Pop Culture


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.

John Oliver is a familiar face to those who watch Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," and he's an even more familiar voice. He is the only comic correspondent with a British accent, which, of course, has earned him the title of senior British correspondent. At "The Daily Show," every correspondent is a senior something.

John Oliver, born in Birmingham in England, was a member of the Cambridge Footlights, and "The Daily Show" sought him out, rather than the other way around. He's been working as one of Jon Stewart's sidekicks since 2006, and also has appeared semi-regularly on the TV series "Important Things with Demetri Martin" and "Community."

But this Friday, John Oliver gets his first leading role, as the star of his own six-week Comedy Central TV series, "John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show." The program features him doing his own comedy routines, as well as showcasing those of other comics.

Terry recently spoke with John Oliver. Here's a taste from his new special.

(Soundbite of TV show, "John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show")

Mr. JOHN OLIVER (Host, "John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show"; Correspondent, "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart"): Here's a little background about me before we begin. I came to America much like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: ...much like Eddie Murphy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. OLIVER: I, too, am a fictional African prince.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. OLIVER: I came to America three and a half years ago, and I loved it here, straightaway. And, you know, I say that with some surprise because, to be honest, I wasn't sure I would.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: It was strange falling in love with a country at a point that many people and history...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: ...may yet judge to be at its worst.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: It was like falling in love with a girl who was just throwing up all over herself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TERRY GROSS: That's John Oliver, from the opening of his new show, "New York Stand-Up," which premieres Friday, January 8th, at 11 o'clock Eastern on Comedy Central. John Oliver, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's such a pleasure to have you on the show. So...

Mr. OLIVER: Thank you, Terry. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: ...how much stand-up have you done over the years?

Mr. OLIVER: Well, it was, like, it was - it's my job. I guess I still think, in a way, it's my job. I started when I left college. So that was 10 years ago. And it was what I was doing in England, mainly, I guess, before I came to America to work for "The Daily Show." So I've always done it. I can't imagine a time of not doing it. I mean, my boss, Jon Stewart, he still does it. There's no need for him to do it, and he still finds himself going out every month or so to do a theater or a college somewhere just because - I guess it's an itch that has to be scratched. That's a nice, poetic way of saying it. I guess, more, it's like being a heroin addict, because...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: ...it's not particularly good for you, and yet it's hard to stop.

GROSS: So, you came to America to do "The Daily Show"? You weren't here before?

Mr. OLIVER: Yeah. I'd never been to America before. So, I was offered this job.

GROSS: That's bizarre, because you're coming to America and have to really understand how the politics work in order to do good satire, and you've never even been here. That's kind of amazing.

Mr. OLIVER: Right. Although - I mean, I guess you got to understand the extent to which people's lives are affected by America around the world. We all have a fairly good idea - at least a workable understanding - of how America affects us elsewhere on the planet. And so everything else was just really trying to catch up. It was a crash course in trying to work out the more intricate ways that Congress works. And for that, I really must thank Wikipedia.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: For many meetings in those first few months, I'd think, oh, okay. Let me - that's sounds great. Let me just go and look up exactly what branch of government they're referring to there.

GROSS: Did you have to come up with a persona for the show?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: No. I think you are overestimating my performance abilities there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: Not really. I think my accent became a persona in and of itself, in its - I think deep down, Americans still can't help but respect the British accents. I think it's something latent in your history, in our history, that you haven't quite - you still can't help but respect the authority of this voice. So, I think...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: ...just the way I spoke, people think, oh, he must be playing a kind of smart reporter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: If that's what you want to believe, then I'm happy to let you continue doing so.

GROSS: Well, let's hear one of the reports that you did for "The Daily Show." And let me just reintroduce you. My guest is John Oliver. He is a reporter for - a correspondent for "The Daily Show." And...

Mr. OLIVER: That's right, a correspondent, not a reporter.

GROSS: Not a reporter.

Mr. OLIVER: Let's be clear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: I have none of the requisite qualifications. Not that many reporters do now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: I'm a fake reporter.

GROSS: And...

