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A Minute With: John Oliver on channeling rage into comedy

NEW YORK (Reuters) - British stand-up comedian John Oliver can sound downright angry at times, even though his star is on the rise.
/ Source: Reuters

NEW YORK (Reuters) - British stand-up comedian John Oliver can sound downright angry at times, even though his star is on the rise.

The 36-year-old Oliver has managed to parlay a successful stint filling in for Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" into a gig hosting a Sunday night news comedy show on HBO that debuts April 27.

But get him started on topics from the corrosive influence of money in U.S. politics, to gun control, to the massive General Motors auto recall, and you'll hear no shortage of outrage -- faux or real.

Ahead of the premiere of "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver," the satirist spoke to Reuters at the HBO headquarters about what has raised his hackles lately, his non-alpha male status, and why he feels like a 3-year-old with a nail gun.

Q: How do you explain the fact that the GM recall, which you devoted a large part of one of your test shows to, has yet to provoke any kind of broader public groundswell?

A: General Motors, that's like the fuel-injected spine of the United States, it's a Springsteen song. And they're killing teenagers. It baffles me why there's not more of a pushback against it, the fact they can get away with it this easy.

Q: How much of the humor in the show is going to be propelled by that kind of anger?

A: You don't want it just to be a diatribe every week. You don't want to be a sledgehammer every week. You want to be a scalpel.

Q: What's the key to your success with American audiences for whom British humor sometimes gets lost in translation?

A: I love it here. I married an American. Ideally, if immigration allows, I would like for this to be my home. As a comedian I think it does help if you're an outsider of sorts wherever you're from. Comedians are generally social outsiders. You want to be the person outside the party saying that party's dumb and everyone inside it is an idiot.

It helps if you come in with a self-effacing demeanor as well, both in terms of where I'm from and who I am. I mean, I'm nobody's idea of an alpha male.

Q: What's the advantage of being on HBO as opposed to a network or even Comedy Central?

A: I think you have a freer rein to do everything. I think there's basically the free-est rein that is available on international television. I think it's probably that dramatic. Not just in terms of boobs, blood and swearing, although those are the most immediately visceral. But those are things you could tire of pretty quickly. I hope that's never true.

But in terms of editorial choices, which is more important when you're doing this type of show, no one is going to tell you "no."

It's like being handed a nail gun when you're a 3-year-old and thinking, "Wow, this is amazing. Should I be trusted with this? I hope I don't aim it at my own face."

Q: Will a weekly show have less room to tackle serious issues like U.S. veterans care - even occasionally departing from the comedic format - as we've seen on "The Daily Show"?

A: Yes, also because it's unearned. I have no earned authority to talk about anything.

There was this day over the summer that I was worried about (that) happening -- and I'd said to Jon (Stewart) before I was worried about something coming up where I didn't feel like I had the authority to speak on it, and it was more emotional than it was easy to put through our regular prism.

He said, "Well, I don't think it's unearned, but even if it is, this will be the time that you earn it." And it happened. We had to do a show a day after the Trayvon Martin verdict. That was a tough day. Partly because I felt his absence a lot, the whole day and especially that night with a live audience, you feel like people are looking to him.

And I tried my hardest. We tried to write from the heart to deal with the pain. I did my best. I still think it would have been better if he was there that day. So, I need to kind of earn (it). I did that on credit.

(Editing by Mary Milliken and Leslie Adler)