TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is John Oliver. After being a correspondent on the Daily Show for seven and half years and hosting the show last summer while John Stewart took a break to direct his movie, John Oliver now has his own show of political satire, Sunday nights on HBO. It's called "Last Week Tonight."
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT")
JOHN OLIVER: I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, wait, you're not going to really do a comic take on the death penalty, right? It's your second episode. I haven't even decided if I like this show yet.
GROSS: I'm not surprised at how funny the show is. I expected that of Oliver. But I am surprised at how the show is able to take complicated issues and issues that aren't already on everybody's radar - even issues you may have thought were boring - and then, create satire that is informative, as well as laugh-out-loud funny.
Here's one example from a few weeks ago. The subject was net neutrality, the idea that the Internet should be a level playing field with all data being treated equally, whether it's coming from a big corporation or a little start-up. The FCC is endorsing rules that would end net neutrality and create a data fast-lane for companies willing to pay a premium price. But the issue is sometimes discussed in boring, hard-to-follow, technical and bureaucratic language, which is where John Oliver comes in.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT")
OLIVER: Our government looks set to end net neutrality and let these companies run hog wild. And we're just going to let them. And you know why? It all comes back to this.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It seeks comment on ways to construe additional language in section 706 and even suggests using section 230B to broaden the scope of the commission's usurped authority.
OLIVER: Oh, my God. How are you still so dull?
OLIVER: And that's the problem. The cable companies have figured out the great truth of America. If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring. Apple could put the entire text of "Mein Kampf" inside the iTunes user agreement, and you'd just go agree, agree, agree - what? - agree, agree.
OLIVER: And that's why advocates should not be talking about protecting net neutrality. They shouldn't even use that phrase. They should call it preventing cable company (bleep), because that is what it is.
GROSS: John Oliver, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on your new show. I really love it. Is this part of how you see your show? Taking things that people might dismiss as being too boring or too complicated or, you know, not relevant to their lives and showing why it's interesting, important and how you can actually make it funny?
OLIVER: Maybe. I don't know. I mean, we're...
GROSS: You don't know yet?
OLIVER: We've only done seven shows. So yeah, I don't really know entirely what we're doing at the moment. But, yeah, it's worked out so far. We've kind of been drawn to things that are not being covered, really. Net neutrality is - that would be a key example, 'cause that is the most important thing that is honestly too boring to care about. And yet, it is a pivotal moment in a very, very key issue. So, yeah, it took a week of sifting through almost paralyzingly dull footage to try and work out how to prevent it. And so yeah, that's what we're trying to use our time on at the moment, or we have been. It's been that or, you know, the death penalty or the Indian election. Nothing that makes you scream, oh, this is going to be inherently hilarious.
GROSS: The weird thing is that I learn things from watching your show. Like, I hadn't been paying attention to the Indian elections till I saw your show, and it seemed like, wow, that's really interesting.
OLIVER: Oh, that's - oh, Terry, I can take...
GROSS: But it's embarrassing for me to admit that.
GROSS: Oh, no. I can take that from people in the street, but if you...
GROSS: It's horrible. I know.
OLIVER: If Terry Gross is saying that...
GROSS: I know. It's awful.
OLIVER: We're in such trouble as a nation. You're the canary in the coal mine.
GROSS: Well, you'll save us all.
OLIVER: If Terry Gross doesn't know about the Indian election, we're in serious trouble.
GROSS: Well, thanks for embarrassing me even more than I was already embarrassed. So to show - like, not only do you take subjects that some people really - a lot of us are not paying sufficient attention to - you not only make it funny and interesting - then, you get people to respond. And I'll go back to the net neutrality piece.
After describing how the end of net neutrality creates a two-tiered system in which providers can charge companies a premium to send massive amounts of data more quickly - like, Netflix could be charged more - you explain how cable companies would benefit by a two-tiered system. Then, you point out that the FCC, which regulates the cable companies, is headed by the former head of the industry's lobbying arm, which you compare to needing a babysitter and hiring a dingo.