Mr. OLIVER: This is not Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism you're about to hear.

GROSS: And John Oliver also has a new show that he's hosting on Comedy Central, starting Friday, January 8th, and that's called "John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show." Okay, so, here's the report that I want to play. You were reporting in October from a gay rights march in Washington...

Mr. OLIVER: Uh-huh.

GROSS: ...that was protesting President Obama's lack of action on don't ask, don't tell and other gay equality issues. So, here you are during the report. Before you actually get to the march, you're introducing clips from various interviews and from Fox News. So, let's hear it.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart")

Mr. OLIVER: If we all know one thing about gay people, it's that they're up to something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman #1: The radical gay agenda is in the business of removing parental rights and indoctrinating children.

Unidentified Man #1: This is an agenda of the homosexual activists.

Mr. OLIVER: I went to Washington, D.C. to infiltrate this gay movement and find out what their harrowing vision for America was all about.

Unidentified Woman #2: I want my relationship with my partner to be recognized.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #3: We want to have equal rights in everything.

Unidentified Man #2: Same equal rights that every other American...

Unidentified Woman #4: I want a nondiscrimination act...

Unidentified Woman #5: We want equal protection for all civil matters...

Unidentified Man #3: We want to be treated like everybody else.

Mr. OLIVER: I was horrified. These radical monsters wouldn't even admit what they were doing.

Unidentified Man #4: I don't think there is a radical gay agenda. I think it's just people wanting to be treated like everybody else.

Mr. OLIVER: But isn't that just what someone who is working within the radical gay agenda would say?

Unidentified Man #4: I don't have a clue.

Unidentified Man #5: They should have equal rights to their spouse's benefits, medical benefits. They should have equal rights that - visitation and things like this...

Mr. OLIVER: Now I think I'm getting this. You want health care so you can live longer, be gayer. Then there's more of you, so you can vote for more gay things.

Unidentified Woman #6: Equal rights under the law to visit the person we love in the hospital.

Mr. OLIVER: Why would you want to do that? So you can continue plotting?

Unidentified Woman #6: So I can continue what?

Mr. OLIVER: Plotting.

GROSS: That's John Oliver at a gay rights march in October of 2009. John Oliver, the people who you were interviewing...

Mr. OLIVER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...for "The Daily Show," what did they know about what you were up to? Do they know you were John Oliver, a correspondent for "The Daily Show"?

Mr. OLIVER: Well, I guess, the field pieces we do are split, really, between the kind of thing you just heard, which is man-on-the-street stuff, which is much faster and more run-and-gun-style interviews, and the ones that we plan longterm, in advance. Now, the ones we do in advance, they all absolutely know exactly what the show is, and they've had time to think about it.

But for the marches and the quick turnaround pieces, it's really more a case of just going up to people, saying I'm from something called "The Daily Show." Would you like to do an interview? And then, ideally, asking the first question before they've had chance to say yes or no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: So, it really depends where you go. Now, on the gay rights march, a lot of people knew instantly who we were. And so, really, you just have to point out to them, saying you need to take this seriously.

GROSS: Like, you play it straight, they should play it straight...

Mr. OLIVER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and you'll be the funny guy.

Mr. OLIVER: Yeah - no, it was kind of the - not that - I mean, I don't think - in hindsight, I will be the funny guy. But at the time, we're -I'm the bad - yeah. I'm the bad journalist.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. OLIVER: So they should respond - when I say terrible things, they should respond appropriately to that, which is to be angry or, you know, defend their point. So, with that example, our take clearly was finding out what this radical gay agenda is. And, of course, in reality what it is, is the most basic equal rights you can imagine.

GROSS: Do people ever misinterpret you, not know what "The Daily Show" is or who you are, and think you're merely an idiot?

Mr. OLIVER: Yes, all the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: And I'm not sure if it's misinterpretation some of the time. I mean, sometimes it is just an accurate piece of being able to see what's going on. It's...

GROSS: So, what happens in situations like that, where they think you're just a fool or dangerous?

