British comedian John Oliver made a name for himself as a correspondent for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where he spent his time lampooning the media and the politicians on it.
Now, as sometimes happens with an actual star reporter, Oliver has his own show. It’s called Last Week Tonight and it premieres Sunday on HBO.
He joins NPR Steve Inskeep to discuss mocking the U.S. with an English accent and why the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is where jokes go to die.
On Daily Show segments in which he seems to get genuinely angry about a story
I think if there’s real anger, it’s provoked. Anger cannot be your default setting ‘cause it’s draining to perform and it’s draining to watch. But there are some times that what you’re talking about is so frustrating that the whole day has been a process of trying to channel that anger into something funny.
On whether his jokes would still be funny without his English accent
Well, let’s hope so because that’s basically been my business model for a decade. … I’m telling you, the kryptonite is if the jokes I tell — if you see them written down, that is no good. … I am exposed in script form.
On whether he feels the need to differentiate himself from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report
For sure. You know, if a story happens early in the week and they cover it, we probably won’t touch it. So, I think we’ll end up looking slightly off the regular radar.
On whether it ever feels strange to mock the U.S. as someone who isn’t from here
I don’t think so. I mean, I’ve lived here for nearly eight years now and I love it here and, you know, I’ve married an American. … And also, I think sometimes it helps to have a slight outsider’s voice in comedy, whatever that voice is. And as it happens my voice sounds like I don’t belong here. Or at least, I haven’t belonged here post-1770.
On whether an outsider’s perspective is good for journalism
It would be if journalists were more outsider than they were, but there is a coziness. You see something like the warmth of response … at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner [where] everyone is so comfortable being in the same room as people that they are supposed to be the check and balance on. If the system worked right, you would think that would be the most excruciatingly awkward room to be in, and it’s pretty comfy and that comfort is a problem.
On whether he would accept an invitation to perform at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner
Oh, definitely. … Of course, because as a comedian you’re attracted to sometimes doing the things that are the most difficult. That room is not a good room for comedy. The people in it and the way it’s laid out — that is where jokes go to die. But the challenge — when you see something like the speech that Stephen Colbert gave, when he did it, is just — it’s a master class in comedy.
On what concerns him about America’s engagement with its wars
You know, this comes from — I have a slightly closer perspective on this because I married an Iraq War veteran, and this does not feel like a country at war.
And I went to Afghanistan to do a USO tour for a couple of weeks … and it was a fantastic experience, but the disconnect between America and what we are asking young Americans to do is incredible. I honestly think if you ask people in this country whether we were at war, lots of them would forget. [Copyright 2014 NPR]