Q&A: John Oliver on Stepping In, Panicking as Host of ‘The Daily Show’
It’s about three hours until The Daily Show tapes its fourth episode of the week, and John Oliver is poring over a draft of the evening’s script in his tiny, second-floor office. He’s making changes to the document with a pen while a giant TV hanging near the door plays Fox News on mute. “I kind of flick around,” says the 36-year-old Birmingham, England-born comedian, who has served as The Daily Show‘s “Senior British Correspondent” for the past seven years. “I watch one news channel until my soul can’t take it anymore. It’s the background of my life.”
That life will undergo a huge transformation on June 10th, when Oliver begins a two-month stint as guest host of The Daily Show while Jon Stewart decamps to Europe to direct his first movie. “Jon called me and asked, ‘Would you like to host the show?'” Oliver says. “My first reaction was, ‘Yeah, sure. Whatever you want. No problem.’ It was only on hanging up that my knees started to buckle. I was like, ‘Holy shit! What did I just agree to? I’m about to destroy the most beloved show on American television.'”
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We spoke with John Oliver about his big summer, his seven-year stint on The Daily Show and American politics.
Had you ever been to America before you came here to work on The Daily Show?
No. Everything happened very fast when I got the job in 2006. I filmed my first bit the day I landed. George Bush and Tony Blair had been together, and Bush talked to him with half a mouth of food and said, “Yo Blair.” In the bit, I explained that was actually the height of politeness and you need to understand it in the context of English manners in medieval times.
I was still jetlagged when we filmed it. I remember that J.K. Rowling was in the audience that night. That made me feel like I had some sort of concussion or something. It felt like a dream. You’re not supposed to see your country’s most famous author in the audience watching you. You’re supposed to look down at that point and realize that you’re naked and then wake up.
How was the job initially described to you?
They never quite described it because I always knew what I’d be doing. I knew I was going to go into the field and make fun of people to their faces. I knew what I was getting into.
Do you give people a pep talk before the cameras roll so they know what they’re getting into?
Oh yeah, for sure. It kind of depends on the person and where we are, and if they’re in politics. They’ve already spoken to the producer and the researcher, so they know what the show is. If it’s someone who really does know The Daily Show, you’ll really try and tell them, “Don’t joke around. Be serious. We want your opinion on this.” And if they don’t know The Daily Show, you kind of half-reassure them and say, “Some of this is gonna sound very silly, but treat it like it’s 60 Minutes.”
Tell me the angriest you’ve ever gotten somebody.
Honestly, there are so many. I’ve made so many people angry that they kind of blur into one unpleasant memory of people staring at you with somewhere between passive aggression and active aggression.
I think the Swiss Ambassador was pretty pissed off. We were talking about neutrality, so I was really just questioning the concept of neutrality during, I don’t know, say, hypothetically, a second major world war. He didn’t want to talk about that. But, you know, we did want to talk about that. He was pretty angry before, during and after that.
You’ve traveled through the Deep South. Do you experience culture clash going down there?
I guess. I mean, there’s some pretty weird places everywhere in this country. I wouldn’t just target the Deep South for that. I think your eccentricity as a nation is more evenly distributed than you give it credit for. There are freaks everywhere. Sure, there’s an intense flavor in the Deep South, but it’s not like you’re ever just a mile or less away from a complete lunatic in this country.
What’s surprised you the most about living in America?
I’d never seen a gun before. Seeing the prevalence of them was pretty strange. I remember going to Ohio for the first time and seeing it just in the back of some guy’s truck. Also, just how much God is mentioned out here, out of politicians’ mouths, especially. Politicians don’t really bring up religion in England. There is more of an obvious separation of church and state, which is ironic, considering this country was founded trying to run away from that.
But I don’t know if anything surprised me about life here. I knew the food would be better than back home, and that has definitely been the case. People are friendlier in New York than London. I guess people tend to be surprised about that here. They think of London as being very refined, the height of British politeness. That might have been true in the 17th century, in certain parts of London. . . But even the comedy audiences here are much friendlier and more polite than in London, where they are generally drunk.
We can’t tell the difference between any sort of British accent here. It’s all the same to us.
Yeah, that’s true. It’s not just British accents. You can’t tell the difference between British, South Africa, Australian, Kiwi. . . There are so many different types. I guess there are certain vowel sounds between South African, Australian and English that to Americans all sound the same. It’s kind of a sonic racism.
Whether it’s you or the Queen…
Me, the Queen, the Artful Dodger, Crocodile Dundee and Nelson Mandela. We all sound the same to you.
That has to be refreshing in some ways. I know in England, people are occasionally judged strictly on their accent.
Occasionally? Just occasionally? Constantly. It’s hard to overstate the extent to which the class system is just deeply ingrained in the British person’s DNA. You can tell from the moment someone opens their mouth from what class they belong. It’s really hard to get that out of your system. One of the nicest things, one of the biggest shifts about being here is that the class system does not seem to apply to the same extent. That took a bit of adjusting.
How much did you know about American politics before coming here?
Quite a lot. Just because, again, as a world citizen, American politics is something that you really need to have a working knowledge of, because American politics impacts your life wherever you live.
But as you watch it day-by-day, are you ever shocked by how stupid and insane it is?
Definitely. It can be pretty dispiriting. I guess you always have to assume from the outside that it’ll be slightly better than it is. I think even Americans might assume, even in their negativity, that people are fundamentally trying to get things done. But as you voyage more and more into the detail, it never loses its capacity to disappoint you. Just when you think you have just removed all expectations. . . the recent gun debate is as pathetic a piece of policy as I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been here seven years now, so I’ve seen some crazy things. But the gun debate was absolutely insane.