I think I just proved your point by - I just put this in an incredibly boring way. Even though we've covered this on our show, and I know it's an incredibly interesting subject, I just made it sound kind of dull, maybe. But anyways, after you describe the problems of ending net neutrality and why that could be very unfair, you say that the FCC has a website for comments on net neutrality. And that you wanted to directly address the Internet commenters out there, and this was a call to action. So here you are, addressing the Internet commenters, asking them to go to the FCC site and make their opinion heard.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT")
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT")
OLIVER: For once in your life, we need you to channel that anger. That badly spelled boil that you normally reserve for unforgivable attacks on actresses you seem to think have put on weight. Or politicians that you disagree with or photos of your ex-girlfriend getting on with her life or non-white actors being cast as fictional characters. And I'm talking to you, RonPaulFan2016, and you, OneDirectionForever. And I'm talking to you, OneDirectionSucks(bleep). We need you to get out there, and for once in your lives, focus your indiscriminate rage in a useful direction. Seize your moment, my lovely trolls. Turn on caps lock and fly, my pretties.
GROSS: I love the way you managed to not only get people to comment on net neutrality on the FCC site, you insulted the people you were getting to comment.
GROSS: You insulted all Internet commenters.
OLIVER: I know. You can make anything sound euphoric with big music behind it.
GROSS: So what happened? It crashed the FCC website.
OLIVER: Well, the FCC website crashed. I don't know if we had anything to do with that. I think the fact it crashed shows there's bigger problems. If the FCC's website...
OLIVER: ...Is designed for people to comment on - if it's crashing when people are commenting, there's a much bigger problem than our involvement. There's clearly - I don't know much about website design, but it seems they have a serious infrastructure issue there.
GROSS: (Laughing) So in introducing the net neutrality piece, you said the only two words more boring than net neutrality are, featuring Sting. Do you worry that, one day, you will be a party with Sting and there will be a chill in the air, because you said that?
OLIVER: Of course. Of course. But that is the key thing. You've hit on a profound truth in comedy, there. And that is that what you can never do is then be at parties that Sting would be at.
OLIVER: And that's true of basically everyone I ever make fun of. As a comedian, you should not be in rooms where the people you're making fun of also are, because you'll realize at the end of the day, they're just people. You can't risk having that kind of compassion infect your mission to attack. So no, yeah - so my solution to that is not to curb my jokes. It's to not put myself in the same room as the consequences of those jokes.
GROSS: But that means with every year that you're doing satirical comedy, there are fewer rooms you can enter.
OLIVER: Yeah, but that's what you're supposed to be. A comedian is supposed to be an outsider. You're supposed to be outside, looking in. I don't want to be at parties in D.C. with politicians. The comedians shouldn't be there. If you feel comfortable in a room like that, there's a big problem.
That's what's so concerning about when you see journalists so comfortable around politicians. That's a red flag. There should be a kind of awkward tension whenever a journalist walks into a room that politicians are in, 'cause you should have done things that have annoyed them in the past. And the same as a comedian - you're no one's friend. You should be no one's friend, other than other comedians.
GROSS: So there's things that you can do on HBO that you couldn't do on "The Daily Show." One of them is use expletives, and another is show nudity - total nudity.
GROSS: You've taken advantage of both. (Laughing).
OLIVER: I have. I have.
GROSS: And I want you to explain in radio-friendly language what you did about campaign ads.
OLIVER: Well, we wanted to look at the race in Kentucky, which is set to be the most expensive race for Senate of all time. So we wanted to take a look at what Kentucky is getting for that. You know, it's the normal kind of poisonous, vacuous invective from two political sides not trying hard enough. That would be the nutshell.
And so what we decided to do was show - because you're on HBO, you know, the moral wasteland - that if you're going to throw that kind of money at insulting each other, you may as well take the nuclear option. And so we made an attack ad for each side - one which was incredibly violent, and one which featured Mitch McConnell in all his natural glory.
GROSS: It wasn't...
OLIVER: Was that radio-friendly?
GROSS: It wasn't really Mitch McConnell, though.
OLIVER: Well, we don't pan up. You don't know.
OLIVER: I mean, I don't want to burst the mystique here. It could have been Mitch McConnell. If it was the actual Mitch McConnell, I would be in jail by now. That's all I'll say.
GROSS: I'll just add - it was an older person's man parts.
OLIVER: (Laughing) It was. It was. And, God, if nothing else in my career, I've got Terry Gross to say the phrase, it was an older person's man parts.