Mr. OLIVER: That's usually the...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. OLIVER: That's usually the best moments. When we go to things like the tea parties, their beliefs are so deeply held that it will really outweigh them feeling like they're going to be made fun of. And, also, I guess you have to understand that when you see people say crazy things on our show, they mean this stuff, and that's easy to forget. They're not joking. So, for instance, we'd done an interview a while ago with a guy before the election who was talking about how community organizing was a good gateway drug, really, as a career for becoming a crack dealer, which is a ridiculous thing to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: And you laughing at that is the appropriate human response. So we did put him in the piece, obviously, and people laughed again, obviously. And yet, he called afterwards - and this is more often the case than you would believe - to say, oh, can I please have some copies of the piece for my friends and family. Because you forget, he means that. What's a joke to us is a deeply held belief for him.

GROSS: Now, didn't you meet your wife while covering the Republican Convention for "The Daily Show"?

Mr. OLIVER: I did - not my wife, yet. Thanks very much, Terry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: Thanks for putting that pressure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: I did. That was pretty strange, I'll say. It was - because it was the - you must remember that it was the - Republican was still exactly the week after. Usually, there's a break between the Democrat and the Republican conventions. So I was exhausted, and there was a certain layer, the mid-layer on which we weren't allowed to film at the Republican National Convention. That's where most of the high-end politicians were. So, obviously, that is the one place, really, you do want to film. So, we'd found a catering entrance that we could access.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: We put our camera stuff through with the catering equipment and fancy cakes. So, we would have a certain amount of time before we were kicked out. And at one point, we were being literally chased by security, and my girlfriend, my partner now, soon-to-be wife - thank you, Terry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You're welcome.

Mr. OLIVER: She said you can hide in our room, if you like. She served. She was a combat medic with the first cavalry in Iraq. And so she was there with a vets' group. They'd been at both conventions. And so...

GROSS: Like a veterans' rights group.

Mr. OLIVER: Yeah, yeah, kind of lobbying for veterans' issues. And so -yeah, we met there and kind of kept in sporadic touch and then met up Christmas last year. And, you know, we'd live together pretty soon afterwards. It was - yeah, we met in what I would say scientifically is the least romantic place on earth: the Republican National Convention.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, one other thing that happened to you when reporting for "The Daily Show," didn't you break your nose?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: I did. That was my second piece. We wanted to do a piece about America's attitude to war, and so we went to a Civil War reenactment society. And the joke was supposed to be that I was fighting for the North - you're welcome, America.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: And I would run at the South before they shouted go, which is pretty much how they start these enactments. I presume that's how the Civil War started. Someone at some point shouted go. And so I was running towards the South, and I could feel myself slip and fall. And I had a bayonet in my hand. So, I put - I kind of managed to get the bayonet down, and by that point, I had face planted into the ground and broke my nose. And we called back to the office. And the - I guess this was the point I knew what I was letting myself in for with this show. The first thing they asked was: Did you get it on camera? And we said, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: And they said, good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: Was it funny? And then you've got - yes, yes, it was funny. So by the time I got back to the office, we'd already sent the footage back. So all I could hear was gales of laughter as people just kept...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: ...repeat viewing me smashing my face into the ground. So, we ended up doing a reenactment, a re-reenactment at the end of that piece with a huge bodybuilder guy playing me with a more - yeah, like a huge chest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guest is John Oliver. He's a correspondent for "The Daily Show," and he's hosting a new show that begins on Comedy Central Friday, January 8th. It's called "John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show."

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Oliver. He's a comic. He's a correspondent for "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," and he's about to host his own show on Comedy Central called "John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show." It premieres Friday, January 8th.

One of the things you do so well on "The Daily Show" is your sit downs with Jon Stewart in which you're the expert on something...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: That's right.

GROSS: ...and you're reporting to him.

Mr. OLIVER: Yeah.

GROSS: And so, before we talk about how that works, let's hear an excerpt. This is one of the golden oldies from the Bush administration, and this is one of the reports about - this is a report, basically, on how the war on terror has also become a war on words. So here's my guest John Oliver with Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show."

