Catching Up With John Oliver
John Oliver plays an uppity know-it-all on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart; in his five years on the job, he’s become a reliable fixture for full-fledged British smarminess. But there are only traces in his stand-up, where the seasoned comic is free to mock trashy American culture and politics with a much more ingratiating presence. Oliver has become somewhat of a tastemaker, too, due to John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Special, premiering its third season tonight at midnight on Comedy Central. Like last year, Oliver hosts some of the finest acts working today, which include favorites like Pete Holmes and Kumail Nanjiani, plus stand-ups like Mike Lawrence who are undeniably going places. The set-up is simple, but Oliver — a must-see live comic — prefers to let the talent level speak for itself. Paste spoke to Oliver about The Love Guru, his aversion to Twitter, and the eerie calm of getting drunk heckled.
Paste: A lot of your material comes from your perspective as an outsider. Is it possible to ever shake that, or will you always feel like an outsider?
John Oliver: Part of it is me not being an American. But comedians inherently are outsiders. Just the fact that I don’t look or sound like I’m from this country helps that in a way. From the first time I open my mouth, I’m clearly not like most of the audience. It’s jarring.
Paste: So it gives the audience permission to laugh?
Oliver: Yeah, and if I’m doing hour-and-a-half sets around the country, it is important to stipulate up top, “I realize that England committed awful atrocities,” before I go on to criticize America. You want to deal with the elephant in the room.
Paste: Over the years, you’ve been asked in almost every interview about The Daily Show’s role in the media — whether as a comedian you feel journalistically responsible, given people claim to get their news from the show. What do you make of the repeated queries?
Oliver: I do think it has an answer, and I think deep down everyone knows what the answer is. And yet I don’t know if some of it is lazy journalism, or that it’s an idea people like exploring, or if it’s because myself or anyone who works for this show won’t give any traction to the premise of the question in any way. But I firmly believe that not to be the case. It is a comedy show, and you need to know the news to watch.
Paste: Did they approach you with the role on Community, or were you auditioning for pilot season?
Oliver: No, I’ve never auditioned for pilot season. I never had much interest in doing a sitcom. But they asked if I was interested, and I liked that particular thing. I like Joel, and it’s very interesting working with Chevy.
Paste: That seems like a very diplomatic thing to say.
Oliver: [Laughs] Yeah, well, Chevy is Chevy, in every sense. You get the full Chevy. He’s still incredibly funny, and he’s exactly as you’d want him to be. [Still chuckling] It’s been a real privilege to get to spend any time with that guy.
Paste: You haven’t ventured much away from The Daily Show. Yet of all the things in the world, you did The Love Guru?
Oliver: [Laughs] Yeah. Well that — Mike Myers was a hero of mine; I had a picture of him on my wall as a child. Actually, when I went back over Christmas, it’s still on my tiny childhood bedroom wall. There are some comedic heroes I don’t feel like I can say no to, justifiably.
Paste: You’ve mentioned that you consider stand-up to be your job.
Oliver: It goes very deep. It becomes how you identify yourself. It helps; you don’t take anything too seriously, because you know at some point you’re going to get shouted at by someone. Nothing will bring you back down to Earth like stand-up. It’s so psychologically healthy and destructive to do. You can’t get too big to not get shouted at by drunk people.
Paste: Your schedule must not allow for much time performing.
Oliver: No, not much. I can feel it when I don’t, not only in terms of how rusty I am on stage, but I get jittery and irritable. [Laughs]
Paste: Then a drunk person yells at you.
Oliver: That is the worst thing: When a drunk person yells at you, and this calm sensation washes over you, “Ah, I’m exactly where I need to be.”
Paste: Why have you held out on Facebook or Twitter for so long? Isn’t there some intern who could do it for you?
Oliver: [Laughs] I’m afraid I don’t have staff. Yeah, the John Oliver Corporation, that doesn’t exist, has no staff members. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly averse to it.
Oliver: Fear of the unknown. I can understand conceptually what Twitter is, but it’s not something I’d ever dip my toe into. I’m sure if I tried it I’d like it, but it’s the same reason why I don’t try heroin. It would be addictive, and it would impact on the things I need to get done for work. [Laughs] I’ll probably try Twitter and heroin at the same time. So get ready for some pretty inexplicable tweets.