John Oliver left his native England to join The Daily Show in 2006, fulfilling his ambition “to be both an entertainer and an irritant.” Oliver has been juggling a stand-up career and a role on Community as rapping psychologist Ian Duncan, but Rolling Stone recently caught up with him in his Daily Show office, where he told us what’s funny about this election season and why his wife is disgusted with him.
Whose election would be better for The Daily Show, Obama’s or Romney’s?
There are plenty more jokes to tell about Obama, and Mitt Romney is like an emotional vortex, so there will be stuff to do about him as well. I have no comedic preference as to who wins.
Don’t you think there’s something immediately funny about the phrase “President Romney”? I think he would disagree with that. When you’re as entitled as he is, those words have been rolling off your tongue since you were 13 years old. I truly believe he’s been doing State of the Union speeches since he was first allowed to go into the bath on his own. I’m sure he had graying temples when he was 11 and was power-dressing, too. He was running for office in his head long before he was doing it physically.
Have you met Romney?
No! What social circles do you think I’m in? In the Venn diagram, those two circles are a long way apart. I’m not allowed anywhere near him!
How will the 2012 conventions be different from 2008?
They’re likely to be more downbeat. Last time, there was an excited frenzy on both sides, because people were excited that Obama was the nominee, and they were excited that this angel in Alaskan form had emerged to save the Republicans. I think both sides are probably going to be faking that a bit this year. The balloons are going to be slightly more shriveled.
Is Paul Ryan as funny as Sarah Palin?
Not instinctively. She has a visceral, immediate impact. Our filing cabinet of Ayn Rand jokes was empty, so we need to fill that up for Paul Ryan. Ayn Rand is hysterical, obviously, so it shouldn’t be too difficult.
Comedy is supposed to afflict the comfortable, so isn’t it always easier to make fun of Republicans?
That’s an interesting question. Yes, it is easier, but it’s also less satisfying. Towards the end of the Bush years, there were times where it was like shooting fish in a barrel, because he was saying things that were almost palpably ludicrous. But it wasn’t much fun writing jokes about that, because they often came from a point of complete despair.
Well, thank you for using your interview with Rolling Stone to come out as a Communist.
I wanted to do it in a safe place, and I knew Rolling Stone was that place. If the photo could show me with a hammer and sickle, and the working class under a jackboot, that would be great!
Let me ask a question you probably get a lot: What does Jon Stewart look like naked?
We’ve done so many mock-ups on the show of Jon naked, including Old Man Stewart naked with pixilated genitals, so I already have a mental image. I think the truth is, he’s probably like one of those Ken dolls. Under the clothes, it’s just a plastic mound.
Is there an Emmy category for pixilated genitals? Is that what The Daily Show has won all those awards for?
Look, we would broadcast non-pixilated genitals, if Legal would allow us. In Earth (The Book), we showed Larry King’s penis as the centerfold, with no pixilation. That’s the one thing print is still good for. No offense.
None taken. While watching the Olympics, did you learn anything about England that you didn’t already know?
I did! It was quite a bizarre experience to see British people so happy. For five centuries, we thought we loved to be miserable more than anything else, but now I think we love sports more than we love to be miserable.
When the U.S. competed against Great Britain, which country did you root for?
Get the fuck out of the U.S.A.! Leave. Now.
[Laughs] I appreciate that’s still the innate response: Love it or leave it. I guess I inherently root for the underdog. And that is Great Britain in almost every competition other than English football.
Is Great Britain the underdog because you lost your empire way before we lost ours?
Our existing empire is the Falkland Islands and Bermuda. And it looks like Argentina has got its eye on one of those, and it’s not the good one. Otherwise, we’re tapped out.
Despite your sense that the British empire is finished and its citizens are miserable, you are The Daily Show‘s resident expert on England.
And two years ago, in the run-up to the U.S./England World Cup game, Jon and I told each other to go fuck ourselves a lot. People seemed to like that a lot. It’s pretty sophisticated humor.
Are you eligible to vote in the U.S. this year?
No. I’m a permanent resident, but not a citizen. I can stay here and work, but I cannot vote. It’s taxation without representation. Something your country found so objectionable, you kicked England off your land. And everything you claimed you hated is being forced down upon me.
So will you eventually be eligible to vote?
Only if I become a U.S. citizen. Is this actually an immigration test in disguise?
Do you get a lot of Harry Potter jokes?
In Britain, people have a much higher blood alcohol ratio than they do here. So when I did stand-up comedy, hecklers used to shout “Oi! Harry Potter! Where’s Hogwarts?” And I would generally tell them to shut the fuck up. This fixation on British people being polite hasn’t been true for hundreds of years. It wasn’t even true then, if you ask India. [Laughs] The weird thing was, my very first day on The Daily Show, as I was walking offstage, J.K. Rowling was in the audience. And she said to me, “Oh, hello, you look a lot like Harry.” And I thought, “I’ve flown thousands of miles to be heckled by the author of this book. I guess I can’t tell her to shut the fuck up.”
As viewers, how do we know when you are actually in a foreign country, and when you’re just standing in front of a cheesy backdrop?
Your eyes should be able to tell you that. But if we’re reporting from a war zone, and wearing Stephen Colbert’s vest, which kind of looks like a flak jacket, then we are probably pretending. That pseudo flak jacket has been handed down from correspondent to correspondent.
Your wife was a combat medic in the Iraq War. What does she think of the cowardly reporting you do?
[Laughs] She has the appropriate level of respect for it. I come home and say, “Oh, it was so hard today, so hard to get this joke right . . . ” And you can see the disgust across her face. She often tells me, “Grow a pair and shut up.”
When you performed at Bonnaroo, did people offer you drugs?
No. You don’t offer drugs to Harry Potter! But I’d never seen Springsteen before, and it was just incredible. To see him dominate a hundred thousand Phish fans, through sheer force of will, was amazing. I found myself lifted by this euphoric music, even though his songs about driving through New Jersey don’t connect with me on any level whatsoever.