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart")

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. JON STEWART (Host, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart"): Senior interrogation analyst, Mr. Jon Oliver joins us now. Jon Oliver, let me ask you this. This is upsetting to me.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. STEWART: The people - obviously, the people love torture.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: How is fake drowning, sleep deprivation, how isn't that torture?

Mr. OLIVER: That is not torture.


Mr. OLIVER: Because we don't torture.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Meaning we don't do those things.

Mr. OLIVER: Ah, no, no. Meaning, that if we do do those things, they must not be torture.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: That's insane.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: Well, isn't it great that we live in a country where you can say things like that?

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. OLIVER: That's really something. That's a bright day for America.

Mr. STEWART: But John, if it's not torture, what is it?

Mr. OLIVER: Enhanced interrogation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: So the prisoners...

Mr. OLIVER: Whoa - detainees.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Why aren't they prisoners?

Mr. OLIVER: Well, you can't torture prisoners, Jon. That's the Geneva Convention.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: But a detainee?

Mr. OLIVER: That you could do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: So waterboarding a prisoner...

Mr. OLIVER: Torture.

Mr. STEWART: Waterboarding a detainee.

Mr. OLIVER: That's interrogation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: So words in and of themselves have no value.

Mr. OLIVER: Wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: Wow. I'd have thought you'd at least support our words, Jon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: I don't...

Mr. OLIVER: Our brave fighting words who've been serving this country since the war on terror began.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: Many of them making the ultimate sacrifice, losing their definitions.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's my guest, John Oliver, with Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show." You sound so authoritative when you...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: Thank you, it's my vowel sounds. That's the trick.

GROSS: Do you just kind of like enhance your accent - your British accent to...

Mr. OLIVER: Sometimes - you're right. You have to really turn up the Brit for certain subjects, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I'm really interested in the process for "The Daily Show." Tell us how that sketch was written.

Mr. OLIVER: Okay that was a while ago, so, how most sketches are written is that, you know, we have a writers' meeting at nine in the morning and then we come up with some ideas then and we'll split off into pairs or to write single passes on aspects of the headline or a correspondent chat, if that's one of the ideas that came out. And then we'll write, get notes from Jon, rewrite, maybe get some more notes, rewrite again, rehearse at 4 o'clock, rewrite after that in a smaller group. Then we have the show at 6 o'clock, it's over at 6:30 and it's done. So, that is in a nutshell, in the quickest way possible, how we write the show. Now, for that example what I would imagine happened - again, it's hard to think back, but I think we thought there was a joke in the sacrifices of words especially around that time Gonzalez and there was so much parsing of really vitally important words.

And so, I think that individual - during that piece I was wearing a dictionary pin like a flag pin. And I think that joke had really come from that, to commemorate the loss of words. So that is, becomes your joke and then it's just a question of finding a way to tell that joke, an arc - a story arc from which you can use that fundamental satire of words as soldiers and the sacrifices that they're making. You then try and expound on that and try and find games between me and Jon and find the best jokes to tell it.


GROSS: Have you been to any of the tea parties?

Mr. OLIVER: Yeah, absolutely.

GROSS: Tell us, what was it like to report from them? Yeah.

Mr. OLIVER: They're a gift for the field department, because like we were saying before, you want people who vehemently believe in something and you won't find heavier beliefs, more fervently held beliefs, than at these tea parties. I guess the only thing that came close to it were Sarah Palin rallies last year. That really did filter the crazy in a way that was very useful. You were really left with the pure gold of nutcases. But tea parties are fantastic to report from because the people are way too passionate, for a start, long beyond the point of being able to process rational thought. And they kind of whip themselves up into an illogical frenzy and the things they're saying are either ridiculous or completely abhorrent. No, there are fundamental questions that you can have, of course, with the government but dressing up in revolutionary garb and saying that this government is tyrannical is absolutely ridiculous. Now, we did - that was one of the pieces that we did: I, as a British person, let me tell you what tyranny really was back then, because my people...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: ...did it to you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: And it wasn't slightly increasing the base rate of taxation. It was screwing your thumbs off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: So, let's not get carried away here. Let's not devalue the term tyranny, which certain countries, mine included, worked extremely hard to give its value.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: So, that was our take for that particular piece was what an insult, let's not bandy the term tyranny around to the countries that earned its use.