OLIVER: That is an audio .gif waiting to invade the Internet.
GROSS: (Laughing). Well, you know, I was thinking, like, did Mitch McConnell contact your show and say, you can't get away with this? This is not right. This is, like, a humiliating kind of mockery that crosses the lines of good taste. Not that comics adhere to the lines of good taste.
GROSS: But did you get pushback?
OLIVER: No. No push - what's he going - he can't possibly - that's a phone call he can't make. You've can't - this is - your push back to that would be this is America. I can absolutely do that. He's not an idiot, despite, you know, significant evidence to the contrary. There's no pushback to have. There's a certain point at which context is only going to excuse some of what you're doing.
But that was the punch line to a much broader piece about how pathetic the race in Kentucky had been. And it was just taking the race to its natural logical extension, which was - you know, the background to it is that Allison Grimes had been attacking Mitch McConnell for being an old man who's out of touch. He had been attacking her for destroying coal. So the attack ad for him was Allison Grimes with a chainsaw in an incredibly graphic image, butchering coal miners underground, just with blood and kittens flying everywhere. And then, the natural extension of her campaign is an old man's parts, as you so delicately put it.
GROSS: Thank you.
OLIVER: So it was linked. There is a logical link to the actual campaigns that they're running. It's just taking them to their logical extensions, which are disgusting. But I would argue that the seeds of their campaigns are already disgusting. You are just watering those with premium cable. And they're provoked. I guess that's what I'm trying to say. Those are two things that come from a real place. And that is that their campaigns are awful.
GROSS: So what's it like for you, you know, as a comic and writer and performer, to know that on HBO you basically have no limits. You can say and show what you want? There aren't going to be restrictions like on basic cable, which is what Comedy Central is on. So it's not like you are just throwing expletives all around or just, like, showing nudity on each show. I think you're doing that all pretty sparingly.
OLIVER: Just to be clear - just to be clear, we've done that once.
GROSS: Yes. (Laughing).
OLIVER: And we'll probably only do it once, because it was only really justified once. Look, we might do it a few more times. Anyway, I have no immediate plans to show more full frontal male nudity. However, I reserve the right to do so. And I mean, it's really those things that you mentioned - the kind of linguistic and visual pyrotechnics are actually the least exciting things. Those are kind of the cherries on the cake.
The incredible thing is that you can do anything. So you can do 12 minutes on General Motors corporate malfeasance, which is - you know, that can be a problem on network television, especially. Not so much on basic cable, but on network television, it's a problem. If you are going to go after GM, there are a number of GM cars that would be sponsors for your show, so it's going to be difficult. There are going to be consequences to doing that. The exciting thing at HBO is that they let you do whatever you want. They don't say anything. They're amazing. It's almost a confusing amount of freedom.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Oliver, and his new HBO show of political satire is called "Last Week Tonight." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is John Oliver, formerly of "The Daily Show." He filled in for Jon Stewart last year when Jon Stewart was making his movie. And now John Oliver has his own show of political satire, Sunday nights on HBO, and it's called "Last Week Tonight." Let's hear another clip of your show and how you take stories that are either considered boring, or considered just, like, really scary and horrible, and somehow make them both funny, but also really interesting. Like I said, I always, I always learn things from your pieces. So this was a piece that you did about the Syrian dictator, Assad, who is, you know, just like massacring his own people in the Syrian Civil War. And of course, you had to figure out a way of making that funny. So, you know, you talked about the horrible things Assad is doing. And then you gave a little bit of Assad's biography.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT")
OLIVER: The more you more learn about Assad, the more you're forced to come to terms with the fact that he's half mass murderer, and half your creepy sophomore year roommate.
OLIVER: Because two years ago, a trove of his emails leaked, and all of a sudden, the world had a fascinating glimpse into his music taste.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And as the people of Syria has been fighting and dying for their freedom, their President, Bashar al-Assad, apparently has been ordering pop music off iTunes. His playlist includes "Sexy And I Know it" by LMFAO.
OLIVER: LMFAO? So we're dealing with someone with the political instincts of a young Joseph Stalin, and the music tastes of a 14-year-old girl from Orange County named Tiffany.
OLIVER: That song is so hot right now. Among Assad's other iTunes purchases were, and this is true, a song from Right Said Fred, the British sensation that you might remember from this.
