The British-born comedian is preparing to take on his adopted country's new president.
John Oliver, from the West Midlands, is a US citizen now. The comedian has lived over there since 2006, when he started working with the acerbic hero of the left Jon Stewart. He won three Emmys on Stewart's late-night show, before fronting his own, Last Week Tonight, and adding a further 13 Emmys. That was 15 years devoted to the news of a country he was not from. So in December 2019 he finally became an official American. The immigration centre's welcome video? Presented by Donald Trump — a president Oliver once said was not capable of cheerfully accepting anything apart from "blow jobs [and] Nazi endorsements".
"It was like a hostage video," recalls Oliver gleefully. "[Trump] made a speech about how our traditions are now your traditions. That's not how a melting pot works! It isn't cultural annexation! The energy in that room, which had been very optimistic, was slightly deadened after being passively-aggressively threatened for two minutes in a welcome video. Then, they turned it off. And a guy said, 'This country is a work in progress, and I want us to become better now you're all here.' It was an elegant way to defuse that situation and get you back to thinking that it's not about him or the next president. You join this country because of the idea behind it — the perfect idea executed imperfectly."
Oliver is on the other end of a Zoom call from his New York home, offering the same Tiggerish enthusiasm enjoyed by the millions who watch Last Week Tonight on TV or YouTube. For reasons we absolutely do not have the space for, the actor Adam Driver once described the presenter as a "deeply weird, small small thing". But that seems unfair. If anything, with his uniform standard specs, neat dark hair and what seems like the oldest dark blue sweater in town, he just comes across as Harry Potter, all grown up but considerably happier and working in insurance.
Last Week Tonight has returned for its eighth series having been off air since November 15, when Trump was still adamant his second term was around the corner. Oliver's show is a mix of the deeply satirical, ludicrous and incredibly serious, and of course it has had to follow Trump from joke candidate to Charlottesville and beyond. Oliver was, however, off-air when the Capitol was stormed by a Maga mob of both the idiotic and dangerous.
How, I ask, would he have covered that? "I'm not sure," he admits. "But as it was unfolding, the reactions that frustrated me were people saying, 'These scenes are just unimaginable.' Which was not how I felt. It is not just imaginable — it was actively predictable. And the Joe Biden reaction that gets under my skin most is, 'This is not who we are.' It drives me crazy. If you keep having to say, 'This is not who we are', maybe the tenth time you say it you might want to question whether it is a little bit who you are. Which feeds into the larger concern with Biden: if you don't acknowledge the scale of the problem, you're not likely to provide the scale of the solution required."
This feels bold. Surely comics like Oliver, who has an almost exclusively Democratic fanbase, have to give Biden some breathing space. Is he concerned his viewers will not have the appetite to have a go at the new president yet?
"No," he says firmly. "Honestly, I'm not, because there is an appetite. I don't know many people who think Biden is the perfect answer to the situation we're in. It's just a much better answer than Donald Trump. That is not a concern of mine."
But, from Oliver's show's point of view, surely Biden will be less interesting? "I don't think so." Why not? "Because I anticipate him not addressing the scale of underlying problems we have, and that, in itself, is very interesting. What was really uninteresting with Trump was writing a show from complete despair. There really isn't much that's interesting in someone doing the cartoonishly wrong thing every time. He sucks up all the attention in an issue, whereas the issue is the important thing. Effectively, he was a human wrecking ball. But I find policies more interesting than personalities, and that is now what we will be gravitating towards."
Will Last Week Tonight just leave Trump alone then? He and his family are good for material and surely will always be featured? "Yes, unless he makes it impossible to ignore him," Oliver says with a sigh. "When he was president, there were times it was impossible to ignore what the president had just said. We'll see. But I'm really hoping he is not able to commandeer so much oxygen."
Of course, even for a topical news show, politics has been the support act in a past year dominated by Covid-19. In Oliver's show, he flits through bitesize news before a much longer focus story at the end, and his first big pandemic item was on March 2, 2020 — in front of a studio audience. Does he remember his conclusion? "Take it seriously? But don't go insane? And don't hoard masks because medical professionals need them." He also said we should be "a bit scared". He laughs. "That stands up!" He shakes his head. "The idea of saying anything to an audience is completely discombobulating now. But I remember it felt strange, because there were definitely troubling signs from around the world, but aggressive complacency in the US."
They did one more show in the studio after that, and Oliver has been presenting alone in a white-walled void — mostly at home — ever since. He can't stand testing material via Zoom and misses his team greatly.
And personally? His two "American" children with Kate — a US army veteran he met at the Republican National Convention, but who is not a Republican — are five and two. During lockdown, did they get more of a sense of what his job is? "I mean, not really. It was more just trying to explain I had to go into this room, and they could not come in. That doesn't make sense to a kid. It was very difficult. I pulled miracles to get this set up, and the unhelpful variant was little kids."
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Who could have guessed that, almost a year on, Oliver's return would, once again, be in front of a missing audience. The pandemic remains the dominant story, and when I ask if he thinks audiences still want to hear about it on his show, his volume drops considerably to what, I assume, is his dinner-level voice, not the voice on TV which, hitherto, had been performing across Zoom.
"I mean, it hangs over every subject in a way," he says, solemnly. "Aside from the virus itself, it has exposed systematic problems that existed long before it. In terms of how people feel about hearing more material about the virus? I guess I don't know."
And what of responsibility. If his team unearthed a tale of corruption at, say, the Pfizer plant, would they steer clear in case it altered confidence in the jab? "Not really," he says. "That feels like a slightly dicey hypothetical! We don't really render our decisions that way. The only time last year we felt responsibility was in that week we left the studio, thinking that there might be some value, to the extent we'd earned any trust, of saying, 'We are in some shit here. I'm a white room without an audience. Things are going to get weird for quite a while.'"
Oliver was born in 1977 to teacher parents. In the mid-1990s, he studied at Cambridge, where he was a member of Footlights; stand-up came next, before Ricky Gervais recommended him to Jon Stewart and America became his future. His style is over the top and extremely informative — imagine Basil Fawlty reading the news on very little sleep. It is a modern, wired delivery that makes his audience feel smart, but despite highlights including, as he puts it, "dry, systemic stories" about, say, coal mining, the census or maternity leave, many of his viral successes are the daftest things he does. Such as the time he did a joyful segment on people in Bolivia who dress up as zebras to control the traffic. Look it up. It's a lift.
"Once we were doing at-home shows last year, though," be begins, quietly, "when things went so dark — there was part of me wondering, 'How much are we going to be able to do very silly comedy as the death count starts rising?'" He pauses. "And the thing that was a revelation? That rat erotica painting."
Quick explainer: last April, Oliver found a TV auction from 1992 in which a man bought a painting of two rats getting it on. Oliver became obsessed and wanted to track it down, which is clearly absurd. "The collective effort it took to find this item I believe was genuinely worthless," he says. "And to inject value into it? Joy." They found it. "On a personal level, when that painting turned up, delivered by some FedEx guy early in the pandemic, dressed in a hazmat suit? I thought, 'We can get through this.' We've tracked down some rat erotica. How hard can a vaccine be?" The end result of all this nonsense was HBO donating US$20,000 to food banks.
Last month, the US TV host Jimmy Kimmel called Oliver a "beacon of truth". "Did he?" retorts Oliver, bursting out laughing. "A beacon of truth? Wow!" Indeed. Still to many, mainly conservative Americans, he is not that at all. "Everyone but John Oliver understands America is a center-right country" ran one headline last year. He is, instead, just another liberal on mainstream TV, and part of their issue is that he does not have a TV equivalent on the other side of the political spectrum. Essentially, I ask, is there a John Oliver of the right?
"Hmm," he says, losing himself in thought. "The only thing I'd take issue with there is who we're doing it for. Because we rigorously fact-check stuff, the only time opinion creeps in is towards the end. You can disagree on what you think the solution to something can be, but you can't disagree with the body of the facts we present, because they're true. Let's take our piece on facial recognition. Everything we present is accurate. Maybe you could argue it's a political choice to even think that's an issue at all. Is facial recognition a problem that needs to be constrained? That's an opinion. Has it grown the way it has? That's fact!"
This is how Oliver wins arguments — he talks, in accelerating monologues, to a point that is tricky to argue against. He won a lawsuit against a powerful coal magnate, who said he had libelled him, which is confidence-building. He also has a sense for mischief, which is a great asset for any satirical smart-arse with a hefty HBO production budget. A few years ago, for example, he went to Russia to interview Edward Snowden. He says both the US and Russian governments were angry with him, but says so with the utmost pride.
"Similarly, waiting for the Dalai Lama," he adds, whom he met in 2017, "was a moment I thought, 'What exactly do I think I'm doing here?' I'd got three different flights into northern India, with the broad idea of f***ing with the Dalai Lama."
I wonder if Oliver's excitable irreverence comes from the inevitable sense of displacement he felt when he was not American but living in America and paid to obsess over American institutions. Before he became a US citizen, he could not shake the idea that his status was not entirely in his own hands. It was a "big exhale" when it happened, but he spent over half his life in Britain, and that lack of history in his adopted home is an advantage — it still helps him look from the outside at a country whose TV comics can be rather too married to the idea and honour of their constitution.
Which is why it is unlikely he will ever come back — Britain is just another country to him, a punchline for his brand of concerned humour. Still, we have a minute left: let us, I say, do Britain. He rocks so far back in his chair that he looks half his normal size. One minute for this hot mess? He would usually give that at least half an hour on his show. How, though, does he see things here, from over there?
"The reason I was interested in trying to explain Brexit to people," he begins, "before the vote happened and in its wake, was that I wanted people who watched our show in America to understand how massively consequential this idiocy is and how it happened." He frowns. "Where do things go from here? I don't know. We just. . ." He quickly corrects himself. "You'll just have to lean back on that classic, optimistic British spirit!"
Written by: Jonathan Dean
© The Times of London