Since John Oliver made the successful leap across the Atlantic from his native Britain in 2006, he has made about 100 appearances on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”
Now Comedy Central, which airs “The Daily Show,” is pushing Oliver further into the spotlight. Oliver’s first standup special, “John Oliver: Terrifying Times,” airs April 20 on the cable channel, with a series of repeats scheduled.
Oliver first rose to acclaim through a series of appearances at the annual comedy festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 2001. His last run at Edinburgh, in 2005, was again with his longtime collaborator and comic partner, Andy Zaltzman. The two also worked together on the BBC radio series “The Department,” featuring a think tank that tried to solve the world’s problems. And despite the ocean between them, Oliver and Zaltzman are partners in a weekly humorous podcast called The Bugle, produced by The Times of London.
In an interview conducted via e-mail, Oliver reflected on angering the queen of England, working on “The Daily Show” and why you won’t see his face on any T-shirts.
Your website address is mrjohnoliver. Why the formality?
I’m trying to introduce some formality to the Internet. In its current state it is overly familiar. It certainly has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that johnoliver.com was already taken.
Your bio says you received a letter of complaint from Buckingham Palace. What did you do to anger the royal family?
It was something to do with editing one of her Christmas addresses to the nation. Apparently you can’t do that. To be honest, I did know that you couldn’t do that, but ran into the insurmountable problem of not caring enough. I think if I ever go back to England now they’ll put my head on a spike outside Windsor Castle. So you have to let me stay.
Does that mean your eventual knighthood is less like than likely now?
It is indeed less than likely. But to be honest, even before the complaint it was only slightly above impossible. In relative terms -- I’ve not fallen that far.
How did you and Andy Zaltman meet?
We met doing a college stand-up tour together around Britain. Performing poorly received stand-up to various groups of heroically drunk students. Those kind of emotional scars can really bond two people together.
What was it about Andy that made you decide to work together?
I think we ask ourselves that at the start and end of every day. Still haven’t come up with anything close to an explanation yet.
You and Andy have done several projects together, including “The Department,” “Political Animal” and The Bugle. What is the writing process like when you¹re working with a collaborator, and what's the division of labor?
We have different processes for each project. For "The Department," we would write a very detailed storyline for each episode, then write a table of jokes which we would try to fit into the script. Then it would just be a case of editing it down for time. I’ve made it sound easy, when in fact it took months.
For the Bugle, we write ideas separately due to being an ocean apart now. That way, when we’re recording it there is a good deal of improvisation around each other’s ideas.
How did The Bugle podcast you're doing with Andy come about?
We were asked to do it – then did it – and it has now become both fun and a contractual obligation. There is no better motivator than a contractual obligation.
How is the podcast done, considering you're in America and he's in England?
Andy is in a studio in London – I’m in a studio in New York and we do it down ISDN. If we were doing it hundreds of years ago, we’d have had to send jokes back and forth with carrier pigeons. So for that reason, as well as a few others, we’re lucky we’re alive now.
"The Daily Show" has proved a stepping stone for other comedians to go on to other things, such as Stephen Colbert getting his own show. What do you hope "The Daily Show" leads to for you?
I hope it leads to working for "The Daily Show" a lot more. This was my favorite show before I moved out here to work on it – so I am merely in a daily battle to not get fired.
How did you come to the attention of "The Daily Show"?
I can’t really give you a full answer on that. I’ve avoided asking in case a mistake was made and I’m sent packing.
What have you learned about comedy from working with Jon Stewart and the others on the show?
A great deal. The learning curve has been extremely steep – but I’m gradually getting used to it. I still admire the show even though I’ve now slightly ruined it for myself by working on it.
You're the lone Brit on the program. What do you see your role on the show as?
Do you have a favorite piece you've done for "The Daily Show"?
There are a few pieces in the studio that I’m very proud of. Larry Willmore and I always have fun working together as well.
What's your schedule like on the show? Are you there every day when you're not touring?
I’m there every day. I can only really do stand-up gigs occasionally as the show has a fairly intense schedule.
Who comes up with the ideas for the segments you do? Do you think of them? Do you have to pitch them to the higher-ups to get their OK?
The whole staff is involved in the overall creation of the show. It really is an extremely collaborative process, with the final decisions being made by Jon. And you couldn’t really get a better person to make a final decision for you.
You work alone when you're doing standup and you work with a partner when you're talking with Jon Stewart or Andy. You're obviously comfortable doing both, but do you have a preference as to alone or with a partner?
I like doing both. It’s easy to get very sick of the sound of your own voice when you do stand-up too much – and the isolation of it is a recipe for psychological meltdown – so it’s good to collaborate with people you admire and genuinely like.
One of the first things you purchased on eBay was a poster advertising a Lenny Bruce show. What made that a must-have item for you?
I always admired how creatively ambitious and fearless he was, and in a time when he was almost alone. Stand-ups of every style owe a huge debt to him now. And all of this often overshadows how incredibly funny he was.
Where did you hang it?
It’s in my office at work. Actually, it’s leaning against the wall at the moment, but now you’ve mentioned it, I’ll hang it up later.
What was your first validation that you were funny?
Making a kid at school snort milk through her nose.
At one point did you realize you could make a living at comedy?
I’m still not 100 percent convinced.
You like to learn interesting facts about every state you visit. What's the most unusual thing you've learned while traveling America?
That Colorado is the least obese state. To be honest – when you see people walk around there – you begin to have your doubts.
Now that you have a Comedy Central special, what¹s next? Will you release CDs? DVDs? T-shirts?
I think I can safely say that I will not be releasing any T-shirts. This is due to what I will safely assume is absolutely no demand for such an item whatsoever. Also due to the fact that I have no desire so see my face on someone as they walk down the street.
Would you like to see "The Department" released on CD?
That would be terrific. I think it would be very difficult though – as there would be a great deal of music clearance to do.
Are there any plans for its release?
Not really – for the reason I mentioned above. So I would encourage anyone to download it illegally from the internet. I’d love people to hear it – we’re very proud of it. Download away for free with my blessing. I’m like a comedic Radiohead.
You're living in America now. Do you have to have a sense of humour or a sense of humor?
Humour. Of course. You people seem allergic to the letter "u".
Do you have to take a different approach to comedy for American audiences vs. British audiences?
Not at all.
How important was the Edinburgh festival to your career?
Absolutely essential. I learnt a huge amount taking shows there. It’s still a major reason to do comedy at all as far as I’m concerned.
Any plans to go back and perform there again?
I’d love to. I won’t be able to this year – due to the election season being so intense. But I’ll be back the first opportunity I get.