GROSS: What are some of the most extreme but deeply held beliefs that were told to you?

Mr. OLIVER: The people's fear, again, is real. That's the thing. I guess the most extreme - I would actually go back to the Sarah Palin rally. We went to a Palin rally in Scranton and so there were people turning up there and their fear was real. When you talk to someone and they look you in the eye and say he's a Muslim, and not only do they mean that but they mean that they believe that to be a problem, and they then go on to say, this country is going to be overrun by terrorists. They're not joking. They mean that, and their fear is real. They're not faking it, you know, they've - if you gave them a pulse rate you would see their pulse quickening as they said it. And that was the problem with that whole end to the McCain-Palin campaign was it's so cancerous. The hate - the poison they were putting out there, you know, the - even after the election, they're terrified, these people. They're terrified of this man. Now, there's no reason for them to be, but they don't feel that.

GROSS: What surprised you most about American politics compared to what you were used to in England. And in England you were satirizing politics there on shows that you did. So, you were following politics. So what's fundamentally different in America? What kinds of things would you never see in England?

Mr. OLIVER: I think there are a few things: one, in the most visual, visceral terms, the flamboyance of it. You know, the conventions were like a six-year-old's birthday party.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: The amount of balloons that were there, short of having Obama bursting out of a cake. You know, it's - and throwing presents out at everyone. It was spectacular. That, I guess, linked into the fact that coverage of politics here, in news, the cable news in particular, is just mindblowing. That was probably something I wasn't fully ready for. I knew it was bad. I think I didn't know quite how bad, how much posturing and how little actual news was involved. And I think in terms of politics itself, I think the religion here is, was a big deal.

When I first got here, Tony Blair was in power in Britain, who is a devout Catholic. But he would never talk about that and he would certainly be careful never to be photographed going into a church or be recorded talking about his faith because people would inherently find that suspicious. Now, Britain is definitely a more secular place than here is. But, over here the idea is that you have to have a public faith in God or you are not fit for office - is very difficult to get used to as someone from Europe.

GROSS: So, now correct me if I'm wrong, when you started working on "The Daily Show," you didn't even have a green card to allow you...

Mr. OLIVER: Oh, no. I didn't have a green card. I was on a visa. I got my green card three weeks ago, I think.


Mr. OLIVER: It just came through, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Gee. So, does that mean you've been working on the air, in plain sight, on television illegally?

Mr. OLIVER: No, it doesn't. No, let me stop that rumor getting out right now, Terry, although I've got a feeling that already people are going to be turning off their radios and picking up their phones to call Immigration.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: No, I was legal the whole time. I was on a working visa. But I wanted to, I love it here. I love this job and I love it here. So, I wanted to, it's a - being on visa is an odd limbo to live in because you have to reapply every year and your fate really is in the hands of the person behind the booth window. In fact - I think you'll like this one -the last time I had to apply for a visa - so you have to leave the country, so I went back to London to go to the American embassy. And your fate is absolutely is in the hands of this person in the interview talking. I walked up to the booth and the woman behind the booth looked at me and said with a stone face: Give me one reason why I should let you back into America to criticize our country again.


Mr. OLIVER: And I said, oh - my blood ran cold, I mean, I don't really think about it in that way, you know, it's just writing jokes. And then she said I'm just joking. I absolutely love the show, we watch it here all the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: Stamped the - and I'm not sure that that is a great time for a joke.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: You have someone who is about to crumple in front of you, I think there is a time and a place for a joke like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: And she got it wrong on both counts.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you for all your great work and I really enjoyed talking with you.

Mr. OLIVER: Oh, thank you, Terry. Thanks very much.

BIANCULLI: John Oliver, speaking to Terry Gross. The new TV series by the senior British correspondent for "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," begins Friday on Comedy Central. It's called "John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show."

You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Tweeter at nprfreshair. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

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