John Oliver is exhausted. In the span of 24 hours, after two weeks of covering the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, The Daily Show correspondent flew from the DNC host city of Charlotte, N.C., changed flights in Philadelphia, Pa., and touched down in Ithaca, only to perform a killer stand-up set hours later. Following Oliver’s sold-out Saturday night show at Bailey Hall, The Sun’s Arts and Entertainment section sat down with the comedian and talked about his Cambridge roots, the political media circus and the ever-lovable Herman Cain.
The Sun: How tired are you right now?
John Oliver: Very, very, very tired. In Charlotte, I was generally averaging three to four hours of sleep a night. The last two weeks have been non-stop — it’s all a blur. It feels like being away for one long day, and then you realize it’s actually been 14 days.
Sun: Did you do any special preparation before the conventions?
J.O.: Yes, we did. We try and split it between reacting to what’s happening and also thinking about broader concepts the candidates or the parties are involved in. Samantha Bee did a piece on pro-life [RNC delegates], which was something we had an idea of beforehand and we knew, more or less, how to execute that. We also “fired” states that were failing, which was another idea we planned. Those were broader, consensual things we fleshed out before, so we knew what we were going to get. It’s a
mix between preparation and, you know … Clint Eastwood talking to a chair. You could write a whole show about that.
Sun: How do you react to something like that? It’s sort of sad, but you have to stay funny about it.
J.O.: Yeah, and in that case we tried to make it not so much about [Eastwood] as about the broader concept that the President Obama Republicans are afraid of is invisible and imaginary. It’s about finding different constructs so you’re not picking on or punching down.
Sun: Obviously, these jokes are funny because there is truth to them. Do you see your role in terms of a larger political perspective?
J.O.: No. I don’t think we do. It is a comedy show — we’re on after Daniel Tosh’s talking bear cartoon now. It’s definitely a comedy show, first. I think people get their news from other sources than cable news now.
Sun: Because cable news is comedy now.
J.O.: It is atrocious. If cable news is comedy, it’s very bad comedy. It’s amazing to see what happens down there [at the conventions], how pathetic it all is.
Sun: The Daily Show is famous for its quick-cutting montages that reveal the hypocrisy of politicians and cable news, as well as the field reports you, Samantha Bee, Jason Jones and the rest of the correspondents cover. Isn’t what you are doing journalism, at least, or some sort of public service?
J.O.: Not really. It’s a comedic service, in that we are trying to highlight ironies and joke about often very serious things. We try to find a comedic point of view that makes sense. When we are looking at a hypocritical statement, we are looking for jokes in it. Otherwise, we would fail spectacularly in our role as a comedy show.
Sun: You host an ongoing “Inside the Political Curtain” segment with former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain. Do you believe he is actually genuine?
J.O.: I think he is 100-percent genuine and 100-percent uninterested in politics. … To me, his presidential run seems to be a book tour gone wrong — it got out of hand and, through no fault of his own, he ended up leading in the polls. But he is an intensely likable and charismatic man. I really, really like him. If he was ever president, it would be a disaster for the entire planet, but he’s the best hypothetical president there has ever been. He’s wonderful. We have four more segments that we will air or throw on the web, but, yeah, I love him.
Sun: Looking back at your past, you started off at the Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club, home of some extraordinary alumni. How did that affect your style?
J.O.: It was a lot like being in school. It has this bizarre, historic pedigree — Monty Python went there as did Peter Cook, who is an icon in British comedy. So people will often look at [the Footlights] and ask, “When’s the next genius going to come out?” Meanwhile, you are 18 years old and you’re terrible, just like any 18-year-old is bad at comedy. And so it’s an amazing chance to work on stuff and fail in a safe environment. My former writing partner, Richard Ayoade, just starred in … I haven’t seen it —
Sun: The Watch?
J.O.: It looked bad. But he directed this movie Submarine, which was very well-received. He is a great writer. We were two 18-year-olds [who were] very bad at comedy, desperately trying to become less bad.
Sun: Your Britishness is so integral to your identity on The Daily Show. How far up on the list is that for your own self-image?
J.O.: You don’t feel British until you leave Britain. As a comedian, it is helpful to be an outsider, of any kind. Whether you are socially an outsider, physically an outsider, verbally an outsider — as soon as I open my mouth, it is clear that I do not belong here. Well, I did 300 years ago, but not today. I think that helps, because having a different perspective is what comedy is about. I found America almost inexplicably tolerant with being criticized by a guy with a British accent.
Sun: What about the people back home? You are a prominent British personality in America; do they feel like you are treating them in a good light?
J.O.: I think British people don’t know that they are ridiculous. When we make fun of Britain, like for the royal wedding or the Jubilee, it is because it is palpably stupid. That is usually how everyone feels about it there. We went over to the royal wedding and the only people lining the streets were Americans. [laughs] British people found the whole thing deeply embarrassing. Same thing with the Jubilee — you lose your mind, as a British person. I actually prefer [the United States] as an outlet, because around those times the media in Britain tend to not be too critical of it all, out of respect for the monarchy. You don’t actually get to see many people pointing at it, saying, “This is ridiculous.” So I think The Daily Show was quite popular in England around then.
Sun: You turned down a big role in Community in favor of continuing mainly with The Daily Show. Is this what the future holds for you; are there any other plans in mind?
J.O.: I don’t know. I don’t think I got to do any Community last season. I did eight or nine episodes in the second season. They are just starting again now. I would love to do more of that sporadically, and they have been really good at working around my schedule, which is pretty bad, especially during an election year. I love that show, and I don’t love many shows. I’m not in it enough, so I can still love it and watch it as a viewer. I tend to skip the ones that I am in.
Sun: How different is it to do a show like Community, one that is probably really rehearsed?
J.O.: It’s not that rehearsed, that’s the thing. There’s a lot of messing around during it, and it’s just fun. The deadlines are so rough and aggressive at The Daily Show and it is such a mentally exhausting frenzy. Community is just a vacation. Everyone is really good at what they do and the writing is just phenomenal. [Showrunner] Dan Harmon works almost harder than what is physically possible. It’s really hard to fuck it up — the jokes are really funny, the stories are really funny. So you don’t need to do much for it to work. There’s not as much responsibility as there is for The Daily Show.