John Oliver on Tea Party Rallies, His Comedy Central Stand-Up Series, and Being a Part of 'Community'
by Joel Keller, posted Mar 23rd 2011 3:00PM
When you have 20 minutes to talk to John Oliver, it's hard to figure out where to start. The British import has been taking maximum advantage of his opportunity here in the States, after 'The Daily Show' plucked him from the U.K. stand-up circuit five years ago to be a correspondent and writer.
Since then, he's become the MVP of 'TDS' with his hilarious field reports, studio bits and pretty much any other way they can think of using him. He's been particularly adept at filing stories from rallies, parades and other huge gatherings, bringing back absurd quotes from everyone from Tea Party members to St. Patrick's Day revelers.
He's also made a mark in the sitcom world, playing Ian Duncan, Greendale's most apathetic professor, on 'Community.' Finally, Oliver has still been doing his current-events-charged stand-up, some of which you'll see on the new season of 'John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show,' which premieres Thursday night (Friday morning) at midnight ET. The series' second season will showcase unknown comedians as well as vets like Maria Bamford and Greg Behrendt.
I spoke to Oliver earlier this month about going to Tea Party rallies, his experience at the 'Rally to Restore Sanity' and everything else that's going on in his busy career.
Joel Keller: You are a busy, busy, busy man these days.
John Oliver: [Laughs] Yeah, I'm afraid so, yeah.
You have 'The Daily Show,' and 'Community' and your stand-up series... and you're touring as well, I would imagine, right?
Yes. Oh yeah. Kind of very sporadically. I don't have time to do a proper tour. So yeah, I just get out when I can.
How are you finding this kind of period in your career, because you've got all these different projects going on?
Well, it's been a lot of fun. I guess mostly it's been a lot of fun. It's definitely been kind of deeply, profoundly exhausting. But I think 'The Daily Show' helps in a way because it's quite frenetic. There's a momentum to it that basically doesn't stop. So you can't really afford to get tired. It's like when you can't afford to get sick. You just have to have some mental conversation with your body, going "It's not really going to work out, you know, you're going to have to put this off for down the line." So I'm sure I am building up a colossal... maybe I should hibernate in about 5 years. I'll just sleep for 6 months.
Because either that or you're on your way to some colossal sickness, like you were about to say?
[Laughs] Yeah! Yup. That's right. I don't think I'm going to Charlie Sheen it, but I think I'm too busy. That's the problem.
What, you don't want to be a winner? You don't want to be winning?
[Laughs] I don't think I want to win to that extent, no. I don't think that level of victory is particularly healthy.
'The Daily Show' recruited you from the U.K. Before that, Had you spent any extended time in the United States? Or were you here for your standup career before that?
No, I'd never been to America before at all. So no, that was the first time I came to America, was to work on this show.
As someone who isn't from here, when you go to an event like the protests in Madison, Wisconsin, what are you seeing from your perspective?
I think the protests in Madison are something that I've seen before in England. That scale and that tone of protest. I think the difference is the Tea Party style of protest; that is something which you don't really get. The way that religion is brought into that, that there is a Godly way to do things, is something that just doesn't exist in England. I guess [England is] broadly a relatively secular country, so the idea of religion being injected into politics is just not there. So that has been the more shocking thing.
I remember going to a Sarah Palin rally in Scranton just before the  election. And that was a pretty eye-opening experience. Because you realize the people that were there, who were very, very frightened of the idea of Obama becoming President, for reasons that didn't really make sense, but yet their fear was real. You know, they really meant it. If you put a heart monitor on them, they would've got panicky.
As opposed to in England, where you've said that they hate whoever's in power no matter what.
Yeah. There's just a general contempt for politicians in power. [Laughs] Which is not healthy in a completely different way. There is a happy medium between the two. There's a medium between respect for office and total, total contempt.
I remember a rally you went to in Morristown, N.J., last year. It was a Tea Party rally, right?
Yeah. And they were furious. They really honestly believed that [what Obama was doing] was tyranny. And I think beyond the normal kind of, "Oh, I'm going to exaggerate for effect." They were really sticking by the fact that it was tyrannical what Obama and the government was doing. Which is absolutely ridiculous. That's objectively ridiculous to use that term. You can have legitimate grievances with it. To call it tyranny is devaluing the term to an almost offensive extent from a country who almost invented the meaning of that word.
When the idea for the 'Rally to Restore Sanity' was bounced around, was part of it it because of the fact that you guys would encounter these people in the field reports?
Well I think the rally was a particularly personal project of Jon's. He was the one that came in months and months before it and said "Listen, I want to do this thing, what do you think?" And so that was a personal drive, I think, of his frustration of the tone of discourse in America. But it definitely felt that way as far as I was concerned. Because we go out and we meet some of the fringe elements of American life, that you definitely felt, as you went out, the swell of it, and just the level of anger, with some of these crazier gatherings of people. And so yeah, it was quite nice.
