Standing Up In New York: An Interview With John Oliver
Just the other day, the second season of John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show debuted. The show is what it sounds like…John Oliver does some stand-up and invites his friends out to do some as well. Terrific premise if you are a fan of comedy.
Last week John was in Austin for the SXSW festival, and we got a few minutes to sit down with him and discuss the new season of his show, the showcase he had later that night, podcasting, and of course The Daily Show.
Here’s how it went down:
The Laugh Button: Is this your first time at South By Southwest?
John Oliver: Yes, it is.
TLB: How are you enjoying it so far?
JO: I’m enjoying it, but I haven’t been here for very long, and I’m not going to be here for much longer. So I’m enjoying what I’m seeing a bit.
TLB: How long will you be here?
JO: Until tomorrow night.
TLB: That’s it? So just the showcase tonight and you’re out?
JO: Two shows tonight and then done, yeah. Two and done.
TLB: So I guess you are not going to see much when you’re down here?
JO: [Laughs] You’re right. But what I’ve seen so far definitely makes me want to come again.
TLB: See a few bands, see some comedians?
JO: Definitely, well I’ve seen some of the comedians, and I saw a band last night, just for the hell of it. They were kinda bad.
TLB: I didn’t realize you were a big fan of music.
JO: Yeah. No I do like music but I didn’t like that particular music.
TLB: Do you listen to music when you write?
JO: No, I can’t.
TLB: Really? Do you find that it’s a distraction?
JO: And you know what? I’ve listened to so much less music now that I listen to podcasts on the way to work. So I used to listen to music all the time on journeys and now I listen to podcasts probably much much more.
TLB: Yeah, it’s like there are so many good comedy podcasts out there, there’s almost not enough hours in the day to listen to them all.
JO: Yeah. I like, Marc Maron’s podcast, I listen to it every week. And The Best Show on WFMU with Tom Sharpling and that’s like three hours a week. So Bang! That’s already…you’re losing a lot of time. And then occasionally NPR stuff so that’s usually my walks to and from work.
TLB: Now you have a podcast yourself haven’t you?
JO: [Laughs] And I do a podcast as well, yeah! I didn’t even think of that but yeah I also do that as well.
TLB: Do you enjoy making your podcast?
JO: Yeah I love it. But I don’t listen to it.
TLB: I guess that would be kind of weird, listening to yourself.
JO: Yeah, it would be weird, I hear plenty of myself. But I love doing it.
TLB: What would you say is the difference between writing for a television show and writing for the podcast? I know there’s a lot of different freedoms.
JO: For The Daily Show I’m writing for Jon [Stewart]. So I’m not writing for myself really. Or maybe I’ll write for a bit for me or another correspondent. But for a podcast I’m writing for myself and I usually do half the writing for that. I usually do a podcast which is about the weeks news. So half of that is written and half I’ll just be talking about whatever me and Andy Zaltzman, the guy I usually do the podcast with, whatever he’s talking about. Each of us write a third and then the last third is made up.
TLB: So you must enjoy the freedom that it gives you?
JO: Yeah I love it.
TLB: Because you can curse right?
JO: I do love to curse. In fact, I fucking love it! And I do love the freedom of it, on a personal level it means that I get to talk to Andy every week, and so we get to keep working together a bit.
TLB: When you write, do you ever have ideas in your head like, “Oh, this is something that would be good for the podcast or, this would be good for The Daily Show?”
JO: No, because usually I’m just writing for wherever I am. So at The Daily Show, those are very specific tasks. From the morning meeting on, we’re writing for whatever part of the headline for whatever story we have. And then for my podcast, on Thursday night I will talk through what stories we’re going to do and then write specifically for that. So it’s not like there are different ideas milling around that I choose the location for. Jokes for The Daily Show usually happen at The Daily Show [offices], or when thinking about that kind of stuff. If it’s a more abstract idea, I’ll use it for stand-up.
TLB: Do you practice a lot of material by doing it live at your stand-up act?
JO: Yeah, as much as I can, I love doing it. So I go out as much as I can, and I’ll get bored so I have to turn out new material.
TLB: For the new season of New York Stand-up, the second season that debuts on March 23rd…
JO: [Chuckles] Wrong! March 24th. Midnight, after Colbert.
TLB: [Laughs] Sorry, got my midnights mixed up…So what’s the selection process for the stand-up show? Is it just friends you ask?
JO: Well it’s comedians that I like, not really friends. [Laughs] That sounds worse than it is!
I’m not ruling any of them out as friends! It’s more these are comedians that I really like. So, you tend to find that generally the comedians know each other. Many of them are very new comedians that I’ve seen over the years, and some that I just love.
TLB: Do you select them by committee? Do others suggest comedians to you? Maybe you throw darts at pictures?
JO: Yeah, we talk about it together and then come up with a list, and hopefully people are available and if they are we get ‘em and hope viewers will like it.
TLB: How is the showcase tonight going to be different from your stand-up shows?