(SOUNDBITE of SONG, "I'M TOO SEXY")
RIGHT SAID FRED: (Singing) I'm too sexy for your party. Too sexy for your party.
OLIVER: That is, that is a great song by the way. But...
OLIVER: ...but, but it should not be on a dictator's playlist. A dictator's power is in their mystique. When you picture Assad, he wants you to hear this.
(SOUNDBITE OF OMINOUS MUSIC)
OLIVER: But now, now when you look at him all you should be able to hear is this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEXY AND I KNOW IT")
LMFAO: (Singing) I'm sexy and I know it.
OLIVER: And that's the point. That's the point. Yes, he's a monster, but he's also a moron, which is why it's so frustrating that we're powerless to do anything to hurt him. If only there was something, however small, that we could do. I mean, I guess we could find something he loves and, and turn it against him. We could track down, let's say, Right Said Fred and we could hypothetically fly them all the way over here from London to perform especially rewritten anti-Assad version of their greatest hit. But...
OLIVER: ...Would it really be worth all that time and expense just for the momentary catharsis of mildly irritating one of the worst people on the planet? Ladies and gentlemen...
OLIVER: ...may I present to you, one of Bashar al-Assad's favorite bands, Right Said Fred.
RIGHT SAID FRED: (Singing) You're too awful for this earth. Too awful for this earth, so awful it hurts. Your face has barely got a chin. It's barely got a chin, you look just like him. So please, stop downloading our tracks, stop downloading our tracks, here's your money back. You're a monster, we hate your regime. And we think you should be fried for war crimes. Yeah, for war crimes. Yeah, for war crimes. Yeah, you probably should be on trial for war crimes.
GROSS: That was an excerpt of John Oliver's HBO series "Last Week Tonight." And if you haven't seen the show yet, that will give you an idea of how cutting and funny it is.
GROSS: So you just called Assad a monster, a moron. You said he should be tried for war crimes and called one of the worst people on the earth. So obviously...
OLIVER: Those are, those are earned titles.
GROSS: Yes - no, I realize that. Do you ever worry though, that dictators like that have some international pull and, you know, that there could be a mysterious accident or something? Do you know what I mean? Honestly, do you ever worry about?
OLIVER: Are you threatening me, Terry? Has he got to you?
OLIVER: Who are you speaking for, Terry? If that is your real name.
OLIVER: No, I don't. I don't care. That's not going to happen. He has other things to worry about than a comedian he's never heard of, performing on a show he doesn't care about, in a country doesn't live in, so no. You can't spend your whole life worrying about the consequences of doing stupid things when you're a comedian because...
GROSS: I agree. I agree with you but Bassem, I'm forgetting his last name...
OLIVER: Youssef. Bassem Youssef is his name.
GROSS: Bassem Youssef, yes. The Egyptian satirist...
OLIVER: Yes, right.
GROSS: ...who basically did, before they threw him off the air...
GROSS: ...did a kind of Egyptian version of The Daily Show. Like, he's, he's kind of in danger now. Now granted...
OLIVER: Yeah, but...
GROSS: ...it was in his own country. And it was his own dictator that he was mocking. But still, it's got to make you think.
OLIVER: But I think about him, I actually think about him a lot, Terry, because I know him a little bit and, you know, we email back and forth sometimes. And what he does, you know, Jon Stewart will say the same thing, what Bassem is doing - he is at the pointy end of political comedy because he is not immune from consequences in the way that you almost entirely are when you live in America. It's hard to overstate the difficulty of the conditions that he had to work under when that show was on the air.
So I feel, genuinely, that I owe him in a way. If you have the chance to do dumb things, you should do them. You shouldn't be scared if you have nothing to be scared about. He wasn't scared and he had plenty to be scared about. So I have no business even letting any of those concerns cross my mind, when Bassem did the kind of things that he did, and when being worried not just about him and his family, but his whole staff. So, yeah, I've got no real time for thinking about those kind of things.
GROSS: John Oliver will be back in the second half of the show. His new program of political satire is called "Last Week Tonight." It's shown Sunday nights on HBO. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with John Oliver. He was a correspondent on "The Daily Show" for seven and half years and now hosts his own show of political satire Sunday nights on HBO. It's called "Last Week Tonight."
