A lot of wonderful things happened in 1977: punk exploded, Apple was incorporated, Star Wars was released, transatlantic supersonic flights hit commuter airline schedules, smallpox was officially considered to be eradicated — and John Oliver was born. 2006 wasn’t such a good vintage however, one of the few redeeming features being that it was the year the thinking woman’s bit of crumpet from The Daily Show first joined Jon Stewart’s band of merry not-newsmen as their Senior British Correspondent, making something that was already truly awesome even more so.
Before washing up on our shores with his freshly minted visa in hand, Oliver apparently spent an inordinate amount of time at school farting (an activity the British have raised to the level of a national sport). He went on to study a language he was already relatively competent in — English — at Cambridge University, which afforded him a lot of free time to pursue the hobby that became his career: being funny. He joined the Cambridge Footlights, a hallowed university amateur dramatics/comedy institution which was founded in 1883 and has produced many notable funny people both of the peculiar and ha-ha varieties.
Oliver is certainly a funnyman of the ha-ha kind, though he’s not without his peculiarities as we found out in this interview, which was conducted via email for his own safety. Did we mention he’s the thinking woman’s bit of crumpet from The Daily Show? (**Wed like to emphasize that we mean this most sincerely.)
Nicole Powers: You were vice-president of the Cambridge Footlights. Who was the George Bush to your Dick Cheney there?
John Oliver: My George W. Bush was a guy called Richard Ayoade. And just like Cheney, I quietly pulled strings in the background whilst insisting that I wasn’t part of the executive branch, for complicated legal reasons. Oh, and at one point I accidentally shot him in the face… I forgot about that. And I made him publicly apologize. I suppose now you mention it, the comparisons are almost spooky. Sure, Richard and I had our critics, and by the time we left we had around a 22% approval rating, but I think history will judge our term in office kindly. We started relatively few wars and kept the people of Britain largely safe. They should be carving our faces into a mountainside somewhere.
NP: Do you know what he’s doing now?
JO: Richard is in a sit-com in Britain called the IT Crowd. He also directs music videos; he’s done a few good ones for a great English band called Arctic Monkeys. Last time I saw him was a few months ago in New York he was here to direct a video for Vampire Weekend those preppy college kids with the African drums.
NP: Douglas Adams, Clive Anderson, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Peter Cook, Stephen Fry, and Clive James are fellow Cambridge University/Footlights alumni. Apart from being an annoyingly funny smarty-pants, what else do you feel you have in common with these people?
JO: I’m glad you find me ‘annoyingly funny’. I’ve always striven to be both an entertainer and an irritant. I think that’s why I feel so at home on The Daily Show. You can always be fairly confident that we’re annoying as many people as we’re amusing. In terms of what else I have in common with those people that is a tough ask. Bearing in mind that those names you mention are some of the most talented people in British comedy history, I think I’m going to have to restrict any comparisons to number of limbs. I definitely have the same number of legs as all but one of those people*. But I think it probably ends there.
* I believe that Stephen Fry has four legs. Although two of them could in fact be arms.
NP: I was going to describe you as “the thinking woman’s bit of crumpet from The Daily Show” in my intro. Any objections?
JO: That depends if you’re being sarcastic. I would certainly object if you were that would be a needlessly hurtful way to pose a question. If you are being sincere [**see note above NP], then to be honest I’m not entirely sure how to respond. Physically, I think I’m a bit of an acquired taste. I’m like oysters; a few people claim they’re a delicacy, but most people find the idea of putting one in their mouth disgusting. I think if the ‘thinking woman’ you mentioned ‘thought about’ me a bit more, you’d find my crumpet qualification would begin to wane.
NP: Would you advise people that want to be funny to work hard in school like you must have?
JO: Absolutely not. Schools should be used as a platform to make wisecracks at the back of the classroom, nothing more, nothing less. I can’t see what other practical purpose they serve. If people want to be funny, they need to develop at an early age the following skill sets: a healthy lack of respect for authority, a pathological desire to be liked, and an appreciation for the comic potential of breaking wind. You can’t risk leaving learning these lessons too late.
NP: Wouldn’t they be better off reading comics in maths class?
JO: I wouldn’t know. I spent most of my maths classes thinking about the utter futility of the class I was being forced to participate in. That and how much I would like to kiss Amanda Rizzo on the face.
NP: On The Daily Show you boiled the Mumbai Situation down to something that was the work “of a group of unbelievable motherfuckers working in tandem with giant arseholes.” Aren’t most of the world’s problems caused by the proliferation of arseholes and motherfuckers? And if you agree with that statement, what’s your ultimate solution?
