John Oliver: Topical Comedy With A Crisp Accent
This interview was originally broadcast on Jan. 5, 2010.
With Daily Show host Jon Stewart on leave for the summer, comedian John Oliver has stepped in to host the show that's become his television home base.
Oliver relocated from the U.K. in 2006 to become the "Senior British Correspondent" on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. For his work there, he won an Emmy in 2009.
While his man-on-the-street-style interviews are typically conducted off the cuff, and interviewees may not know exactly what context they'll eventually be presented in, Oliver says those interviewed for the pre-taped segments are aware of the show and its premise.
But whether it's a spontaneous or a prepared interview, Oliver says that the best — and often seemingly most outrageous — moments featured on the show are genuine.
"When you see people say crazy things on our show, they mean this stuff," he says. "And that's easy to forget: They're not joking."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")
JOHN OLIVER: Welcome to "The Daily Show." Thank you. Thank you. Welcome to "The Daily Show." I am John Oliver and let's all just acknowledge for a moment that this is weird.
OLIVER: This looks weird, it feels weird, it even sounds weird.
OLIVER: It even sounds weird to me - and this is my actual voice.
DAVIES: It may have been weird, but it's been a good week for John Oliver. His first filing in for Jon Stewart as host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." The Senior British Correspondent will be hosting the show during the summer while Jon Stewart takes leave to direct a film.
Not all the other correspondents on "The Daily Show" though, are thrilled with the whole thing - as John Oliver discovered on his first night in the host chair.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")
OLIVER: The story about the government surveillance operations keeps getting bigger and we have full team coverage. First, Jason Jones is at the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland.
OLIVER: Jason, have you been surprised by what's been going on the past few days?
JASON JONES: Surprised? Yeah. Try blindsided.
JONES: And I'm not alone. All of America is aghast right now. They cannot believe their eyes.
OLIVER: Well, so Americans feel like they've been betrayed in some way?
JONES: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Betrayed is a good word for what we're feeling right now. OK?
JONES: We trusted the guy in charge, believed his promises about advancement and career opportunities and seniority.
OLIVER: Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.
OLIVER: Wait. Wait. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Jason. Jason, are you talking about me taking over the show?
OLIVER: Is that what you're talking about?
JONES: Oh, I'm sorry. What the (bleep) else would I be talking about?
OLIVER: OK. OK.
JONES: You just go to Iran, the boss said, risk your life and freedom. It'll pay off down the road.
OLIVER: Yeah. OK.
JONES: Yeah. It turns out I should've just stayed here singing (bleep) chimney sweeps songs.
OLIVER: OK. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey.
OLIVER: OK. Well, Jason Jones, let's go to Samantha Bee - let's go to Samantha Bee at Google headquarters, of course, one of company's whose data is being monitored.
SAMANTHA BEE: Hey, John, I'm so sorry. Can I just please apologize on behalf of Jason?
OLIVER: I appreciate that, Sam. It's fine. Has Google issued a statement?
BEE: Well, let me put it like this, (with British accent) John, after violating the privacy act of their entire clientele...
BEE: Google's in a right sticky wicket...
OLIVER: Sam? Sam? Sam?
BEE: Yes. I'm sorry, governor. What?
OLIVER: Sam, you don't need to speak in a British accent.
BEE: Oh, don't I, John? Don't I?
BEE: Ten years I've been here talking American, only to be leapfroged by a godforsaken foreigner.
OLIVER: OK. OK. Stop it. Stop it.
OLIVER: Sam, thank you very much.
DAVIES: John Oliver, born in Birmingham in England. He joined "The Daily Show" in 2006. Terry interviewed him in 2010, during the run-up to the midterm elections. Here's an excerpt of their conversation.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
So, you came to America to do "The Daily Show"? You weren't here before?
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.
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.
OLIVER: For many meetings in those first few months, I'd think, oh, OK. 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?
OLIVER: No. I think you are overestimating my performance abilities there.
OLIVER: Not really. I think my accent became a persona in and of itself, in it's - I think deep down, Americans still can't help but respect the British accents. I think it's quite - you still can't help but respect the authority of this voice. So, I think...
OLIVER: ...just the way I spoke, people think, oh, he must be playing a kind of smart reporter.
OLIVER: If that's what you want to believe, then I'm happy to let you continue doing so.
GROSS: GROSS: Have you been to any of the tea parties?
OLIVER: Yeah, absolutely.
GROSS: Tell us, what was it like to report from them? Yeah.
OLIVER: Well, you know, they are - 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.
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 did it to you. And it wasn't slightly increasing the base rate of taxation. It was screwing your thumbs off.
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 it value. 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: Now, one other thing that happened to you when reporting for "The Daily Show," didn't you break your nose?
OLIVER: 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.
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 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. And they said, good. Was it funny?
OLIVER: 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 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.
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...
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.
GROSS: Wow. Really?
OLIVER: It just came through, yeah.
GROSS: Gee. So, does that mean you've been working on the air, in plain sight, on television illegally?
OLIVER: No. No, it doesn't. 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.
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.
OLIVER: Stamped the pass. And I'm not sure personally that that is a great time for a joke.
OLIVER: When 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. And she got it wrong on both counts.
DAVIES: John Oliver Sr., British correspondent and, for three months, fill in anchor for "The Daily Show." That's a gig I know something about. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews a new film adaptation of "Much Ado About Nothing." This is FRESH AIR.
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