TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, continuing our holiday week series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year. This year, John Oliver began hosting a show of political satire Sunday nights on HBO called "Last Week Tonight."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV 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: Oliver had been a correspondent on "The Daily Show" for seven and a half years and hosted the show in the summer of 2013 while Jon Stewart took a break to direct his movie. On John Oliver's HBO show, which returns February 8, he does long kind of investigative reports on complicated issues, issues that aren't already on everyone's radar, even issues you may have thought were boring. And he makes the reports informative as well as laugh-out-loud funny. Here's one example from June. 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 has been considering 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 discusses in hard-to-follow, technical and bureaucratic language, which is where John Oliver comes in.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
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. 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. 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.
OLIVER: 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 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: Last summer was a big summer for you because when Jon Stewart was in the Middle East directing his 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...
GROSS: ...Hosting after Jon Stewart left you in that position.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")
OLIVER: Before Jon 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.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: U.S. officials acknowledge that intelligence agencies are secretly collecting millions of Americans' phone records on a daily basis.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Private calls of Americans, whether they've been suspected of a crime or not.
OLIVER: Are you [bleep] kidding me? Jon'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 was going to fly off at the end with an umbrella. It was just a bit of fun, just a bit of summer fun. And instead, Jon 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.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Now we're hearing it goes way beyond phone records to our Internet habits and who we email with.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The National Security Agency is building this massive new data center in Utah.
UNIDENTIFIED 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. Jon left you. I'm here.
GROSS: That's John Oliver last summer substitute-hosting for Jon Stewart when Jon Stewart was making his movie. So what kind of real advice did Jon 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 Jon 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, Jon Stewart is setting up your piece. You're sitting at the desk with Jon 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. You know what? 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.
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 Jon 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. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Let's get back to the interview I recorded in June with John Oliver, whose HBO satirical news show "Last Week Tonight" premiered this year.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: 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 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. You know, 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. And I think it's very easy not to think about them a lot. But 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 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's 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 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.
GROSS: I can hardly think of a more relaxing way to wind down from hosting "The Daily Show" all summer.
OLIVER: (Laughter) 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, 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.
GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, really?
OLIVER: 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. (Laughter) 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. But, yeah, it was amazing to go.
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 recorded in June. His satirical news show, "Last Week Tonight," returns Sunday February 8 on HBO. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan review a collection of short stories she describes as parables about the comic futility of life. This is FRESH AIR.
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