Q&A flashback with The Daily Show's John Oliver
John Oliver, who headlines at Comedy Works South tonight and tomorrow, returns to Denver after spending a week here in August making the Democratic National Convention funnier along with his colleagues at Comedy Central's The Daily Show. His quick wit was much in evidence when I wound up standing next to him in a massive line leading to the Pepsi Center. I asked him why he was waiting alongside all of us nobodies, and he replied, "That's the problem with these Democrats. They think everyone's equal."
Oliver had been to Denver earlier in the year, too, during another Comedy Works stop -- and prior to that gig, I had the opportunity to interview him at length. Some of the references in the conversation are a bit dated: For instance, he was looking forward to the impending release of the Mike Myers movie The Love Guru, in which he played a small part, rather than trying to distance himself from what was widely regarded to be 2008's biggest cinematic stink bomb. But he also provided plenty of background on his transition from little-known Brit yukster to the most consistently hilarious correspondent on one of American TV's true gems. I laughed as hard during our talk as most of the audience will tonight.
Check out the chat by clicking "Continue."
Westword (Michael Roberts): Tell me a little bit about your pre-Daily Show career - the projects that we Americans know nothing about.
John Oliver: Well, my pre-Daily Show career was certainly not in America. I'd never been here before. I was a writer and standup in Britain for, I guess, eight years or something like that. Doing various jobs on radio and television and entertaining at drunken comedy clubs to mixed success. And then I got offered this job, and all of a sudden I was on my dream job. It happened fast. It was very strange.
WW: How did The Daily Show folks hear about you?
JO: I'm not entirely sure -- and it's one of those things where I think everyone has an imposter mentality when they get a job they think is better than they are. And so I've not actually asked just in case. In the back of my mind, I've wondered: What if a mistake was made, and the wrong letter was sent out? They could find out! Don't ask any questions!
WW: When you moved to the States, were you looking forward to it or dreading it on some level?
JO: Well, I was very nervous. I came in Sunday night and I was on the show the following Monday morning. Like I say, it happened fast. I was looking forward to it. I couldn't believe it was happening to me. It was absolutely my favorite comedy show, and I was very intimidated. I remember getting on the plane in London and thinking, What on earth are you doing? I remember my manager said, "Oh, don't worry about it. You'll probably get fired within three weeks." I couldn't believe it! That was his good-luck message: "You'll get fired within three weeks. I'll see you in a month." "Well! Thank you very much!"
WW: Is that the British equivalent of "break a leg"?
JO: I think so! What a boost to my confidence that was. "See you in a few weeks. There's no way you're going to hold this job down."
WW: Do you remember what that first story was?
JO: Yeah, it was about Bush and Blair. It was when he was caught on camera saying, "Yo, Blair." We wrote something during the day and did it that night, and I was so tired, I didn't really have time to get nervous. I'd fallen asleep on the sofa with jet lag and had a few hours sleep and then turned up to work, thinking, Just give me a nice, relaxing first day to break me in. And they said, "No, no. This has happened. You're on tonight." It probably worked out for the best, though, because I didn't have time to get as scared as I should have been.
WW: Obviously, the show deals with all kinds of topical issues. Do you feel it's an advantage that you bring an outsider's perspective to most of the stories you cover?
JO: Maybe. As a British person, you're the ultimate outsider, in that we wrecked the world long before you tried to.
WW: We're playing catch-up...
JO: And it's a good effort! But you're going to do very well to do as much damage as we did. I don't know. I guess that helps in a way, because there's nothing you can say about America that you can't say about ten times stronger about the British empire. I don't know. I guess it helps in a way. Comedy always works best from an outsider's standpoint anyway, and being vocally and physically different... I'm pronounce words correctly, and I'm far more pasty than any American has the capacity of being.
WW: When you sit down to interview someone, do you pull them aside before hand and say, "You do know I'm going to be making fun of you relentlessly throughout this, don't you?"
JO: No! No! Absolutely not. I try and spend as little time with the person before as possible, so you just walk in and start the interview. It's an interesting process, those interviews. They are usually as tense as they look. I do a series of interviews with U.N. ambassadors, and they were incredible. They'd literally never been spoken like this before. You only have about forty minutes to do those, because they're busy people and they have better things to do with their day than being insulted by someone they've never heard of. But they stick it out. They sit there.
WW: What percentage of people you interview seem to know what they're in for?
JO: Well, they know what the show is -- politicians in particular. But there's that in-built arrogance where they think, "They won't get me... They might have done that to other people, but not me. I can get around them." And the truth is, that's very rarely the case, because we've usually thought a lot more about the interview than they have. That kind of arrogance is usually the pride that comes before the fall.