JO: I absolutely do agree with that statement. Assholes and motherfuckers are a huge, and growing problem demographic in modern life. Now on a national level, if you want less assholes and motherfuckers in America, there is a very simple mathematical solution to this and that is to open the borders. It’s what once made America great and it can do it again. That is the answer here is my [reasoning]:
Let’s look at the facts. In the average country, 13.4 per cent of the adult population are assholes. Complete, and utter assholes. That leaves a fairly respectable 86.6 per cent who are not assholes. Now, it is well known that an asshole is less likely to emigrate than someone who isn’t an asshole. So the more immigrants America allows, the further the asshole-to-not-an-asshole balance tips towards the non-assholes. Conversely, those nations wherefrom the non-asshole immigrants are emigrating are left with a higher level of assholes, making those who are not assholes in those countries more likely to want to emigrate. Hence by the process of Inverse Asshole Osmosis, America becomes the least asshole-y country in the world. It will simultaneously make America safer, and the world a far more dangerous place. And isn’t that the American dream?
NP: Did you notice I used the English pronunciation and spelling of asshole out of reverence to your country?
JO: I did and did you notice that I used the American pronunciation and spelling of ‘arsehole’ out of a cloying desire to fit in to yours?
NP: As someone bridging the gap between our two cultures, which do you prefer arse or ass?
JO: Each has it’s own merits. I think the classic English ‘arse’ is better used for describing disappointing human behavior, and the new-fangled American ‘ass’ is infinitely superior when used in reference to a particularly striking adult posterior. Here’s how you would use them in a sentence:
“Check out the ‘ass’ on Ryan Seacrest …what a shame it is attached to such an ‘arse’.”
I hope that clears that little confusion up, and brings our two nations closer together.
NP: Don’t the apathetic and terminally stupid play a part in the world’s problems too? After all they’re the ones that allow the motherfuckers and arseholes to get away with their shit?
JO: Good point. Good, foul-mouthed point. And it’s hard to defend the apathetic especially because they can’t be bothered to defend themselves. Although I have to say that I have a soft spot for the terminally stupid. Whether they are accidentally walking into lampposts, filming each other receiving spectacular nut-shots, or watching NASCAR racing they are providing much needed slapstick for the world.
NP: After what we’ve been through these past eight years, do you think America would have been better off if it had remained a colony? There’d have been no prohibition or presidents going by the name of Bush, and they might have had fun things like healthcare and Coronation Street.
JO: As far as I’m concerned you still are a colony. I don’t recognize the American War of Independence. We never properly signed those divorce papers we just drew a penis and two balls at the bottom of the page where the signature was supposed to go. It’s the old ‘penis-and-two-balls’ trick that we played on most of the Empire. India still thinks it’s independent too. Check the contract, South Asia.
You’re certainly right about prohibition. We would never have allowed that. British people would die for their right to drink themselves to death. But I wouldn’t be so sure about the others — we’ve had leaders to rival the worse that you can come up with Coronation Street is one of the most depressing programs ever to be broadcast on television, and our interpretation of universal healthcare is looking less and less convincing by the day.
NP: Had George Bush been English, do you think there’s any chance he’d have made Prime Minister?
JO: Well, let’s look at who he is. He was a vastly over-privileged young man who was born into a dynasty of power and wealth. He’s not a politician; he’s aristocracy. He wouldn’t be Prime Minister he’d be King. In fact, he’d have made a great 12th century English king gallivanting around the world on crusades. The only thing he’s guilty of is being born 900 years too late, and on the wrong continent. Otherwise, right now, tourists would be taking photographs of his coat of arms carved into an old church roof.
NP: You’ve said that finding another area where the Bush administration can screw up “is like finding a vein on a failure junkie.” They seem to be doing it though, waging a War on Water with a ruling that allows corporations to dump mining waste into streams. What else are you expecting Bush to take a dump on before he leaves office?
JO: Well, it’ll be exciting to see what happens in the last few days. I’m guessing there are going to be a lot of pardons flying around, and let’s not rule out a ‘deadline beating’ air strike somewhere. He also seems like the kind of man who is going to steal quite a lot of stationary.
NP: How’s the visa situation going?
JO: I hope it’s going ok. It’s an ongoing, and slightly unsettling, battle to be honest. I tried engraving ‘Give me your tired, your poor, and your aspiring comic performers’ into the base of the Statue of Liberty, but apparently that’s not legally binding.
NP: You wrote and presented the BBC America promo campaign, which cautions American viewers that, “The following program contains accents you would have heard a lot more if you hadn’t thrown our tea into Boston Harbor.” Is there anything else you’d like to warn Americans about when it comes to experiencing British culture?
JO: You should always carry a pocket-sized marble statue of Princess Diana around with you, to produce whenever the police stop you and ask to see it. The penalty for not doing so is 20-25 years in prison. That’s a pretty handy hint.
NP: Would you like to say a few words in defense of British food and teeth too?
JO: I could, but those words would not stand up in any court of law. British food and dentistry is guilty as charged it is almost comically bad.
NP: Multiple Choice Section
Question: The Love Guru?
- A. Next question
- B. Sorry about that.
- C. The Love Guru was named The Worst Movie of 2008 by The New York Post. I’m going to stick to my day job being funny from now on.
JO: I’ll go with A. With a little bit of B.
NP: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that I should have?
NP: If so, what?
JO: You should have asked me what playing card I was thinking of this whole time.
NP: And what would your answer be?
JO: It was the 8 of hearts.