Made in Manhattan: John Oliver on taking satire stateside
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is an institution of American TV. So how did a young man from Birmingham, with little knowledge of the US, become its rising star? David Usborne meets John Oliver
Wednesday 07 April 2010
It might be his thank-you present to America for having finally given him a Green Card. He thinks it important for everyone in the country to understand that very soon it won't be running the world like it has been recently, because a nation called China will be taking over. And, yes, that is a very good thing.
John Oliver - "international performer on The Daily Show" (that's what it says on his answering machine) – gently explains. "As any Brit will understand, things get a little easier when you don't have to be number one any more. Really, the fall of an empire is not as bad as everyone thinks. It's like retirement. People fear retirement but it can turn out be rather pleasant." So cheer up y'all.
Why any American would listen to a Brit on this subject – especially a stand-up comedian who has only lived in the place for a little less than four years – is an open question. He's got a nerve, this guy with the funny accent – it's Birmingham, not that most Americans can tell the difference – telling us that we are going the same way as the British Empire. Who does he think he is?
Oliver, 32, would happily accept the criticism. He is interestingly modest about the gig he landed back in 2006 as the main sidekick (and co-writer) to Jon Stewart, the creator and anchor of The Daily Show which four days a week generates huge ratings for Comedy Central, the cable channel, by fiercely picking through the debris of the day's political doings and media coverage thereof in search of things to laugh at.
But as a former leading member of the Cambridge Footlights (vice president, 1997-98), one-time favourite fixture of the Edinburgh Fringe (as a full-time New York resident now, he misses that annual binge dearly, he confesses) and occasional contributor to shows like Mock the Week in the UK, Oliver is far from daft or unaware of the influence he can have from this most unlikely of media perches.
The premise of The Daily Show is that it is a fake news show with Oliver running about as Stewart's fake, on-the-road correspondent. Never mind that the guests it lures in are real enough. Everyone from Pervez Musharraf to Tony Blair and Barack Obama have felt the need to drop by The Daily Show studios on the far western reaches of Manhattan at some point, even at the risk of being made to look like chumps.
In fact, it became fashionable about four years ago – just when Oliver was first landing, all wet-eared and keen, on the plane from London – for university researchers and other gurus to elevate The Daily Show to something it was never meant to be: as a source of real (as against fake) news as legitimate as, say, the nightly news broadcasts on the main networks and the babble of other non-stop news shows on cable. Stewart, they said, is where people went for their news.
"Bullshit," is the quick response of Oliver, who is delaying the start of his writing day for a bit to talk to the man from The Independent in the Daily Show's chair-stuffed green room (where the Blairs and Musharrafs must nervously wait before being called in front of the cameras). "It just can't be true can it? For one thing, you just have to have a workable knowledge of the news in the first place to understand our jokes. You need to understand the set-up, to understand the punch line."
Any comparisons with the nightly news broadcasts are especially misplaced, Oliver says, although The Daily Show might do better job of journalism than the endlessly-spouting know-it-alls on the 24-hour news cable channels. (MSNBC, Fox News and CNN). But don't call him anything but a comic. "We are just a comedy show, we have no journalistic responsibilities," he remarks, pointing out that the show's home, after all, is Comedy Central. "You just try to be true to your idea of what is funny and what is also interesting."
If Oliver insists he is all about – only about – comedy, that's fine. And it's sort of true. The Daily Show was his favourite American import on British television before he crossed the pond and now that he has been part of it for four years – or "one cycle", as he puts it, referring to the rhythm of US presidential elections – he doesn't want to leave it. He recently taped (over a weekend) a six-part stand-up series of his own for Comedy Central. He has a bit part in a new NBC sitcom called Community and recently dipped his toe into Hollywood for the first time, appearing in The Love Guru. He and his Daily Show friends are also busy writing a not-very-serious book. To be called Earth, the Book – "the history of human existence on the planet all in one bullshit encyclopaedia" – it has to be finished by next month.
And yet. It does not take much to get Oliver talking animatedly about the various sins of American journalism – supine, overly scared of causing offence, bowing to authority and generally lacking in the kind of "upset the applecart" instinct that is at the heart of the profession in Britain – and to concede, albeit reluctantly, that The Daily Show, at least, is less guilty in those respects than almost any other institution on the American media landscape. And it does sit closer in that way to the British notion of journalism.
Oliver recalls an appearance on the show by David Gregory, one of the most respected TV journalists in the country and newly installed host of Meet the Press, the Sunday morning magazine on NBC. Talking with Stewart, he said that sometimes it important for him not to get too tough with his guests lest they get bruised and not want to come back on again. "If that is true, you're screwed really. It's a disastrous point of view. If you honestly think that someone will go to a competitor because it will be a softer ride, then the whole thing is a mess. And that is an area where things are different [between Britain and the US]."
In fact for a man who is so adamant that journalism is not what he is about, he has some well-crafted views on the subject. Things are a mess in the White House press room too, he says, because nobody backs each other up any more in trying to get questions properly answered. "Gibbs gets to straight-bat almost every question and just move on to the next one," he says of Obama's press spokesman.
You wouldn't catch Gregory playing with the Swiss ambassador to the UN in the way Oliver did in a recent on-air interview. (Find it on YouTube.) He is relentless in quizzing him on his country's tradition of neutrality, asking how Switzerland did not feel any pangs of conscience during World War II in remaining neutral in regard to Nazi Germany. He notes that while identifying the bad things about Adolf Hitler may have been a breeze, for the Swiss to come up with good things about him was surely trickier in order to remain neutral about the man. The ambassador, unsure if this is still about laughs, struggles to answer. "So, easy to take a position on neutrality ... harder to take a position on Hitler," Oliver concludes.