Last summer was a big summer for you because when John Stewart was in the Middle East directing his film - his forthcoming film - he asked you to host for him. And you were fabulous hosting the show. And that's basically - that was basically the consensus of opinion. And I just want to play a short excerpt of what I think was your first night hosting after John Stewart left you in that position.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")
OLIVER: Before John left, it was very sweet. He was very warm and supportive, and he actually gave me this little note here and it says, don't worry, you'll be great. That's nice, although subjective. Besides, no big news stories ever break out over the summer.
REPORTER 1: U.S. officials acknowledge that intelligence agencies are secretly collecting millions of Americans' phone records on a daily basis.
REPORTER 2: Private calls of Americans, whether they've been suspected of a crime or not.
OLIVER: Are you [bleep] kidding me? John's been gone one day - one day. We had such a fun, gentle first show planned for as well. You know, a few harmless I'm British jokes - like this is a football not a soccer ball. We call it a football. Halfway through the show we were going to break and have a little tea time. And then at the end of the show, I wasn't going to fly off with an umbrella. It was just a bit of fun, just a bit of summer fun. And instead, John Stewart is barely out of the door, and it turns out that not only is the government tracking everyone's phone calls, but that's just the tip of the [bleep] burg.
REPORTER 3: Now we're hearing it goes way beyond phone records to our Internet habits and who we e-mail with.
REPORTER 4: The National Security Agency is building this massive new data center in Utah.
REPORTER 5: This is a mammoth facility. The published reports indicate that it can hold five zettabytes of data.
OLIVER: Zettabytes? You've actually got to be careful with those. I think that's how Michael Douglas got throat cancer. Boom.
OLIVER: Hey, hey, he left you. John left you. I'm here.
GROSS: That's John Oliver last summer substitute hosting for John Stewart when John Stewart was making his movie.
Were you really shocked when all of this breaking news happened? And with - did you consider that - not in terms of the health of the country, but in terms of your ability to put on a good show - was that good news or bad news?
OLIVER: It was - I guess it was good news 'cause, you know, the summer's usually - the problem is, it's usually quiet, especially in a nonelection year. But that particular summer was not quiet, and that was true from day one. Yeah, that Snowden story broke literally just before our Monday show. So it was - the whole thing was a blur. There was - I guess it worked out 'cause there was no real time to panic because we just had to do what we normally do which is kind of write a show - it's just without the guy who helps us do that. So yeah, it was - that whole summer was very difficult.
GROSS: So what kind of real advice did John Stewart give you before he left for the summer?
OLIVER: He gave me lots - he gave me lots of advice. I don't know how transferable some of it is 'cause it's so specific. You know, it helps me every day now thinking about it, you know, running my own show.
But I think there was one day, to be honest, in particular, that was very, very difficult. And it was something I'd been concerned about going in. And I'd said to him, if something really - occasionally, when something really painful happens, there are times when people just want to hear from John about it. And, you know, there have been times in the past when he's helped people, you know, with comedy to kind of feel some kind of catharsis through some very difficult events. And I said I'm worried that I have no authority to occupy that position. You know, I can make fun of things, but if anything painful happens, I'm worried that it's unearned - any authority I have is unearned. And he'd said, well, now would be the time that you would have to earn that.
GROSS: I want to play your last appearance on "The Daily Show," and...
GROSS: And in this, John Stewart is setting up your piece. You're sitting at the desk with John Stewart and he's setting you up to talk about the royal family.
GROSS: So here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")
JON STEWART: You know, it's funny, do you - I thought that went pretty well. Did you think that went well? That bit?
STEWART: I just thought it was funny. Like, did you think us discussing this was like - that we got laughs?
OLIVER: Yeah, a few.
OLIVER: Not bad.
STEWART: Do you think it's weird that we worked on this all day? This bit we did here, like - 'cause it's like, I don't know if you know this but like, John Oliver, how long have you been here?
OLIVER: Seven and a half years.
STEWART: Seven and a half years - but John, because - and we've all known this, you're a tremendously talented individual. You know that, you know we know you're tremendously talented.
OLIVER: ...Whatever you said there.
