Arts interview

Oliver’s Twist on These ‘Terrifying Times’

‘Daily Show’ Correspondent Talks About Comedy and His Dream Job

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John Oliver, correspondent on The Daily Show, recently hosted his own special “Terrifying Times.”
Courtesy Comedy Central

Ever since Briton John Oliver appeared as a correspondent on The Daily Show, I’ve wanted to see more of his work, and have hoped to some day be able to talk to him. Thanks to a Comedy Central special, I got to do both this past week. On Sunday, Mr. Oliver starred in his own one-hour stand-up special, “Terrifying Times,” in which he discussed the scariness that is world politics. Instead of crude humor, Mr. Oliver made intelligent observations about serious situations put in a comedic light. A few days before “Terrifying Times” aired, I was able to talk to Mr. Oliver by phone about his transition into comedy, his work on The Daily Show, and his new comedy special. Below is an excerpt.

The Tech: You went to Cambridge University. What was your major there and how did you go from Cambridge to comedy?

John Oliver: I did English there, which was easy because I’m already English. So I was bound to be good at it. And there’s quite a famous comedy troupe there called the Footlights, which gave birth to Peter Cook and Monty Python and many, many other people. I was involved in that, so I started doing comedy there at Cambridge writing.

TT: You mentioned in the special that comedians don’t choose comedy until all the career dreams of their parents are in the gutter. Did you choose comedy before your parents’ dreams for you died?

JO: What, were smashed? No, I think my dad probably realized that his dream for me was dying early. He desperately wanted me to become a football player. But I think it became pretty clear that I didn’t have the physical attributes for that … I guess by the time I got to university they had probably pretty much given up. I was putting all my eggs in one very shaky basket. And I think they knew I was going to do something stupid, like try a career in comedy.

TT: And how did you transition from comedy to The Daily Show?

JO: Well, I was writing and doing stand-up in London. And I’m not entirely sure how they heard of what I was doing over there … It’s the kind of thing you don’t want to ask too many questions about. I was flown over to meet them and I was offered a job on the spot. It was my favorite show before I came here — I’d never been to America before I came here to work here. It happened fast. I can’t really explain it now.

TT: When you were doing comedy in England, did you always do political humor?

JO: Maybe not, I guess, when I started off. But as I got better at writing, I started writing about what I cared about more, and I’ve always been interested in politics.

TT: Did your work include American political humor, or was it more focused on English politics?

JO: People in Europe and I guess around the world know more about American politics than Americans think they do. We have to because what happens here impacts our lives very directly, especially in Britain with our special, special relationship. And don’t think we’re not grateful for that every morning as well. So, yeah, it very much touched on American policies because America runs the world in the way that we used to.

TT: Do you have any vices?

JO: Vices! Not really. I don’t really drink. I don’t smoke. I’m emotionally repressed as any good British person is. So, I don’t know. I like sport. I really like sport, and I could watch sport all day, everyday, and in fact, can get pretty close to that … I’m about as far from [John] Belushi that you can be without becoming a Mormon.

TT: What is it like being a Daily Show correspondent?

JO: It’s great. It’s kind of my dream job, really. I guess my experience is slightly different because I’m a writer on the show as well. I come in at 9:00 every morning and we start the writing meetings. So then, if I’m on the show, I’ll be writing something for that. If I’m not, I’ll be writing something for somebody else.

TT: How are the correspondents chosen for each piece? Is there competition?

JO: No, not competition. Usually we kind of decide as we’re coming up with the bit; usually it’s pretty obvious who would be the best for it, then we’ll write for that person.

TT: Have you been surprised by your success on the show, and now having your own special?

JO: Yeah, of course. I mean, when I first moved over here, my manager in England advised me not to sign a lease or rent longer than a month because he reckoned I’d be fired within three weeks. So to be honest, anything from there became a surprise because my expectations were so low … I’ve been absolutely amazed by how it’s all gone, and I couldn’t be happier. I was fully expecting to be fired due to lack of talent and be back in England by now, by a long stretch.

TT: What are the biggest things that have surprised you about America and working on The Daily Show?

JO: The food in America has different flavors than I’m used to. I’m used to one flavor in food, and that flavor is nothing. So having anything more than that has been a great surprise. And in terms of working on The Daily Show, it’s just quite strange the kind of guests you end up meeting. I met [Pervez] Musharraf, the current prime minister of Pakistan. It’s very strange on days like that. None of us can understand why he’s here. That’s true of all the candidates when they come on. You feel it’s just a cable comedy show. We work in a small office above a small studio and we just try to make each other laugh all day. And then all of a sudden someone running for leader of the free world will show up to do a five minute bit. It’s very strange. We tend to be quite an enclosed community on this show, so it’s hard to — we tend not to think about the wider implications of what we’re doing at all.

TT: I hate to go back to the less political part of your answer, but what’s your favorite food?

JO: I like Indian food a lot because I come from England and the food we eat more than anything else is Indian food.

TT: Do you feel like Indian food is one of the better results of English imperialism?

JO: Definitely. We got some great trophies from our empire. Indian food, that was good. We also got carpets, and pretty much everything inside the British Museum was stolen. It’s basically like a warehouse for gangsters, the British Museum … There’s nothing in there that we genuinely legally own, other than perhaps the Magna Carta.

TT: In the special, you talk about being fascinated by an inflatable barbeque in a mall. Do you like to visit malls?

JO: No. I very much do not like visiting malls because they sap my will to live.

TT: Finally, where do you see yourself in five years?

JO: I’d like to still be here. I get asked that a lot by journalists, I guess because what other people have gone on to do — like [Steve] Carell or [Stephen] Colbert, and I guess [Ed] Helms now. If I was doing anything else in America, I would be trying to get on this show. So now I’m just trying not to get fired. I just don’t want to leave, so I’ll very happily be here in five years.