WW: Have you had people storm out angrily?
JO: Only one guy. I did a piece on English as the official language of the United States, and there was a guy, James Inhofe [a Republican senator from Oklahoma], who had written this bill wanting English as the official, not the national, language, which would have banned translations in hospitals. And we did this joke with him... He'd said diagnosis wasn't necessarily always verbal. It could sometimes be physical. And I said, "Oh, he could mime it out. Like, he's broken his arm -- he could mime it out. Or he could mime if he had a pain in his side. Or mime, 'I'm allergic to penicillin.'" And there was this long, excruciating silence, and about two minutes later, all of a sudden, he had an appointment he'd forgotten! Out of nowhere! "Oh, I forgot to tell you, I have to leave..." "Oh, that's interesting, because you said you had two hours." "Oh, no. I can't. I'm getting out of here..."
WW: Was that a moment of great pride for you?
JO: At that point, that was a really reprehensible part of the immigration bill, and it had been really hard, because he was toeing the party line the whole way through, and then he made this one slip. I thought we could get him, because the whole concept of their whole argument was so ridiculous. Really, all you had to do was get him to state his actual case and you should be able to find jokes in that. But he was a smart enough guy to know that as soon as that happened that he was finish. But that was excruciatingly tense. I remember the camera crew that day, it was the first time they'd shot The Daily Show, and as he left, they were like, "Was there anything funny in that at all?" And me and the producer said, "Oh, that will be fine. Don't worry about that."
WW: The Daily Show actually has a rather modest-size audience. Does it surprise you the impact it has anyway.
JO: Sometimes I think it's exaggerated. Yeah, we have a very modest audience. So I think when people say it's kind of a touchstone for young people - that ridiculous idea that young people get their news from it -- that's patently untrue. You wouldn't get the jokes unless you knew what we were talking about. They just get it from other sources other than network news at the moment. But at the end of the day, it's just a comedy show. If we started thinking about that, we'd spend all our day worry about it, and we've got to do a show a day, so there's no real time. We just make each other laugh. It's a small operation. It's a tiny office. Our office is above the studio, which is downstairs. So it's just like coming to work every day. It doesn't feel like that big a deal. We're in one of the least glamorous parts of Manhattan, next to the place where they keep the Central Park horses, so it smells of horse excrement in the morning. It's really not the glamorous thing that some people would believe.
WW: Does that aroma help you keep your feet on the ground?
JO: I think so! It's a kind of fitting aroma for a comedy show, I think. Horse excrement wafting in the window. It lets you know exactly what's your place in the entertainment canon of America.
WW: So as the funniest correspondent on The Daily Show, do you get special treatment?
JO: Whoa, there. I would refute that question. I don't know how to answer that! We're all the same. It's an egalitarian outfit. It's basically like televisual communism.
WW: One for all and all for one.
WW: When the writers went on strike, you were one of the first persons out on the picket line. If I remember correctly, you were interviewed by NPR, right?
JO: Maybe. There was a lot of media around that first week. I can't even remember who I talked to, to be honest.
WW: Was it difficult to have to explain the reasons for the strike to people who just wanted to watch a new episode of the David Letterman show?
JO: Very difficult. Everything about the strike was difficult. It was very worrying, not only for the writers, but also for all the people we worked with. I didn't really sleep properly the whole strike, I was so concerned about all the people with jobs who stood to gain nothing from this negotiation. I hadn't really thought, either, that there would be anyone there that first day, and then all of a sudden, there were all these cameras. And there weren't that many people in the Writer's Guild in New York who were actually on camera. But thankfully, Tina Fey was there, and she took the brunt of it. Whenever they couldn't speak to Tina, they came over to me. But it was horrible. It was an absolutely horrible time.
WW: When The Daily Show came back in January, you appeared on the show...
JO: Yeah, because I got into visa trouble. I'm a member of the Writer's Guild, but I'm also not a U.S. citizen or here on a Green Card -- I don't have a Green Card. I'm here on a working visa controlled by Viacom, which meant that when the show went back on the air, I was then striking against my visa - which U.S. immigration took a very dim view of.
WW: Usually, it doesn't seem like U.S. immigration does anything...
JO: That is the American response! But as someone who deals with U.S. immigration on what can occasionally feel like almost a weekly basis, they are absolutely ferocious. They are everything Lou Dobbs wants them to be and more. They're very frightening, very intimidating people. I don't know if that reassures America at all, but it is rough, U.S. immigration. Even when you have a visa, it's rough going through immigration. I seem to have trouble almost every time now. It's not easy, and as soon as they found out about that, they were not pleased.