STEWART: John got his own show on HBO, which is long overdue and we're very excited for him. But this is his - unfortunately, his last night with us. And I went - it's true. So I, today, went through this enormous - I guess your people would call it a charade of writing this [bleep] royal nut bit...
OLIVER: We're not doing the bit?
STEWART: No, of course we're not doing the [bleep]. What do you think we're doing here?
OLIVER: I thought you cared?
STEWART: No, I don't care. I don't care. There's only one British royal I care about tonight, and his name is Prince John Oliver.
STEWART: So let me show you - here's what I want to talk about a little bit. So you came to us from - I think you came from Elsberry Unlightly (ph). I don't remember the town you come from.
OLIVER: I forget as well.
STEWART: Muffin on puffin stuff.
OLIVER: That's offensive, that's offensive, but fine.
STEWART: It should be. But what I loved about what John brought to us was a broad range of characters from different backgrounds.
GROSS: John Oliver, you seemed to be totally thrown with the fact that this piece that you'd been writing and preparing all day was a charade, and it was basically a surprise party for you.
OLIVER: Yeah, it was very difficult.
GROSS: We could see you wiping tears from your eyes. And I thought John Stewart looked surprised, like he wasn't expecting you to be that emotional. And he was almost a little concerned.
OLIVER: Yeah, I think - well, the problem - I think that this is the - the moment when I fell apart was - I think he could see that I was getting upset towards the end. And he - I don't know if you can even hear it on camera, but he kind of - I can't remember - he kind of like brings me in and he said - asked me - are you OK? And I just fell apart 'cause that was just such - it was so emblematic of the way he'd been with me over nearly a decade, which was constantly checking if I was OK, helping me through things, teaching me how to do things that I perhaps should already know how to do.
You know, before he left for the summer at a time when he had no time, when he had a movie to prepare, he was so generous with, you know, giving me advice on how to run things, when there can be problems in the process, how to feel when something like this happens. He helped me with everything. He was always so generous. And so at that moment, the fact he said, are you OK - that was - I'm afraid my elegantly constructed British dam was broken.
GROSS: My guest is John Oliver. He now hosts his own show of political satire Sunday nights on HBO. It's called "Last Week Tonight." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is John Oliver. He's a former "Daily Show" correspondent and hosted the show last summer while John Stewart made a film. Now, John Oliver has his own show of political satire Sunday nights on HBO called "Last Week Tonight." You've done political satire in England, as well as the United States. What are the first issues that you felt engaged with?
OLIVER: That's a good question. I don't know. I mean, I grew up in Thatcher's Britain, so it was not - it was difficult not to have an opinion when you're growing up, especially because both of my parents were state school teachers. You know, they taught in regular schools - what you call public schools. And so you kind of see the consequences of particularly rough policies there. And so yeah, I saw my parents kind of struggle a bit under some of what Thatcher was doing. So it's hard to grow up apathetic in that particular time. She was a pretty polarizing figure.
GROSS: So your parents were teachers. What did they teach?
OLIVER: Well, my dad eventually became a head teacher - like a principal - but he worked as a social worker before. And then my mom was, like, a music teacher.
GROSS: So how did you figure out that the comedy you wanted to do was political satire as opposed to, you know, autobiographical stand-up comedy or, you know, sitcom comedy?
OLIVER: When you first start doing stand up, I think all you want to do is survive. You just want to leave the stage to something - with something resembling the dignity that you walked onto the stage with. And then as you get better, then you start to think, well, maybe if I've got what basic performance and writing skills I have now - it would be interesting to turn that to stuff I'm actually interested in.
So then, like, the comedy that you're capable of and your areas of interest - then, they generally collide for the first time. And so then you just try, incompetently, to talk - to use comedy to talk about something that you're passionate about. And yeah, that's a recipe for comprehensive failure for a while. But hopefully, on the other side of that is something which is much more satisfying to do.
GROSS: So you were passionate about politics.
OLIVER: I was. Yeah, yeah, I guess so. Yeah, I was pretty interested at the time. And it was also, you know, the run-up to the Iraq War was an interesting time, as well. So yeah, I became more interested in writing, you know, comedy about current affairs.
GROSS: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think your wife is a veteran of the Iraq War.
OLIVER: She is. Yeah, she is. She is in the U.S. Army. She was a combat medic with First Cavalry.
