because as a comedian you're attracted to sometimes doing the things that are the most difficult. That room is not a good room for comedy. The people in it and the way it's laid out - that is where jokes go to die. But the challenge - when you see something like the speech that Stephen Colbert gave, when he did it, is just - it's a master class in comedy.

INSKEEP: So give us a little more of your outsider's perspective, as someone who did not grow up your, who has come to this country and has come to know it pretty well. Are there things that you notice that you think many Americans who were born here still do not quite notice?

OLIVER: I worry a little bit about America's engagements with its wars. You know, I have a slightly closer perspective on this because I married an Iraq war veteran, and this does not feel like a country at war.

And I went to Afghanistan to do a USO tour for a couple of weeks and it is a...

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. You weren't in front of a blue screen?

OLIVER: No. I did the jokes to them.

INSKEEP: OK.

OLIVER: Yes. And it was a fantastic experience, but the disconnect between America and what we are asking young Americans to do is incredible. I honestly think if you ask people in this country whether we were at war, lots of them would forget.

INSKEEP: Well, John Oliver, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Good luck on the program.

OLIVER: You too. Thank you very much, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: John Oliver's HBO show "Last Week Tonight," debuts on Sunday night. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. News every day. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.