In 2003, Armando Iannucci (the Scottish writer and director of In the Loop) hired Oliver to write for Gash, a weeklong radio program that coincided with local U.K. elections. For comedians who write their own material, radio in the U.K. often is a point of entry. And on Gash, Oliver proved himself a sharp cultural critic who could churn out copy quickly. "You can't write lazily on the radio," notes Iannucci. "You learn to write with focus and make each word count. And John was fantastic at that."
Oliver used to watch David Letterman on a digital channel late at night in the U.K. “And his contempt for people he was interviewing seemed so rebellious to me,” says Oliver. “He would have a boring actor in front of him, and he would expose that rather than try to save him from himself. He’s my absolute favorite.”
The surrealist sketch show occupies a special place in the pantheon of British comedy. And Oliver admits that, as a British person, fealty to the comedy troupe that included Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam is compulsory. But in his case, he says, “It’s also true.”
The father of 1960s British satire, Cook, who died in 1995, was an anti-establishment hero. And as a comedian, observes Oliver, “You don’t want to be an actual participant in a debate. You just want to be an outsider pointing out the ludicrous.”
As a child, Oliver would lie awake at night listening to recordings of Richard Pryor. "I knew most Richard Pryor albums by heart by the time I was 15," he says. "You have not heard Richard Pryor stand-up until you've heard it through the voice of a 15-year-old white, British boy."