Guest Host John Oliver Will Try Not to Destroy 'The Daily Show' (Q&A)
The self-deprecating British comedian, who fills in for Jon Stewart beginning June 10, talks about his disdain for cable news, contempt for American politics and suffering on the stand-up circuit.
If anyone was wondering, John Oliver has no aspirations to permanently take over The Daily Show from writer-host-executive producer Jon Stewart, who is taking the summer off to direct his first feature film. In fact, 36-year-old Oliver, who has ample reserves of that British self-flagellation, says he will consider his eight weeks at Stewart’s anchor desk a success if he does not completely destroy the show. “When he gets back, I’m just trying to make sure this building is not on fire both physically and metaphorically,” says Oliver during a recent interview in his office at The Daily Show studios on the west side of Manhattan. “That is the aim, just to keep the show on the air for a few months.”
Oliver joined The Daily Show in 2006, relocating from his native U.K., where he had achieved success on the stand-up circuit. Since then his profile has grown considerably with a recurring role on NBC’s cult comedy Community, a stand-up series on Comedy Central and various film cameos. His efforts to secure a green card were wryly chronicled in his comedy, and he can now apply for citizenship thanks to his 2011 marriage to Kate Norley, an Iraq war combat nurse whom he met while attempting to evade security at the 2008 Republican National Convention. “I met her on the night of Sarah Palin’s first speech,” recalls Oliver. “I guess that’s our song in a way -- the hockey mom joke.”
Oliver begins filling in on June 10; Stewart returns in September. When Stewart called Oliver a few months ago to ask him to sit in, Oliver immediately agreed. “Anything he asks me to do, I’ll do. It was only after hanging up, when I was trying to re-articulate the conversation to my wife, that it started to sound insane.”
The Hollywood Reporter: Not to put any pressure on you, but what happens if the ratings go down?
John Oliver: The ratings are going to go down. Ice is cold, and the ratings of this show are going to go down in the summer. Add to that the fact that I’m here, so you’ll have your regular summer decline and that will become a more elemental nosedive. I just need to Sully myself -- you know, like Chesley Sullenberger -- I’ve got to at least land this show in the water. So I know the ratings are going to go down, I just have to make sure that they don’t collapse.
THR: How are you calming your nerves? Any weird rituals or quirky talismans?
Oliver: There shouldn’t really be time in the day to get nervous. There’s enough time to write and produce the show every day, but no more than enough. The day is this constant semi-controlled panic just to get it on-air.
THR: So no lucky socks or anything?
Oliver: I don’t know if there will be time to put lucky socks on. On a more serious note, I have occasionally -- if ever I do interviews that are difficult or nerve-wracking -- I take my wife’s dog tags and have them in my pocket because it’s a very quick way to realize that what I’m doing is not that important. It’s not really worth getting stressed about because it’s not, you know, war. She’s pretty good at reminding me of that with her eyes rolling back in her head if I talk about how stressful my day has been at the TV show I work for.
THR: The Daily Show and your field pieces in particular are pretty cutting indictments of Washington. Do you have contempt for our political system?
Oliver: I think so. The more you look at it, the harder it is to feel any other way. The recent gun control debate is the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve been here for seven years, and I was working in political comedy back in England for a while. And the gun control debate was the single most pathetic piece of attempted legislation I’ve ever witnessed.
THR: Your gun control interviews with Philip van Cleave of the Virginia Citizens Defense League and Jim Manley, Majority Leader Harry Reid’s aide, were hilariously derisive. Why do these people continue to consent to interviews with you?
Oliver: Jim Manley is a political operative with decades of experience, and his breathtaking cynicism was so depressing. But he seemed pretty happy after it. He got in touch with people here [and said]: "I thought it came across well." It’s borderline psychotic. Politics has become infused with narcissism in America. He’s on TV, and they like seeing themselves talking on TV. There is a kind of bizarre inherent value in being seen on TV talking about something.
THR: Even if the person you’re talking to is making a fool of you?
Oliver: He did that himself. I nudged him along the way.
THR: So if you could have voted, I assume you would have voted for President Obama?
Oliver:I would have voted for the President, but I would have been realistic about the expectations of that vote. If you’re asking me, would I have voted for Mitt Romney, the answer is absolutely not. Emphatically not. I cannot envision a world in which I would have voted for Mitt Romney unless I sustained a massive concussion.
THR: Jon has something of a bromance going with Bill O’Reilly. Who is your favorite cable news personality?
Oliver: Is there a personality that I admire the way Jon admires Bill? Oh, I admire all of them like that. There are some people who work on cable news that I like a lot. I like Fareed Zakaria a lot. But he’s on for an hour a week, which is what seems realistic. You can’t report the news 24 hours a day because you need to pause and reflect on things. That’s not even journalism, that’s just part of being a human. If you’re just constantly regurgitating every single thought that comes into your head, literally talking faster than you’re thinking, you’re going to end up making a pathetic circus of things. Which is what CNN became during [coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing manhunt], just flinging anything that sounded like a fact everywhere -- like a crop sprayer.
THR: So what do you consume to stay informed, because clearly it’s not cable news?
Oliver: No, I watch that because it’s part of my job. I have to imbibe it like a poison and then find a way of processing it into something productive. I like 60 Minutes. It’s still great. Some of the 6:30 broadcasts are good because they take time and think about it. I read nonstop. I read the New York Times, Politico, NPR. There is very little that I don’t read. Or to quote Palin: “All of them.”
THR: What was your big break?
Oliver: It was probably getting this job. The other thing that felt like a career break was the first time I was able to sustain myself with comedy. And I don’t mean a comfortable living; I mean just being able to buy cheese and orange juice.
THR: What would you say your career low point was?
Oliver: There are so many low points with stand-up. You are perpetually humiliated, so it doesn't really matter anymore. I don't have any dignity left to lose. An audience can’t hurt you anymore when you’ve been completely dismantled.
THR: What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you on the stand-up circuit? Did an audience member throw rotten fruit at you?
Oliver: No, at least that would have some historic charm -- like the court jester in a stock. I remember one time in Scotland some guy smashing a glass on the table in front of him and saying, “If you don’t leave right now, I’m going to stab you with this.” I just started laughing because I couldn’t fathom what I had done to necessitate that response. I had definitely failed to entertain him. But I felt like there was some displacement anger going on. And I was a lightening rod for broader frustrations. He was also drunk.
THR: None of that made you reconsider your chosen career path?
Oliver: You would think, but no. I remember my dad said to me a while ago, “I always appreciated the fact that you never gave up.” And it never occurred to me to give up.
THR: Are you a masochist?
Oliver: Maybe. Yes, partly. But there was nothing else I wanted to do. I wanted to be a soccer player. I knew that couldn’t happen. This was it. I was all in pretty early.
THR: What’s the best thing about living in New York?
Oliver: I loved it the moment I moved here. I think the best thing about it is there is an unhealthy energy to the place that I happen to like. Humans are not built to live at this pace. Yet it seems to be a pace that I’m the happiest with. I can’t relax. I find vacations problematic. The speed here is actually something I like -- or it has completely ruined my DNA.
THR: And the worst?
Oliver: That there is no livable season. You’ve got a livable month: two weeks between spring and summer, two weeks between fall and winter. The rest of the time it is a temperature hellscape.
THR: What’s the one thing you miss from home?
Oliver: I get nostalgic for British negativity. There is an inherent hope and positive drive to New Yorkers. When you go back to Britain, everybody is just running everything down. It’s like whatever the opposite of a hug is.
Email: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com; Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie