When Ricky Gervais recommended fellow British comic John Oliver to Jon Stewart in 2006, Oliver had never been to America before. Four score and seven years later (more or less), Oliver will be taking over as host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show for an entire summer (starting on June 10) while Stewart directs a drama called Rosewater in the Middle East. Oliver swears that there’s no trace of a Benedict Arnold nor a Jay Leno in him, and he just wants to be a good custodian, with the goal of “returning Jon’s baby in one piece.” But we’re red-blooded Americans, so we interrogated him anyway, and found out how many apologies he edits out of his segments, why he needs to soften his deskside manner, and the difference between Michael Caine and the Queen of England.
Jon is going on vacation and this could be a huge opportunity for you. I’m not saying you could be the next Piers Morgan …
Please don’t say that. That’s one of the worst things you can say about a human being.
You also despise CNN’s Richard Quest. So people in England don’t take Richard Quest seriously?
No. People in Britain see Richard Quest as a kind of an offensive cartoon character.
I loved it when you called him a fake butler.
I think he is a fake butler! Because butlers have actual tangible skills. They can effectively deliver silver service. He doesn’t have the skills of a butler, just the persona.
So this British persona that we perceive …
That you project. You project a persona onto British people. And that persona in your mind carries some kind of threat. You imagine all of us to be in red coats waving muskets at you. And whilst that’s not entirely untrue, it’s less true than it was a few hundred years ago.
We feel like you’re still studying us. Cataloging.
That’s right. You feel like we’re not to be trusted. And I’m not saying you’re entirely wrong in that.
But come on, you’ve always seemed willing to play the smug Brit. Now that you’ll be hosting, is it important to be more likable?
[Laughs] So the implication is that so far I’ve been intensely unlikable. I think I can understand where that’s coming from.
You love playing the mean British guy!
The talent-show-judge British guy. The guy breaking the dreams of American 15-year-olds. Anything you love, you’re terrible at it. “Stop it.”
Yes, the Simon Cowell.
Exactly. I think I definitely need to have a little less Cowell in the host’s chair. People can only take Cowell in small doses. You can’t take Cowell just insulting people for half an hour. So I need to turn down the innate singing-show judge in me and focus on something a little more palatable to American heads.
You’re from Birmingham, so your accent is considered to be “Brummy,” but we can’t tell. We only hear Michael Caine or the Queen.
That’s right. I’m definitely closer to a Michael Caine than a queen, both in terms of vowel sounds and general pitch. But I have quite a mongrel accent for a British person. My family is from Liverpool, so I have some of those vowel sounds, I’ve got the slack tone of someone form Birmingham, and then I was raised in Bedford, which is just north of London. So my accent, if it’s possible, makes even less sense to a Brit than to an American.
Your quick British wit is very useful as a correspondent though, as well as the ability to keep a stiff upper lip while asking horribly unfair questions.
Keeping a straight face is never really a problem. Because usually you’re so uncomfortable with what you’re about to say to them that it kind of negates whatever lighthearted sense there is in the room. I basically spend much of my time interviewing people being a professional asshole. So it’s actually going to be nice to interview guests on the show being slightly less aggressive than I’ve been trained to do over the last seven years.
How many apologies do you edit out?
Yeah, you ask a question, instantly apologize, and then ask another question and apologize again? No, it’s less than you think. As a human being, with basic empathy, you would think, Well obviously you’re going to apologize all the way through. You don’t really apologize at all. They want to be on TV, they want to say the things they want to say.
So you’re doing the full Sacha Baron Cohen commitment throughout.
That’s right. I just turn off my soul at the start of an interview and I hope that I can still turn it on at the end of it. Or sometimes it’s easier to just leave it off, to be honest.
I thought of you preparing for the host job, and needing to smooth out these caustic habits, and I imagined you undergoing some grueling psychological workout with David Lynch as your guru, à la Louie.
David Lynch is all booked up, so instead I’m going to need to go to a mountaintop with Jon to learn all the jujitsu skills to run this show.
The movie Jon is leaving to direct this summer sounds so serious.
It’s amazing. Yeah. It’s absolutely incredible. Rosewater was triggered by one of the field pieces we did on this show. Jason Jones went to Iran and interviewed Maziar Bahari over there. And yeah, this story is kind of connected to what happened after that interview. It’s going to be an amazing adventure for Jon to go on.
So is Jon going over there?
They’re not shooting in Iran but they’re shooting in the Middle East. So that’s where they’re going to be these three months. He’s not even going to be in the country.
You’ve been on the show since the Bush Administration. So what’s the difference between a first-term Obama joke and a second-term Obama joke?
A first-term Obama joke, what you’re trying to deal with is, you’re trying navigate people’s ridiculously high expectations. And a second-term Obama joke you’re trying to help people cope with the inevitable disappointment that’s come their way.
Still easier to write than Walter Reed material.
You always hear people, Oh, now that it’s a new president, it’s going to be difficult. Now it’s a second term, it’s going to be difficult. But Washington never ceases in its ability to disappoint and infuriate you. Even over this summer, you think, Oh, summer’s always a down time. I wonder if we’re going to have enough to talk about. And now there are three scandals that have completely engulfed the administration, plus they’re waiting for a Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, which is going to come down over the summer, and there’s the immigration bill, and there’s going to be a royal baby. There’s always going to be enough to react to to get you through the day.
The British press is much more aggressive than ours.
The British press are a group of unremitting scumbags. And sometimes they use that scumbaggery to good ends, and often not.
Whereas the American press can be too timid.
There is a strange respect for office here that [England] kind of evolved out of centuries ago. Now we have nothing but contempt for our politicians. And there has to be a kind of happy medium between the two. I do think it’s far too cozy here; the relationship between journalists and politicians here has become very counterproductive.
Sometimes the Anglo-American differences in sense and sensibility of humor gets exaggerated, but did you have to learn any tricks to succeed as a stand up in New York?
Not really. Actually, audiences tend to be more polite here in the States. People are pretty drunk in England, when it comes to stand-up pubs. So they tend to heckle a lot more. People are more refined here.
Every show is the late show in England.
Exactly. It’s always 2 a.m. somewhere. That is the mentality amongst British audiences.