Strap in, boys and girls, because we’ve got a treat for you: John Oliver has been cool enough to participate in an interview with us here at No Fact Zone!
Most of you know John from The Daily Show, of course, but here’s a quick history of some of his career highlights for those of you who might just be getting familiar with his work. Since graduating from Cambridge University (where he was part of the famed Footlights club), John honed his stand-up skills at venues like the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, appeared on Mock the Week, co-wrote (with Andy Zaltzman and Chris Addison) the hysterical radio series “The Department”, recorded a stand-up special for Comedy Central, co-hosted the Radio 4 show “Political Animal” (with Andy again), did voiceover work for BBC America, lent his face to shows like Important Things with Demetri Martin, Community and The Love Guru and brought his dulcet British tones to audiobooks like The Wordy Shipmates and Things I’ve Learned From Women Who’ve Dumped Me. He has a new stand-up series coming up for Comedy Central, a blind script deal (with Daily Show producer Rory Albanese) for Paramount and you’d better be listening to him weekly in “The Bugle” on the TimesOnline, which he co-writes and performs with the hilarious Andy Zaltzman.
John also does stand-up shows everywhere (he’s performing at Comix tonight, actually), and you can, of course, catch him regularly on The Daily Show, where he faces off against boss Jon Stewart with verbal gems like “oiga boiga“.
Anyone who reads this blog knows we love John here at NFZ, so you know we’re excited to bring this to you. Without further ado: John Oliver!
You are credited both as a writer and a correspondent on The Daily Show. How often do you find yourself writing pieces that you will be delivering in more or less your own voice, and how does that compare to writing for your colleagues? Are some people easier to write for than others? Do you generally have your own “take” on a given topic, or are ideas generated jointly, then polished by individuals?
- For correspondent ‘chats’, ideas are generally generated jointly, and then two writers will be assigned to write up a first pass at a script. If I am the correspondent in question, I’ll probably be one of those people. To be honest, it was always much more fun to write for Riggle. That was a process of working out not so much what we could make him say, as what we could make him wear. The Mad Max outfit was a good one – bare midriff and lots of shoulder spikes. I’ll never forget the look on his face when he put it on for the first time. It was a mixture of deep shame and even deeper pride.
What is your favorite thing about writing for The Daily Show? What’s your favorite thing about working with Jon? It seemed in one memorable segment that you were deliberately trying to make Jon laugh (along with the rest of us — there’s nothing about “Perceval P. Puckernubbin” that isn’t funny). How often do you try to make him break? And will you be keeping it up (please)?
- It’s hard to pin down a favorite thing. You have to understand that for all the stress and pressure involved in making the show every day, it is a very happy place to work. We have dogs running around the office, free lunch, and no-one takes what they do too seriously. It’s like a much less trendy ‘Google Headquarters’. It was my favorite show before I came to America, so I still can’t quite believe that I work here. Working with Jon is a huge privilege, and those pieces we do at the desk have become increasingly fun – I think we’ve become comfortable enough with each other to veer off script a bit, and that just adds to the enjoyment. That segment you mention is a good example of that – and it was great to get the opportunity to essentially torture him with ludicrous names.
Are there conditions on your visa that require you to put in a certain minimum number of hours as a correspondent? As a writer? You mentioned an immigration hearing in a recent interview and, in a recent podcast, that you were restricted from leaving the country while you attempt to get your green card. How is that process going and when might you hear any decision?
- No – I don’t think so. There are no minimum hours that I’m aware of, and I’m pretty sure that I’d sail over them if that was the case anyway. I’m still in processing for my green card – I haven’t been able to leave the US for the last few months, and I have no idea when it will all be over. One of the most useful things about getting a green card, will be that I can then get arrested on field shoots. We skate fairly close to the edge of legality in many of the pieces, and at the moment whenever we encounter the police, I have to essentially just point at my field producer and then run away. It’ll be good to have the option of behaving more honorably and sharing the blame. I’m not saying I will choose that option, but it’ll be nice to know it’s there.
This is probably pure fiction because I know you’ve been formally reprimanded by Buckingham Palace already — well done with that, by the way — but how do you suppose the Queen would react if you ever met her and greeted her by trilling, “Hellooooooo!” the way you and your colleagues do on The Daily Show? Having been reprimanded by the Queen, is there anyone else whose “reprimand” you’d like to earn?
- I did receive a formal complaint from Buckingham palace year ago, for something I did on BBC Radio 4. I tried to get an official copy of the complaint on Buckingham palace letterheads, but I think when they received that request they realized I was not taking the complaint in the spirit it was issued. It’s a shame, because if they had capitulated, it would be on my wall right now.
Were I to meet her, and greet her with a ‘Hellooooooooo’, I can only imagine that she would say ‘Helloooooooo’ back and completely fail to see why that was funny.