GROSS: So do you share the political - same political point of view about the war in Iraq?
OLIVER: That is a very difficult question because I'm trying to think to what extent I'm kind of licensed to talk on her behalf. She was very young when she went to war. And I think she and most veterans at the moment of the Iraq war are having a very difficult time looking at what is happening in Iraq right now. No, 'cause she and many of them - you know, they spilled blood in that country. And to watch what is happening with ISIS at the moment, I think, is truly heartbreaking for them. So it's a difficult time for Iraq war veterans, this.
And, you know, America is not particularly engaged with its war or with its veterans of those wars, in particular. I think it's very easy not to think about them a lot. But, yeah, I guess, to a certain extent, I kind of - we live with that war. You know, the fact she fought in that war is part of her life. You know, it's a big part of her life. She turned 21 in that war. You know, she was in Fallujah. And it's difficult. It's not my - these are not my stories to talk about, really.
GROSS: No, that's fine. So - but it must be sobering when you're trying to say funny things about the war in Iraq or what's happening now in Iraq or, you know, Afghanistan or whatever. 'Cause it is so close to home to you, you know the real - you know your wife knows the real meaning of war, that she's been through it.
OLIVER: Yeah. And so...
GROSS: And it must be very sobering reminder that, as funny as you want to make a sketch, that, you know, it's real.
OLIVER: Well, yeah, of course. But the stakes are higher, so, you know, you need to be absolutely confident the whole time of why you're telling a joke and what that joke is. Yeah, you want to be - yeah, you want to keep that in mind, you know. And it is - yeah, it's a more visceral reminder of that, you know, I guess. I actually went to - I went to Afghanistan this last summer with her. Just - in fact, it was the day after - the day after I finished the "Daily Show" for the summer. Yeah, we literally - we finished the show Thursday night, and then, Friday morning, we flew to Afghanistan. So I spent the next couple of weeks there.
GROSS: I can hardly think of a more relaxing way to wind down from hosting the "Daily Show" all summer.
OLIVER: (Laughing) Well, it's just - I've wanted to do it for a long time, because - and it was very hard to find the time - but I really wanted to do it, because, you know, from my wife or from friends of hers or, you know, Rob Riggle, who used to work on the "Daily Show" and who was a Marine - they often talked about how much it meant just to have someone - not even if it's someone you like, in particular - just someone from back home coming and just trying to take you out of your own head for a few minutes. So they were some of the most fun gigs I've ever done just 'cause - you just want to go make fun of them, you know. Just do - I'd do anything to make them laugh.
So, yeah, it's kind of a - you know, comedy is a luxury at the best of times to do as a career. And it's one of the rare times you actually feel like it has a - some tangible use, where, you know, you look out at an audience of people that are just exhausted, with guns in their laps, and you think, I will do whatever it takes to make you laugh. I even tased myself. I tased myself in the leg. Someone had a Taser, and they said, do you want to tase yourself? And I thought they'd laugh if I did. And so, yeah, I tased myself in the leg, and it hurt. (Laughing) And the last thing I can remember - one of the other guys who I went over there with - I remember, as I was jolting myself in the leg - I remember hearing him shout, I thought you were smarter than this.
OLIVER: But I'd do anything. I'd do anything to make them laugh. You know, it was a privilege to be there. And it was interesting to see the kind of way - it helped - going back to talking a little bit about my wife - it helped get the - even though she was from a different country - the kind of smells of food they ate over there and the kind of places they sleep - it helped me, a bit, engage with some of what she'd done. A bit. I hasten to add a bit. Like, let's say point-five of a percentage. But, yeah, it was amazing to go. And it was so much fun. I know that sounds weird, flying into a war zone, but it was really fun.
GROSS: So you are an American citizen now?
OLIVER: No. I've got a green card.
GROSS: Oh, I thought when you were married, you became...
OLIVER: No, actually - do you know what? This is a funny story. The last time we spoke, Terry, it was years ago.
GROSS: It was 2010.
OLIVER: I think - that's right. It was 2010. And I think you talked about my - I think she was just my girlfriend then.
GROSS: That's right.
OLIVER: I think you - yeah, and I think you said, oh, is she your fiancee or something.
GROSS: Yeah, I think called her your wife. Yeah.
OLIVER: Yes. Now, that came with repercussions for me, Terry.
