NEW YORK — Is there anything remotely funny about General Motors’ handling of an ignition-switch defect linked to at least a dozen deaths?
John Oliver admits it’s tough terrain. “I don’t think there were a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, great, corporate malfeasance. This is a comic gold mine,’ ” the British comic and news satirist recalled the other day. “It’s actually pretty grim.”
And yet Oliver and the writers of his forthcoming HBO news-parody show, “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” took a whack at it last week in a test run for the program. Applying what he learned as the “senior British correspondent” on “The Daily Show,” Oliver and his fellow wits found a potentially amusing angle: the media meme, pushed by GM itself, that the company would somehow handle the unfolding debacle better or differently because its new chief executive, Mary T. Barra, is a woman and “a mom.”
“It’s so ridiculous,” said Oliver, gleefully recalling the source material, “the amount of times people mentioned that her quintessential chromosome situation was going to be a huge benefit to her while giving exactly the same [expletive] rote responses in that situation. It was really an amazing moment. It shows that a woman could give exactly as appalling a response” as any male executive.
Score one for gender parity. And score another for the Oliver twist on the news, which could vault “Last Week” to the top of the crowded ranks of TV shows making merry at the expense of the news and the news media.
Loud and loquacious, Oliver, 36, owes a debt of thanks to America’s journalists, particularly the Washington kind, for the very nice career he’s having. If it weren’t for the news media’s vapidity, cupidity, general stupidity, Oliver might still be back in his native England, doing who-knows-bloody-well what.
Instead, he’s become an almost-star on this side of the Atlantic, one of the few British comic performers to make it on American television. Oliver’s work on “The Daily Show” was so consistently sharp — check out his classic three-part series on American hypocrisy about gun control from last year — that host Jon Stewart promoted Oliver from fake reporter to fake temporary anchor when Stewart took leave to direct a movie last summer. Oliver nailed his big chance, winning over critics and keeping Stewart’s fanatically loyal fans tuned in for the two-month interim. (He’s also had a recurring role on the NBC sitcom “Community,” playing an acerbic, alcoholic British professor).
His reward: HBO hired Oliver away last fall (with Stewart’s blessing, Oliver says) and handed him his own show, which debuts this month.
As Oliver described it the other day in an interview at HBO’s midtown headquarters, “Last Week” will be quite a bit like “The Daily Show,” only once a week (Sundays at 11 p.m.) instead of, you know, daily. The resemblance to his former TV home doesn’t stop with the host, however. The new show will be run by executive producer Tim Carvell, who was the head writer and co-producer on “The Daily Show.”
But don’t expect “The Weekly Daily Show.” Oliver knows he’s at a time disadvantage. The challenge, he says, will be to pick up on stories that haven’t yet been chewed over by his old friends at “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” — as well as by Kimmel, Conan, Letterman, Fallon, Ferguson, Bill Maher, Seth Meyers and “Saturday Night Live” — by the time “Last Week” gets around to them.
“There are certain things to which you’re going to be the last visitor to the party,” says Oliver, a boyish, rangy fellow whose narrow face and shaggy mop are set off by fashionably unfashionable dark-framed glasses. “That’s going to steer us in a different direction.”
Oliver & Co. dropped a few hints about what to expect last week by releasing two videos on YouTube that parodied the Republican National Committee’s latest outreach ad to young voters. The bits were a mild hit, with one racking up more than 180,000 views.
The videos highlighted Oliver’s immersion in popular culture, as well as his political worldview. Both predated his arrival on U.S. soil in 2006 (he’d never been to America when “The Daily Show” hired him as a writer that year). He’s been talking about those subjects in his stand-up act, on his long-running podcast, The Bugle (with British pal Andy Zaltzman), and as a panelist on the BBC news-quiz program “Mock the Week.”
Don’t get him going on dull-but-important stuff like the federal estate tax; he thinks it’s a bit hilarious, and emblematic of Americans’ irrepressible optimism, that there’s no groundswell to do away with a tax break that exempts up to $5 million of wealth upon a person’s death. “The inherent hope in Americans is amazing,” he says. “They think they’re going to go out someday with a $300 million estate, and they don’t want it taxed. That’s probably not going to happen, but they believe. I come from a world that goes the other way.”
And don’t get him started — but let’s, anyway — on the foibles of the news media, which has been his wheelhouse for years.
The cable news networks, Oliver says with relish, have become like “ADD children, banging around from story to story then returning to their main story, which is where the [Malaysia Airlines] plane is. They’ve basically become like news jazz. It’s the stories they don’t tell; that’s what you’re really supposed to be listening to.”
He is equally appalled and amused by the “coziness” between the media and government officials in Washington. Momentarily turning serious, he says it strikes him as “dangerous” that reporters and sources should be so close.
“It’s not supposed to be an easy relationship,” he says. “It’s a problem. I read that book, ‘This Town’ [by New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich]. Yes, there’s a lot of gossipy trash in it, but it has a cancerous black heart at the center of it. And I do think that’s Exhibit A in the way journalists and politicians in D.C. relate to each other. . . . It’s like a bunch of nerdy teenagers saying, ‘I want to be in with the popular kids.’ And that’s terrible. [As a journalist], you shouldn’t be wanting to go to a party for any other reason than to basically ruin it. If there’s not visible distrust [among reporters and people in power] then there’s a massive problem at the heart of journalism.”
Oliver acknowledges that his comic perspective has been influenced by Britain’s well-honed class resentments. The son of school teachers, he attended “quite a rough” public school growing up in Bedford, an older industrial town about an hour north of London. He went on to graduate from Cambridge.
“There is a kind of class anger that is really hard to shake,” he says. “I remember when I first came here and American friends would say, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why do you get so gnarled up about this?’ If I meet — and I still do this — if I meet English people here, I’m instantly on the defensive if I hear something in their voice that suggests they went to private school. And I haven’t lived in that country for nearly a decade. But it’s so ingrained in me.”
Oliver performed in a BBC version of “Bleak House” as a child, but he didn’t get serious about acting or comedy until he started writing and performing in college. He found that comedy became a vehicle for “the things that you care about more,” which in his case was politics and current events. He readily cops to a liberal perspective — “I believe in the welfare state,” he declares — but adds, “I have a pretty decent level of contempt for politicians on both sides.”
Americans can’t tell the difference, but Oliver’s accent is a hybrid — part Liverpool (where his parents grew up), part Birmingham (where he was born), part distant London exurbs (where he was raised). The American equivalent, he said, would be “Pittsburgh or a little Detroit-y. Basically, dying industrial town. . . . To a trained [British] ear, what you’re hearing makes no sense. An alarm would go off if these vowel sounds came within a mile of Buckingham Palace.”
Like another British talk-show immigrant, Craig Ferguson, Oliver says he became instantly infatuated with his adopted country. He has no plans to return home. He holds a green card and is married to a former Army medic, Kate Norley, who served in Iraq (Oliver sometimes wears her dog tags under his suit as a good luck charm when he treads on “intimidating” terrain, such as the White House).
Of his own cultural learnings about America (as another British comedy import, Sacha Baron Cohen, once put it), Oliver says, “One of the laziest stereotypes that British people have of Americans is that they don’t get irony. And that has never been true and it’s definitely not true now. . . . It’s very hard to make that case when Jon [Stewart] and Stephen [Colbert] are doing what they’re doing. They’re the high-water mark for satire now.”
And thinking of a certain forthcoming HBO program, he adds, “I hope there’s a desire for more of that, too.”