WW: So we can't keep Mexican immigrants from crossing the border, but they can prevent you from striking against a comedy show?
JO: They certainly gave it a very, very strong effort. It was very frightening - a horrible, horrible time.
WW: During that period when the strike hadn't been resolved yet but you were on the show, who was writing it? Were you just winging it?
JO: No one was writing it. It was bizarre. It was bizarre and so strange. It was so tiring I can't even really remember. I think it's like child-birth. When you come back, the endorphins are so strong that it wiped out the pain. No one was writing it. It was weird. We would just talk. It was a very strange process.
WW: Do you have a background in improvisation?
JO: Not really. I've got a background in standup, and in standup, you don't get trained in improv; you get trained in survival. So I have an innate survival mechanism from standup, which got me through.
WW: And upon the writers' return, the endorphins kicked in?
JO: It was great. It was really great. But I honestly don't have anything positive to say about the strike. It was horrific, and having everyone back has been fantastic.
WW: Did they come back funnier than ever?
JO: Yeah, they were just so desperate to come back, and we were desperate to have them. It kind felt like those black-and-white pictures of soldiers returning from war. Even though they hadn't been at war: They'd just been in a minor contractual Hollywood dispute. But it's been great to get everything back to normal. When our previous normal was such a dream job, we were anxious to have it get back that way.
WW: This year, as you know, the Democratic National Convention will be in Denver.
JO: That's right, and we're doing shows. We're doing a week's worth of shows.
WW: Have you already plotted out some ideas for it?
JO: No, not really. When you have to write shows back to back... I know there are production plans going on, but we won't be looking at that until nearer the time. I do know it'll be hugely exciting.
WW: Do the Democrats this year make for particularly ripe comic subjects?
JO: Yes, fantastic. Especially, if, as looks possible if not probable, it's not been decided by then. Then, it's going to be an incredible convention. But even if there is a nominee by then, it's still going to be fantastic.
WW: There's a protest group here called Re-create '68, and their goal is to recreate the level of protest that took place at the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968...
WW: Yes. So would it be better or worse for you guys if things spun completely out of control?
JO: To be honest, there will be plenty of stuff anyway. I don't think we're going to need their help. Democrats seem to have a natural self-destruct impulse anyway. They needn't destroy themselves just for our benefit. I'm sure they'll do that anyway.
WW: You'll just be there to watch...
JO: We'll just be there to watch. Not necessarily enjoy, but certainly use.
WW: I understand you have a part in the new Mike Myers movie...
JO: Yeah, I am. It's not a big part, but I am in that, yeah.
WW: The character is named Dick Pants?
JO: Dick Pants! That's right -- Dick Pants.
WW: What appealed to you most - the opportunity to work with Mike Myers or the chance to have the name "Dick Pants" on your résumé?
JO: Well, both, obviously. Both are a huge privilege. I don't know - I've never really done much acting before, so it was a strange offer. I've admired Mike Myers for years, so it was an amazing experience. I don't know that I'll be doing any more films after this, but it was great fun to try.
WW: So your debut performance will kill your film career?
JO: I don't know. The weird thing is, I love my job here. I really love it. I don't just like it. I really don't want to do anything but this. I'm really not looking to do anything other than this. I'm a standup, so I can do that around work. But otherwise, I don't know - I'm pretty happy here.
WW: Tell me about your current standup routine. Do you do topical material?
JO: Pretty much. My standup has always been like The Daily Show - childish interpretations of massively serious global situations. So it's pretty much that. Oversimplifying very complicated areas.
WW: Do you try to keep your material is current as possible? Will you be coming up with new material the day before you get here?
JO: It kind of depends. Work is busy here. It's hard to say with standup. It's much less of a disciplined process than sitting down in the morning on The Daily Show, then writing it that afternoon and doing it that night. Standup is kind of ongoing. I can't even remember when I write standup. It usually just happens.
WW: Are American audiences easier to win over than British audiences?
JO: They're great. When people know The Daily Show, that makes things a lot easier, because they come expecting a certain kind of comedy. When you do clubs and they don't know who you are and you have to convince people not only that you're funny but that they're interested in hearing about politics from a standup... They're like, "Really? Well, I have worked hard, and I'm a bit drunk now, so I was hoping you wouldn't be talking about global economics." And they've got a point. But I have no plan B. They've just got to sit there and hate it. So it's a lot easier when people know what to expect and come wanting that. It makes things a lot more fun.