JO: It’s going to be pretty close to a stand-up show. I’ll start and talk for a few minutes, and then just keep bringing people on. [Laughs] Now, that might sound not that complicated, and that’s because it IS not that complicated. I can’t bring myself to dress it up any more. I’ll talk, then introduce someone else, then they’ll talk, I’ll come back and talk more very briefly about the next person and they will talk and so on.
TLB: [Laughs] Sounds like a lot of talking!
JO: [Chuckles] It IS a lot of talking! Listen, if you don’t like talking, then it is not the show for you.
TLB: [Laughs] So if you don’t like talking and if you don’t like comedy…
JO: If you like watermelons being smashed! Then I do have a show for you… Wait! He [Gallagher] IS okay?!
TLB: Yes, he did collapse on stage recently but I read he’s doing well.
JO: Okay then a glib throwaway comment is fine…
TLB: So, The Daily Show is a big part of your career.
JO: [Laughs] Yes, it is a large percentage of my life.
TLB: Where do you get the ideas about what you cover on the show?
JO: Different places, I watch the news all the time. [Laughs] So that is my cross to bear. So from that, all the stories, how they’re happening, how they’re being reported, different ideas. I see how CNN or Fox will treat something, maybe there is an angle.
TLB: Usually badly…
JO: [Laughs] YES! Usually badly! I think they are at about 0 for 1,000 in terms of quality reporting. So, that might help. Otherwise, various news outlets. We have researchers, we’re constantly looking for fill pieces. We have a post-production department to look up all the clips. So it is a huge collaborative team effort to distill these disgusting parts of the news and to try and get them into something that is watchable.
TLB: I’ve noticed a trend over the last few years and feel free to disagree with me if you’d like… I feel like more people of a certain age…
JO: [Laughs] I am about to disagree with you… If what you are about to say is “More people get their news from The Daily Show than any other source.”
JO: A few different things; we’re a comedy program, they are….they call themselves a news organization [Laughs]. So if people do come to us for some kind of news, not only is that a bad instinct of theirs, but it’s also a failing of the news organizations in question. We’re a comedy show about the news. So if you are coming to us for any other reason than to laugh, you’re going to be disappointed down the line [Laughs]. We are a comedy show, so we have no journalistic responsibility, which is why it is easier to do what we do, than if we were trying to do 24 hours worth of quality reporting. Because that cannot be done. You cannot report at that kind of pace with any level of quality.
TLB: As a correspondent, you come from a long list of great comedic names. Where do you view the legacy of John Oliver?
JO: [Laughs] HAHAHAHA! The legacy of John Oliver!? What a repulsive question! [Laughs]! Well you mean like among [Stephen] Colbert, [Ed] Helms, and [Rob] Cordrry and people like that?
TLB: [Laughs] Yes, Have you ever thought about it?
JO: Well, when I took the job, it was certainly intimidating because I thought that I would be worse than them, and that’s gonna make people mad. I guess it’s slightly different for me, going from the show to doing movies or TV. But I’ve always wanted to be on The Daily Show. So if I was doing something else, I’d just be trying to get on the show. So I’m in a slightly different position here because I don’t want to go out and do other stuff. So unless they fire me, I’m gonna stay. That’s the ultimatum I’m laying down. “Fire me, or I’m going to be here longer than you want me to be.”
TLB: But if New York Stand-Up takes off…and goes like 20 seasons…
JO: I can do both of them! It’s not that much work. I do stand-up all year, so you accumulate a lot of material, break it down into 6 ten minute chunks, it’s not that hard, I can do both.
TLB: Of the comedians on the show, who do you think will have the biggest breakthrough on this season?
JO: Mike Lawrence did a great set. They’re all really good; there’s something for everyone. He’s very new so it’s very exciting to see someone for the first time on TV doing something so great.
It’s also the best set I’ve seen Maria Bamford do, and I’ve seen her do nothing but great sets. I’m floored by it, it’s just phenomenal. So I’ve watched her multiple times, through the edit and I’ve found myself watching it as well, not editing. Pete Holmes is also fantastic. But Maria Bamford is just something else. She is phenomenal. So I would urge you, if nothing else, to watch her. She is absolutely incredible.
TLB: Well, I will be watching…
JO: Well thank you…Watch her twice! I’m telling you! You will do it! I’ve seen her multiple times and I still laugh out loud!
TLB: I’ll TiVo the episode and when I get where I “save” or “delete,” I’ll save it to watch again as I’m mumbling to myself “God Damn! John Oliver was right!”
JO: [Laughs] Yeah! That’s right, you’ll keep it for her!
TLB: Oh, well I’d like to thank you for that…and thanks for doing this!
JO: Yeah! This was fun!
We’d like to thank John Oliver for taking time out of his busy schedule at SXSW for talking to us! His showcase that night was a huge success [recap here] and be sure to tune in every Thursday night at midnight after The Colbert Report for John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up.