John Oliver, Making Trouble Among The Colonials

John Oliver i i

Comic John Oliver launches a new Comedy Central venture on Jan. 8. With Oliver as host and lead-off performer, each hourlong installment in the six-episode series will also showcase four other comics. Comedy Central hide caption

itoggle caption Comedy Central
John Oliver

Comic John Oliver launches a new Comedy Central venture on Jan. 8. With Oliver as host and lead-off performer, each hourlong installment in the six-episode series will also showcase four other comics.

Comedy Central

John Oliver would like you to know that there's one thing that's really, truly bugging him:

"Taxation. Without. Representation."

That's how he puts it, outraged pauses and all, at the opening of his new series, John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show.

The man has a green card, he'd like you to know. (And thanks for asking. You sound like an immigration officer, by the way.)

He works hard, pays his taxes, tries to fit in. "I've learnt your rudimentary language," he protests. And he still doesn't get to vote.

Don't ask if he's angry.

"I think 'anger' is a very well-chosen word," Oliver tells NPR's Madeleine Brand, in the clipped tones that helped land him the title of Senior British Correspondent on Comedy Central's The Daily Show.

" 'Resentment.' 'A sense of complete injustice,' " he says. "People laughed when I paused during that piece of spoken word, but they were wrong to do so. That was a sincerely meant-from-the-heart sentiment."

And really, he can see only one course of action.

"I'm in the process of getting a very elaborate red coat stitched up, and then I will get my musket dusted and polished off, and then I'm taking this country back. You leave me no other choice."

So, call him an anti-Tea Partier?

"Absolutely," he says. "Those tea-party people ... have had it too easy the last 12 months. The British are coming. We'll show you what tyranny is."

All Kidding Aside ...

"I love it here," Oliver says, putting the comedy away for a minute. "That is the truth, and I want to stay, so I was very anxious to get a green card, because life on a visa can be perilous." His permanent residency finally came through at the end of December, three years after his arrival in the States.

It was the job offer from The Daily Show that lured him from the U.K., where he was writing and performing political comedy. As Senior British Correspondent, he's done everything from person-on-the-street interviews to formal sit-downs with politicians — asking questions that range, in that signature Daily Show style, from the merely ridiculous to the downright outrageous.

The interviewees? Often they're in on the joke.

"They know what the show is," Oliver insists. And bottom line, he says "they just want to be on TV."

"That is the great Achilles' heel," Oliver says, "that we are able to kick every time: People want to be on TV. Politicians — it might be a gamble, [but] they know that we have a viewership who actually vote. So I guess it's a controlled gamble the whole time. They know the show, though."

Although it didn't seem that way during one recent interview with Peter Maurer, Switzerland's ambassador to the United Nations.

"OK, that's possibly true," Oliver acknowledges.

Watch the Peter Maurer Interview

The comic took a line of questioning about Swiss political neutrality through lighter territory at first, pressing the ambassador to choose between the Yankees and the Red Sox, and to side either with Jon or with Kate. He even subjected Maurer to an actual litmus test — pulling out a slip of lab paper and measuring the man's pH balance. (The result? Middle-of-the-road blue. "That's incredible," a straight-faced Oliver said. "You're like a perfectly balanced swimming pool.")

Then Oliver took the interview right up to the precipice — and maybe over it, with a reference to Hitler and the Swiss banking system that set even the Daily Show's in-on-the-joke studio audience to squirming.

"I'm always going for the joke," Oliver explains. "It's a comedy show, so ... that is the priority." Yet ideally, he says, "you want the jokes to illuminate something." Especially, he says, when "interesting opportunities" like an ambassadorial one-on-one come along.

"And so, the discussion ... was really about neutrality during the Second World War, and whether that is appropriate. And you have to give [the ambassador] credit: He stands by it. It's an all-in process, neutrality. You go for it. It is self-interest, to its logical conclusion."

Cultural Collisions, Comedically Speaking

There are those who argue that the British and the American styles of comedy have little in common. John Oliver is not one of them.

"The reference points have to change in a minor way," he says. "But so much of comedy is cross-cultural between the U.K. and the U.S. — we get each other's stand-up comedians a lot, and each other's comedy shows. ... The only real difference in live comedy is alcohol level, which is significantly higher in the U.K. Significantly higher."

And yes, he admits, he means on the part of performers — but especially on the part of British comedy audiences. That, Oliver says, puts them in the mood to contribute.

"People really have come for a dialogue when they go to a stand-up show in the U.K.," he says. "They say, 'I understand that you have now finished your little comedy monologue; now I have something to say regarding what I've just heard."

Maybe that's why he's decided he likes the U.S. better?

"That could be it," Oliver says, laughing. "The U.S. is, surprisingly, more polite."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.