In terms of other reprimands I’d like to earn … Gaddafi would be a great one to get, Ahmadinejad would be exciting but dangerous, the Pope would be in many ways the gold standard, and JD Salinger would be also impressive on a number of levels.
You’ve said that The Daily Show was your favorite show before you started working there; did you have a favorite segment, sketch, correspondent, etc.? Which and/or who? Do you have a favorite among your own pieces?
- I did indeed just say that. I’m not sure I had a favorite correspondent – I loved Rob Corddry’s ‘Come On’ pieces, and Colbert’s ‘This Week In God Segments’, and one of the best pieces I ever saw was Ed Helms and the eagles in Alaska.
In terms of pieces I’ve done…I’m particularly proud of the field pieces we did during the two conventions last year – I watched some the other day and thought they stood up pretty well even a year later. Jason Jones in particular was phenomenal in them. I really love doing pieces with Larry Wilmore whenever we get round to it – I’ll always enjoy the N Word piece, not only because it was pretty funny, but because it reminds me of how much fun we had working together for the first time.
How does writing for The Daily Show differ from writing for “The Bugle”, “Political Animal” or “The Department”? How did you adjust from working on scripted pieces to ones where you interview the public and have to respond on the spot?
- It’s very, very different. Writing headlines for The Daily Show is generally building an argument through using footage – therefore many of the individual jokes you write are directly off footage you have just seen. The techniques are different. To be honest, it’s going to be hard to answer this question without coming across like a pretentious jackass – especially when you use a word like ‘technique’ to describe a process which culminates in dick jokes. The interview pieces are generally just an exercise in preparation (knowing what you need for the piece to work), and then reacting to whatever madness the person in front of you is saying. Most of the actual writing for field pieces is really done in the edit.
How in hell do you have time to do everything you do: The Daily Show, “The Bugle”, all your stand-up gigs? I’m particularly impressed by how rarely you re-use material between the three, too, and how frequently you introduce new material into your stand-up sets. When do you have time to relax?
- There isn’t much chance of a crossover between those three things, otherwise I’d probably be tempted to do it more. Daily Show stuff generally doesn’t translate into stand-up, which doesn’t really work in something as collaborative as “The Bugle”. I don’t have a great deal of time to relax, to be honest. Although I do find stand-up relaxing to do; it clears my head, and it does get me out of New York.
One of my favorite things about “The Bugle” is hearing you and Andy cracking each other up (same with Rory Albanese when he pops up as “The American”). How much of “The Bugle” is written ahead of time and how much is improvised? It’s a lot of fun to hear you surprising each other with increasingly absurd stories.
- Andy and I decide on the stories we’re going to do on the phone, then both write up some ideas on each story separately, and don’t talk again until we start recording. So I suppose it’s about half written and half made up, as we haven’t heard what each other is going to say before, and can therefore extend each others jokes. It’s just feels like when we were writing “The Department” together in his kitchen at 4 in the morning.
You rather memorably appeared on The Colbert Report once, having been shipped over in a piece of misdirected luggage. How did that come about? Did the audience know you were there? And, if not, for how long were you under that desk? There’s not much space there!
- That was just a joke that they’d come up with during the day, and it turned out that I could get away in time to do it. The audience had no idea I was there; I walked over there with a few crew guys, covered by a hooded sweatshirt, and then ducked down while we pretended to fix something under the desk. I spent the whole first act wrapped around Stephen’s feet – trying to put him off by pulling his socks. It was one of those strange moments where I had enough time to wonder ‘how did I get here and what am I doing with my life?’ I was wrapped around Stephen Colbert’s feet, with REM standing in the wings waiting to come on and play a song. It was like a very strange dream.
Your track meet “wardrobe malfunction” and the death of your athletic dreams notwithstanding, how did you decide to go into comedy? [Editor's note: please, *please* watch John's stand-up special for the full effect, but we recapped a bit of that segment here.] Had you always written/performed? Was there something particular in your political background that made you want to start writing political satire?
- I always loved comedy. I used to listen to Richard Pryor and Dennis Miller albums every night as I went to sleep. Thinking back, that may have sown the seeds for the irregular sleep and bizarre dreams I’ve had ever since.
I did really want to be a footballer, but it was pretty clear early on that I just wasn’t good enough for that even to be a realistic pipe dream.
I started writing comedy seriously at University, particularly with Richard Ayoade, who I met there. Then I think I just gravitated into writing more political jokes, if only for the reason that it was an area I was interested in.
You’ve been doing a few of your jokes since the days of “The Department”, and they still make people laugh. How do you keep your delivery fresh night after night? I would imagine the audience variety helps (Kathleen Sebelius showing up vs. the lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, etc.); do you enjoy bantering with the audiences at your stand-up gigs or does it bother you when you have to adjust your jokes?