It was a weird day, that rally. Because you just hope it's enough for people who traveled, however many people it was. Hundreds of thousands of people traveling to watch whatever it is you're about to do. And I think we realized after the fact that it didn't seem, really, to be about the show that we put on much at all. Just so much that they wanted to stand around other people who thought like them, so they didn't feel quite so alone.
Did the amount of people that showed up surprise you at all?
Yeah. It certainly physically shocked me, as I first walked out on the stage. You think "Oh boy, that's a lot of heads." But we've been doing a week of shows in DC for the midterms the week before, so we didn't have a huge amount of time to think about it. I think it's lots of things with 'The Daily Show.' There's such a quick turnover, you don't really have time to overthink what is coming up. And that's quite a healthy thing.
What was your purpose in starting the stand-up show?
For me it was [that] comedians that you might know in comedy circles maybe don't have quite a broader... people don't know them on a broader scale. So it was nice to get those names out. And with much newer acts, it's been amazing to get them a first show on TV, so that hopefully they can get some momentum off that. There's a new guy on this show called Mike Lawrence, who is absolutely fantastic. And he's done just this brilliant, brilliant set on this. And I'm really proud that we were able to give him his first set on TV, of what I hope will be a long career. Because he is very, very good.
Which comedian from the first season has broken out the most, do you think?
Well Hannibal Buress was on a couple of times in the first season, and he was writing at 'SNL,' and now he's writing over at '30 Rock,' and has released an album. So he's done terrifically. But I don't credit our stand-up show at all for that. He was gonna be successful anyway. And I think the same is true of Mike Lawrence. It's just, in a selfish sense, it's great to be able to be part of that. But I don't think it makes any real difference to them.
|John Oliver - Real Problem|
This is the latest in a long line of stand-up shows. Why do people like these smorgasbords of comedians that come on for 5 minutes at a time?
I don't know. I guess it's more palatable. To listen to one person speak for an hour through your television is pretty tough to take, unless they're Richard Pryor. So I think it's nice. We've tried to vary the length of the sets, and you know, some people you'll see twice over the series. And it's quite, in general, quite adventurous stand-up as well. It's not too hacky. You know, often, you can get stand-up which has quite a -- I think you saw that from the '80s with the explosion of stand-up here -- almost has quite a similar voice, the whole thing. Just very slick, very polished stand-up. We've deliberately selected people that are quite different, and that would thrive in an atmosphere like that. Because otherwise, it can be hard for people doing quite inventive stand-up. It's hard for that to work on a bill with much more traditional, slick, club-honed stand-ups. It can be difficult to make that shift for an audience. So this is supposed to be a more cohesive blend of comedians.
Do you feel you've been in a position to mentor these comedians via the show?
I think, I don't know that I'll say that it's a mentor position, but I think almost every comedian I've ever met likes when you see someone who's just starting off, and you can see how, if they're talented and raw, you instinctively want to help them, whether that's taking you out on the road with them, which every comedian does. "Oh, I like the look of you, I could maybe give him some work if they come out and open for me somewhere." So this is just a similar kind of thing with some of the newer acts, and the rest is a real privilege to be able to be on the same bill as someone like Maria Bamford, for instance, who I think is just a sensational comedian. And I feel so grateful that she would even consider doing a show like this.
How many more episodes of 'Community' are we going to see you on this season?
I don't know. I've done 8 this season. So I think maybe another 2 or 3 I've recorded.
What is your favorite part about playing Duncan, who just doesn't really care about the people he teaches, or the subject, or anything like that?
Yeah. It makes everything much easier when you're basically, [Laughs] when your character has some psychotic traits: deeply self-destructive and almost pathologically uninterested in the job that he's supposed to be doing. It's a lot of fun. It's just such a fun thing to do, to go over there and just mess around. Because so much of it is, with us talking around the lines anyway...
Right. They joke around on the set a lot over there...
Yeah, a lot. A lot. And they must be a nightmare to edit. Because you can get through takes that have very little to do with what you're supposed to be saying. Especially after you finish the words he's supposed to be saying. Takes usually go on for quite significantly longer after that. And then they just patch together what they can. But it's a great show. Really ambitious. I wish more people watched it. But it's really great.
And you'll be back on for a third season, no problem, right?
Yeah! I would love to. If they'll have me. I mean, they've been so good about working around my 'Daily Show' schedule. I owe them big. It's really, really good fun.
Alright, well, John, good luck with the stand-up show, and good luck with 'The Daily Show'... and hopefully you'll be able to take that rest in about 5 years.
[Laughs] Yeah, that's right. Yeah, I'll hibernate. Thanks very much, mate.
'John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show' starts its second season Thursday, March 24, at midnight (Friday morning) ET on Comedy Central.
'The Daily Show' airs Mondays through Thursdays at 11PM ET on Comedy Central.
'Community' airs Thursdays at 8PM ET on NBC.
Follow @joelkeller on Twitter and on Facebook.