They couldn’t even the pass the most basic, popular. . .
They couldn’t pass something that was close to nothing. Pretty close to nothing. And also something that had 90 percent support. It also had a majority in the Senate.
Guys like Ted Cruz seem to be a new super-breed of Republican. The mentality is, “We are passing nothing.”
Yeah. That’s right. Exactly, just kind of distilled. He’s like the pure cocaine of Republican, cut with nothing. The only thing that kills you on the spot if your snort it. That, and American elections are just psychotic. They’re financially insane, and they are a circus beyond anyone’s imagining.
And they’re endless. We’re talking now about 2016. In England, they call an election about two months in advance, right?
It’s about six weeks. There has to be happy medium between six weeks and a year and a half. With midterms coming as well, you’re at a point where the actual time that a president can concentrate on government is probably six months in a four-year term.
How have you been preparing for your stint as the guest host of the show?
I’m usually in the weeds writing jokes every day, but I’ve been shadowing Jon for the last week or so and just trying to take a more objective view of the script and the show.
What did you learn while shadowing him?
It more confirmed what I already thought. He’s an objectively funny man. But his management skills, which I guess people have no reason to take any interest in, are just incredible. He builds this whole machine, all the cogs which work to get this show on the air each day. It all comes from his management. He oversees everything. When you’re getting ready to put yourself in his shoes for awhile. . . It is pretty amazing the things those shoes can do.
Do you plan on doings things any differently?
No really. The structure has to say the same. It’s just that the person telling the jokes is going to be different.
Are you gonna go on Twitter after the first one airs to see the reaction?
I’m sure there will be a flood of commentary by the first commercial break. I’m going to absolutely avoid that to the best of my abilities, because you know that it’s only the most elegantly crafted insult that you can stick in your mind.
Some people are going to be like, “Who is this strange British man?”
Yes. “What has happened to America? Is this it?” Everyone is going to be their own Paul Revere and scream, “What is happening to The Daily Show?” I guess that my job is not only keeping the show on the air, but also really telling people, “Daddy’s coming. Daddy’s coming home.”
Do you think if this goes well, they might give you your own show at some point?
I don’t know. I don’t know. I guess I’m really just trying, getting ready to go through this and what comes at the other end. . . I have no idea how I’ll feel. I’m really aiming just to make sure I still have a job when Jon comes back. That I haven’t either destroyed the show or my role in it to such an extent that I’m still employed.
The job you have right now has launched some huge film careers. Do you ever think about those next steps?
I’m not sure. I know other people have gone on to do that, and there have been lots of people interested in that kind of thing when they came here. But I’ve yet to get tired of this. And I do love this kind of work. . . I occasionally did little parts on Community, which is something that was really fun. It almost calms you down to be involved in something different. But I’ve never come back here and not been happy to be back. So I don’t know if and when that will stop.
In my favorite bits with you, I can tell just how much fun you’re having. I remember one time they were dousing you in baked beans and I could see you holding back laughter.
Just put yourself in my shoes for a minute, as an adult male who is having beans emptied onto his head. I’m standing on this tarp with these guys holding it so it doesn’t spill out in the studio, and there’s water, beans and toast getting thrown at me. There was a moment where you think, “What am I doing with my life?” And then you think, “Well, hold on. This is exactly what the six year-old version of myself wanted.” If I had known at six years old that being an adult could involve standing and having beans and toast thrown at you, I would have just relaxed and thought, “Oh, everything is gonna be fine.”
What do you think it’s gonna be like when the cameras start rolling on that first show?
The whole day here has a kind of relentless momentum to it. So there’s not much time to pause and think about stuff; you just do it. But I actually did think about that the other day. That moment you have to pause is when the music is about to start. When the music starts, I’m guessing there’s going to be a sense in my head of, “Oh my God.” That will probably be as long as it lasts, because then the show begins. But there is probably going to be that three-second distilled panic.
It’s tough to really practice the guest interviews, I’d imagine.
With the authors, I’m not really concerned because there’s an inherent interest there and there’s something to talk to them about. The training that I’ve had, such as there’s been any training, is to make fun of people. So my nightmare in my head is seeing Jaden Smith on the other side of the desk and thinking, “Oh Jaden, tell me about the movie you know and I know I have not seen.”
The news cycle tends to slow down in the summer. Are you worried about that?
Look at the TV over your head right now. The president is talking about killing four Americans with drone strikes. There’s three scandals that are engulfing the White House. So ordinarily you would be right. People watch less TV, there is less going on, but it does seems with three scandals in the White House, with rulings on gay marriage in the Supreme Court coming down and the immigration bill, I think we’re going to be okay.
What news station do you watch most in here: Fox, CNN or MSNBC?
They’re basically three catastrophically debilitating drugs. You are just rotating out to find a different vein.
They are very different.
They’re very different! They decimate you in different ways. You’re just dealing with different kind of lows. It’s literally the opposite of a drug. You’re chasing a different kind of low.
Finally, are you worried about the ratings possibly going down when you take over?
Possibly going down? Or inevitably going down? I’m expecting the inevitable ratings base jump. Like I said, I’m just trying to keep us on the air. So as long as we can get more people watching it than are actually in the studio when we’re taping it live, I’ll personally see that as a victory. Comedy Central are going to have a very different response to that, but yeah, I am sure the ratings are going to go down. Maybe they’ll spike in the first segment of the first show as people tune in to watch the car crash, but as soon as they’ve seen, you know, they’ll. . .
I hate to end this on a downer.
It’s not a downer! It’s inevitable. I’m British; pessimism is my wheelhouse.