- I love talking to the audience. It makes each gig different, and I think it tends to be fun for both sides. The man in DC you are talking about would probably disagree with the last part of that sentence, but in my defense, he was a complete douchebag. I didn’t talk to Kathleen Sebelius during that other gig, as I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable – and also because the only thing I could think to ask her was ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’
You once said in an article of The Independent that the laughter of American audiences can “grate” to a British ear, do you still feel that’s the case? You said in that same article that coming here when you did made you much more sensitive to the soul-crushing agony that Bush was to this country’s liberals. What else about coming here surprised you?
- No, I have gotten used to it, and indeed, grateful for it now. I think that we in Britain have this inherent suspicion of enthusiasm – that it can’t possibly be authentic – which means that American laughter tracks can stick out on TV programs that we import. I’m not saying it’s a particularly admirable national trait – I think we’re just a naturally more cynical people. The concept of national pride is broadly alien to us, for good reasons and bad.
Although you regularly make fun of your great acting debut in The Love Guru, it seems fair to say that a number of British comedians have demonstrated solid acting chops over the years. Fellow Cambridge alumnus Hugh Laurie has been very successful lately, Ricky Gervais is getting increasingly popular here, and your former partner in crime (Chris Addison) was hilarious in In the Loop this past summer. What other plans do you have for acting, if any?
- I don’t have any immediate plans. I’m also not sure that I’m particularly good at it. I enjoyed doing a few episodes of Community – it was interesting to see how you shoot single camera sit-coms over here – and I’d like to do a bit more of that if I manage to find the time – but I always love coming back to the Daily Show after any break. I still feel on a learning curve here, every day is different, and I honestly cannot fathom leaving here for something else.
I understand you intend to stay at The Daily Show – thank you! — and appearing only occasionally on Community but could you tell us more about the stand-up series Comedy Central has asked you to host? How much say do you have in whom to feature? What will the format be like?
- I love doing stand-up, and was going to try to get into the discipline of doing a new hour special each year, but then this stand-up series came up. I wanted to try it, partly to do it with people who I like, and partly to try and find a way to present stand-up on TV which works. I tried something different for my first special, and I don’t think it really worked, so I have some new ideas for this which hopefully will be better.
Do you have any other big upcoming plans? You have a pretty impressive international profile (and fanbase) now; will you be making any international tours once your immigration status is resolved?
- I don’t think I’m going to have any time for international tours in the near future. I’d love to go back to the Edinburgh Festival as soon as I can, and I’ve always wanted to do Melbourne Comedy Festival too.
Favorite thing to read/watch when not soaking up hideous cable news: I love watching sport.
Pre-Daily Show ritual: When I’m standing behind the curtain before the show starts, listening to ‘Born To Run’, I try to think about just how lucky I am to be there.
Strangest fact you’ve learned about one of your stand-up venues: That’s a good question. I was really excited to learn that Mitch Hedberg had recorded his ‘Strategic Grill Locations’ album at the Atlanta Punchline.
Favorite Daily Show guest: President Bill Clinton is always interesting.
Favorite thing about playing unmitigated assholes like Victor Gooch in “The Department”: The answer is in your question. Namely, the ‘unmitigated asshole’ part.
Will “The Department” ever be released (and do you care that we pirate it until then)? I can’t see how it will ever be released. There is far too much music and sound effects to try to clear the publishing for. We always wanted it to sound like a spectacular cartoon, or the kind of comedy program that Phil Spector would have produced back when he was a producer, and not a murderer. So, I would love for you to pirate it. Andy and I are very proud of “The Department”, and we’d love as many people to hear it as possible. In fact, you have both my official permission, and indeed encouragement, to pirate and distribute it to your hearts content!
Middle finger “salute” or the two-fingered version? Absolutely the middle finger. There is a quiet dignity in the single bird.
One last question: What is it about you Brits that makes you such unholy prodigies when it comes to cursing? I’m really terribly jealous.
- Foul language is our jazz. And yes, we are exceedingly good at it. Although, I have to say, Susie Essman is a world class swearer – you should be very proud of her.
A huge thank you to John for taking the time out of his insanely busy schedule to answer our questions so fully, and special thanks to our friend Rob Kutner for all he does to support the blog.
And, per John’s instruction, here are copies of most of the episodes of “The Department”. I know I’m missing one or two, so if anyone has them, feel free to add the links in the comments. Thanks, everyone, and enjoy the show!
- Education — 101 (aired 01-07-2004)
- Public Transportation — 102 (aired 01-14-2004)
- The Military — 103 (aired 01-21-2004)
- Crime and Punishment — 201 (aired 07-12-2005)
- Democracy — 202 (aired 07-19-2005)
- The Environment — 203 (aired 07-26-2005)
- Europe — 204 (aired 08-02-2005)
- Tax and Public Spending — 301 (aired 08-02-2006)
- Terrorism — 302 (aired 08-09-2006)
- International Trade — 303 (aired 08-16-2006)
- Immigration — 304 (aired 08-23-2006)
- Science and Technology — 305 (aired 08-30-2006)
- Making Britain Great Again — 306 (aired 09-06-2006)