Comedian John Oliver makes fun of serious news

July 14, 2014 at 6:33 PM EDT
John Oliver’s new comedy show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, has probed, poked fun and raised serious questions about a variety of news topics, from India’s elections to Supreme Court decisions. Oliver sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss being a comedian and not a newscaster, plus how he chooses his material and becoming more American.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next tonight: a fresh perspective on current news.

Jeffrey Brown talks with comedian John Oliver.

JOHN OLIVER, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”: If we let cable companies offer two speeds of service, there won’t be Usain Bolt and Usain Bolt on a motorbike.


JOHN OLIVER: They will be Usain Bolt and Usain bolted to an anchor.


JEFFREY BROWN: The highly divisive debate over who controls Internet speed and access, so-called net neutrality, is hardly standard comic fare.

JOHN OLIVER: The point is, the Internet in its current state is not broken, and the FCC is currently taking steps to fix that.


JEFFREY BROWN: But it’s just the kind of policy and political subject that John Oliver tackles, often in surprising depth, on his new HBO comedy program “Last Week Tonight.”

JOHN OLIVER: We need you to channel that anger.

JEFFREY BROWN: His admonition to viewers to write to the FCC even briefly shut down the agency’s comments section of the Web site. Born in a suburb of Birmingham, England, Oliver studied English and joined a comedy troupe at Cambridge University. He performed stand-up in festivals, pubs and clubs around England, before coming to this country and joining “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” in 2006, eventually sitting in as host while Stewart took time off.

The new program has probed, poked fun, and raised serious questions around a variety of news topics, from India’s elections to Supreme Court decisions.

JOHN OLIVER: Let’s talk about the death penalty.

JEFFREY BROWN: The weekly format, Oliver says, gives him and his staff, which includes former magazine researchers, as well as comedy writers, the time to develop stories, even if it feels like they’re hanging on by the seat of their pants.

We talked recently at HBO in New York.

JOHN OLIVER: Some weeks, we have been — it’s been controlled drowning, that — it’s just been reacting and desperately trying to get something on TV.

JEFFREY BROWN: Controlled drowning.

JOHN OLIVER: Yes, controlled drowning.


JOHN OLIVER: Meaning you eventually drown, but you try and stay above water for as long as possible.


JEFFREY BROWN: Until Sunday night, until the show gets on.

JOHN OLIVER: Exactly. Exactly. You just get to 11:31, and your head disappears below the surface.


JEFFREY BROWN: How do you decide what you’re going to cover, what’s — you know, we sit down every day, think the criteria, most important, most vital, most urgent, something like that. What is it for you?

JOHN OLIVER: Yes. Well, we have been drawn so far to slightly more off-the-beaten tracks, nothing that screams: I’m going to be amazing comic fodder.

Yes, we have been kind of been drawn to making life difficult for ourselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: But these things, India’s election, climate change, net neutrality…

JOHN OLIVER: Yes. Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I speak as someone who is experienced at trying to cover those.


JEFFREY BROWN: Serious issues, right?

JOHN OLIVER: They are not funny initially, no.

There’s something about playing with toys that are that difficult that becomes more satisfying for us to kind of break by the end of our week’s process. So, with India’s election, there was some funny elements to that, but the thing that really drew me to it was, this thing is incredible.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and the other thing, though, that seemed to come out of that was, you were also struck by, this is a huge thing, and nobody is paying attention.

JOHN OLIVER: Well, it didn’t make any sense. It didn’t make any sense to me that the largest exercise in democracy in the history of humanity wasn’t interesting enough to cover.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what work goes in? Is there a lot a — is it research?


JEFFREY BROWN: Is it reporting in a sense, the way…

JOHN OLIVER: No, it’s reporting in no sense.


JEFFREY BROWN: Reporting in no sense.

JOHN OLIVER: No, it’s — it’s a lot of research. It’s a lot of reading around it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you are concerned about getting it right?

JOHN OLIVER: Yes, definitely.


JOHN OLIVER: Oh, absolutely, because you can’t…

JEFFREY BROWN: That got you. I mean, you really care about that.

JOHN OLIVER: For sure.


JOHN OLIVER: Because you can’t build — if a joke is built on sand, it just doesn’t work, or it like collapses. It’s very, very important to us that we are — it’s — we’re solid.

JEFFREY BROWN: Net neutrality got a lot of attention. Did it surprise you that you had even the power to kind of get people to respond and to write to the FCC?

JOHN OLIVER: Yes, I don’t know if I really have any power, but it was — it was — it was surprising that people paid attention to it.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you do have a certain amount of power.

JOHN OLIVER: A certain amount. That certain amount, I think, is tiny. I have no moral authority. I’m a comedian.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s always interested me that Jon Stewart has often had to tell people, hey, we’re a comedy show.


JEFFREY BROWN: We’re not a news program.

JOHN OLIVER: Yes. He’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, but there is this blurring, is there not?

JOHN OLIVER: Not in our minds, no.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not in your minds?


I mean, yes, I can’t speak for him, but, yes, we’re comedians. I think that becomes more a sad commentary on news than it does on us, though.

JEFFREY BROWN: You don’t want that.

JOHN OLIVER: The only responsibility…

JOHN OLIVER: … as a comedian is that I have to make people laugh.


JOHN OLIVER: If I don’t do that — and I’m sure that I often don’t — then I have failed.

JEFFREY BROWN: When did you first decide that you wanted to focus on current events?

JOHN OLIVER: When you do stand-up, you’re just concerned with trying to leave with some semblance of human dignity at the end of your performance.


JOHN OLIVER: Once you learn how to make people laugh, then you get to choose exactly how you want to make them laugh.


JOHN OLIVER: And so then you can get to make jokes about things you actually care about.

So, rather than doing anything to make people laugh, you can then select. Oh, well, maybe I’m interested in talking about, you know, my life, or about politics, or about sports. You know, you can direct your comedy. You kind of — you can control it better.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Does being British, an outsider, help you in looking at American politics, and journalism, and culture?

JOHN OLIVER: I think being an outsider in general always helps you in comedy. I think it helps to have an outsider’s eye. And so I have an outsider’s voice. You know, as soon as I start talking, I don’t belong here. And I think that helps in a way.


JEFFREY BROWN: And are you finding yourself more American?

JOHN OLIVER: That is a good question.

I certainly love it here. And I love living here. And I see this as my home, kind of physically and emotionally.


JOHN OLIVER: So, yes, I guess. I have kind of fallen in love with this country.

I would like — I would really like to vote. No, it — when I got my green card it was a — it was a really emotional moment. And I wasn’t expecting that to be the case. And I nearly cried, again, nearly — I’m British. Nearly crying is — was going, oh, my goodness.

JEFFREY BROWN: But if you get your citizenship, you will be bawling?

JOHN OLIVER: Then I will cry American tears, you know, like the kinds that you guys always cry at the Olympics.


JOHN OLIVER: We’re always — that’s always the British view. No, you talk about Americans watching “Downton Abbey” and thinking, God, what is wrong with you people? British people generally watch Americans during the Olympics and say, oh, for goodness’ sake.


JEFFREY BROWN: Pull yourself together?

JOHN OLIVER: Pull yourself together. You won. All right, for goodness’ sake, sack up.


JEFFREY BROWN: All right, John Oliver, thanks for talking to us.

JOHN OLIVER: Oh, it’s a pleasure. Thanks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there’s more online, where John Oliver tells Jeff why “Downton Abbey” reminds him a bit too much about his own childhood. You will find that on Art Beat.