Oliver says that though they have tried, the British have not yet come up with their own Daily Show. So it's lucky for him he is over here. It is not, he says, because UK-based journalism is so incisive and tough that there is no room for such a programme on the British schedules. (Actually, some journalism back home is not so great, he says, letting slip something about Sky.) The problem, however, is that while he and Stewart make comedy out of serious topics and conversations, in Britain there is always a tendency to make a beeline for material that is silly in the first place. And that takes the juice out of everything. "While what we do may be silly sometimes, we are not basing stuff around stilly stories," he explains. It may also be, he says, that there is no one more interested in American politics – genuinely interested – than Jon Stewart.
How did Oliver catch up and close his knowledge gap? And how did he get the job in the first place? The second question he is unable clearly to answer. "They are looking for people all the time," he says. "I think Jon had asked Ricky Gervais, at least that's the only story I heard. I don't know him, but he knew what I was doing back then. I came over and pretty much started the next day."
As for catching up, Oliver is candid. "I had never been to America before, but I guess I had a workable knowledge, just because that's necessary to know how the world works... but in terms of the intricacies of how America was governed I certainly did not know a lot, so that was kind of a crash course." He adds: "I guess I had an opinion on the Bush administration as most global human beings did."
There can't be many better places to give you a crash course on all things America – all things American politics at least – than the Daily Show. There were a few things that did not surprise Oliver upon his arrival, like the sheer wretchedness of the Bush reign – but plenty of others that did.
"Just the scale is hard to understand as a British person. The first time I flew to the West Coast ... it just doesn't make any sense go to go five and half hours and land in the same country. You are still seeing American flags and you think, 'Oh my God, this place is huge.' That kind of brings it home."
The more important realisation had to do not with geography, as such, but the sheer impossibility of the country having monolithic views about anything. Because back in Britain, he recalls, it is sometimes tempting to look at whatever America is doing – going to war, say – and to imagine that everyone, the whole country, is behind it. "Then you get here and you realise that this country is split right down the middle and the actual margin in an election is tiny."
Something else has come to Oliver's notice about his adopted land. When all those supporters of former governor Sarah Palin or members of the Tea Party movement voice "crazy" fears about what they think is befalling their country, they really mean it and feel it. He saw it for himself covering election rallies in 2008. "Their fear is real," he argues. "Obviously, the stuff that was being delivered to those crowds sometimes is poisonous, is cancerous. But at the last one we went to they were just terrified of Obama, thinking he is definitely a Muslim, that that would be terrible thing and that he was going to bring Communism to the country. And it sounds silly and you expect some kind of crack or wink behind it all, but they really are terrified. It is fascinating to see how that kind of misinformation can take a deep root."
Not a surprise, of course, was what he found about Bush, Cheney and all of them. Lord, what a fun time they all must have fun back then. Such easy targets, huh? Here Oliver lets out a secret. Jokes about Bush were not fun to write. "Especially towards the end, a lot of jokes were being written really out of despair. Because things were so bad." Oliver remembers, for example, when the scandal about terrible conditions at the Walter Reed Veterans hospital was breaking. Who wants to joke about that sort of stuff?
On the flip side, the material on offer when Senator Obama got himself elected was instantly far more invigorating and it only got better as it began to dawn on everyone – presumably on Obama himself also – that the reality of governing was going to be different from the euphoria of winning votes.
"This is much more interesting and sort of mirrors what we went through in 1997 with Blair," he suggests. "We have that euphoria of thinking 'thank goodness it's all over'. You have this borderline Messianic figure who can't possibly live up to his self-induced hype. So it was fascinating to watch the first couple of months after Obama took office. There was the justified sense of that something genuinely historic had happened, but the realities and what happens next become interesting to watch. It's not that fixed after all, you can't be so passive as to think, 'oh we voted for him, so I guess everything is OK'."
Oliver remembers the first time the "'dancing in the street' feeling seemed to stop. It was even before Obama's swearing in and he had just had a briefing from all the Wall Street experts. They told him, 'Let us show you just how fucked we are'". Obama came before the microphones, he recalls, "looking shattered".
If Oliver was able to quickly command the minutiae of American politics and of the American media, he surely had some other hurdles to overcome, like the accent. Born in Birmingham, he is pretty Brummie-sounding. Was that, well, a handicap? Don't Americans like their British accent posh? "They think it is, that's the problem," he replies laughing. "They can't hear. It's all posh to them! They wouldn't be able to tell where I was from. They just think I sound like the Queen".
Well that's good then. What about that other problem: the failure of Americans to get our sense of humour? True, isn't it?
"That's bullshit. I find almost the opposite. There is so much cross-pollination between the US and Britain in terms of comedians. British TV comedies work well in the US. American stand-ups make it big in Britain."
Oliver, in other words, couldn't feel more at home in a country he hadn't darkened until his 28th year. What a good thing that his Green Card, allowing him to become a "resident alien", came along so easily.
Not so fast. Getting the Green Card was "tough, really tough". It finally arrived just before Christmas, occasioning much celebration here in the Daily Show studios. Until then, he had been in the US courtesy of temporary visas that had to be renewed by visiting the US consulate in London for periodic interviews. On one of those visits he looked at the woman at the counter and thought his American goose was cooked.
"Ashen faced, she said, 'Give me one reason why I should allow you to return to my country to criticise my president.' The blood ran cold all through my body. Then she said, 'I am just kidding.' It was a heart-stopping moment."
Luckily for Oliver, they have something in the Constitution here about freedom of expression. And now, Green Card in breast pocket, he is taking more advantage of it than a good many Americans – American reporters included. And plans to continue doing so for as long as he possibly can.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is broadcast weeknights at 8.30pm on More4; for more John Oliver, go to Myspace.com/johnolivercomedian
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