GROSS: No. Oh, no. What did I say?
OLIVER: I hadn't realized the extent to which people listened to your show or at least have it on in the background of their lives 'cause there were extended relatives of her that just - of my now wife - who heard the word fiancee and started calling my wife's family saying, I had no idea she got engaged.
GROSS: You know - you know what I think? I think you might have said, soon-to-be wife. She's not my wife. She's my soon-to-be wife.
OLIVER: Yeah. Yeah. So, yeah, I mean, it worked out, Terry. But you, you know, inadvertently accelerated that process.
OLIVER: Yeah. So, yeah.
GROSS: What did your now wife have to say? Was she in on the fact that she was your soon-to-be wife?
OLIVER: I don't know if she was in on it. No, I don't think she would ever quite believe it, justifiably, until it happens. So I think she was -there was a certain amount of eye-rolling - of, oh, well, isn't that hilarious? My family thinks we're engaged, and we're not. Isn't that funny? What a funny thing to have happened.
GROSS: (Laughing) My guest is John Oliver. He now hosts his own show of political satire Sunday nights on HBO. It's called "Last Week Tonight." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you are just joining us, my guest is John Oliver, formerly of "The Daily Show" and now hosting his own political satire show Sunday nights on HBO. It's called "Last Week Tonight."
So I was reading - I don't know if it was like a bio or a Wikipedia entry or maybe an article - it was kind of like going on. Yeah, you know, he worked for the Cambridge - he performed in the Cambridge Footlights and he did satire BBC, blah, blah, blah. And he worked for a man who fence stolen kitchen equipment. I went, what? He worked for a man who fence stolen kitchen equipment? What was that about?
OLIVER: That is - where did you find that?
GROSS: I can't remember. Maybe it was an article in the Guardian or Wikipedia? I don't remember.
OLIVER: Yeah, I was a - I had a temp job at one point answering phones for this guy that dealt in like industrial kitchen equipment - all of which was very clearly stolen. And I was standing in for his regular phone answerer who was on maternity leave. So I covered for her maternity leave, basically fending phone calls from people threatening his life in different ways - each day, having to write down those threats. So...
GROSS: While you were out.
OLIVER: Yeah, he said - well, he was always there, but he was - that was the first thing you were supposed to say is, no, he's not here. And then they would say, OK, well, can you tell him that, you know, unless he brings 'round, you know, X amount of money, I will kill him. And, you know, OK, I'll tell him. Read it back to me. OK, all right. Well, unless he brings back this amount money, you'll kill him. OK, that's good. And you'll let him know? I will let him know that, yeah. He is currently over my shoulder laughing right now.
And yeah, one time he sent me across London in a cab with like £5,000 and a knife. And he said the knife was in case someone tried to take it from me. And I said to him, look, if someone tried to take this money from him, I'm giving them the money and the knife. I'm coming back empty-handed. I'm - this is - I'm covering maternity leave.
OLIVER: And also, that makes me think, you've put a heavily pregnant woman into this situation in the past. And also, to extend that, a heavily pregnant woman is better at handling herself physically than I am.
GROSS: Did it seem funny to you at the time?
OLIVER: Yeah, definitely. I thought it was amazing. It was really fun. It was a really fun place to be because it was chaotic. I don't know how you steal industrial kitchen equipment, it's huge.
GROSS: That makes me wonder - your wife was in the military, could you ever imagine yourself in war if it was an enlisting kind of thing? If it wasn't something you were forced to do.
OLIVER: No. No. No, I don't have it. I don't have what they have. And I think that was - I was pretty sure of that before I went to Afghanistan and now I'm absolutely certain of it. You know, I think - I have a kind of slightly anti-authoritarian bent, so I don't like being told what to do. Or I do like being told what to do and then not doing it. Yeah, I like being told to do something and annoying the person who just told me to do it. That's my dream position. And yet the military has no use for me. I do not have the moral backbone or the muscle mass to be of any use in a combat situation.
GROSS: John Oliver, it's just been wonderful to talk with you. Thanks so much and congratulations again on your new show.
OLIVER: Thanks, Terry. It was a real, real pleasure.
GROSS: John Oliver hosts the political satire show, "Last Week Tonight" Sunday nights on HBO.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.