Lunch with the FT: John Oliver

Before he became American television’s satirist-in-chief, John Oliver was a comedian on the UK stand-up circuit. One of the insults hecklers regularly threw at him concerned his appearance — particularly the round glasses he wore at the time, which brought to mind a certain boy wizard.

“They used to shout: ‘You’re like a shit Harry Potter!” he says, shortly after we have taken our seats at Blue Ribbon, a sushi restaurant close to Manhattan’s Central Park. “Yes, a Harry Potter who was held back. Thanks a lot. I’ve already lost this gig and you haven’t heard my first joke yet.”

The hecklers shouted out other names, too — “David Baddiel” (he shares a passing resemblance to the writer and comedian), and “Milhouse”, a bespectacled, rather unfortunate character from The Simpsons. Oliver pretends he’s addressing a hostile crowd. “You know I’m not David Baddiel because we’re in the back room of a pub in Moseley [in Birmingham]. He’s somewhere else, isn’t he?”

These days it’s Oliver who is somewhere else. A decade after he auditioned on a whim and became “senior British correspondent” on the late-night American news satire The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (sample quote: “Yes, Jon, all British people grow up in orphanages”), he now has his own acclaimed weekly take on the news on the premium cable channel HBO.

Since it began in spring 2014, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has introduced US viewers to dodgy goings-on at Fifa, months before US justice department officials started arresting its officials on corruption charges. Another report, on controversial proposed changes to US internet regulation and “net neutrality” (“the only two words that promise more boredom in the English language are ‘featuring Sting’,” is how he described it at the time) — led to 45,000 people leaving comments on the regulator’s website in protest, crashing it in the process.

This week he captured the mood again, with his remarks at the opening of his show after the Paris terror attacks. Unlike The Daily Show, which aired on the Comedy Central channel, there are no bad language restrictions on HBO programming. “This is when it actually helps to be on HBO,” he told viewers. “After the necessary and appropriate moments of silence I’d like to offer you a moment of premium cable profanity. As of now, we know this attack was carried out by gigantic, fucking arseholes.”

As he enters the restaurant, which is on the ground floor of a hotel, Oliver is ambushed by two guests. It turns out they are pharmaceutical reps who caught a scathing segment he did on his show in February about the lengths to which the prescription drug industry goes to market its wares to doctors. But rather than yell at him or threaten to beat him up, all they want is a selfie.

After landing the HBO gig, Oliver, 38, seemed to have a makeover, with a sharp new haircut and sharper suits. Today, though, he is dressed for writing his show and is unshaven, wearing jeans, a black sweater and a New York Mets cap (a baseball team also beloved by his mentor, Stewart).

I start by asking how an occasional guest on the BBC comedy panel show Mock the Week managed to crack the US. The Daily Show job, which he got in 2006, “came out of nowhere“, he explains in an English accent that reflects his upbringing, first in Birmingham and then Bedfordshire.

“I pretty objectively failed in England,” he says. “I’d had two shows on Radio Four that had both been cancelled.” He had been on Mock the Week but “it wasn’t a particularly successful show [then]. I was doing that sporadically, keeping my head above water but not much else.” He was aware of Jon Stewart’s show, he says. “I used to watch on the internet and think: why can’t we do something like this in England?”

Oliver was recommended by a fellow British comedian who’d made a breakthrough in the US. When he got the job, he flew to New York on a Sunday and recorded on a Monday for the show, where he recognised a familiar face in the audience.

Time seemed to slow down, he remembers. “There was kind of a Matrix bullet time type-of-thing. There was a woman there and I’m thinking, ‘She looks like . . . that’s definitely JK Rowling.’ Then she came by after the show, just to say hello to Jon. I was still trying to work out what had just happened and she said, ‘Nice to meet you’ — and, ‘You look like Harry.’”

He didn’t expect to stay long in the US. “My manager had said, ‘Don’t sign a long lease; you’re going to get fired because that’s how it works in America.’” So he left his belongings in the UK. Nine years later they are still there.

Stewart’s show, with its skewering of the White House and the shouty talking heads of cable news channels, was a perfect fit for Oliver, whose turbocharged correspondent became a natural foil for the host’s role as straight man. In one memorable segment he took US gun nuts to task for their failure to admit that gun control laws could actually work (when told by Oliver that changing gun laws in Australia had eliminated mass shootings, one firearms advocate replied, “Whoop de do.”).

When Stewart took time off to direct a film in 2013, Oliver was the natural choice to fill in. Looking back, he says that even if The Daily Show hadn’t worked out, he moved to the US with the intention of making a clean break. “It was not a gamble in terms of leaving a successful career behind. There wasn’t a sense that successful English comedians would have: ‘Well, I don’t know . . . I’ve got such a good thing going here. Can I risk it in America?’” He laughs. “It was like: I have to go! There is nothing to leave.”

When we sat down our waitress filled two glasses of water, gave us our menus and left. We are ready to order but it does not look like she is coming back: she has walked past our table a couple of times but has failed to notice me desperately looking in her direction.

Oliver seems unconcerned so I ask about his background. His parents were teachers who hailed from Liverpool and moved from Birmingham to Bedford when he was six. He went to the local state school but has a clear recollection of the two private schools in the town.

The grass on the playing fields at these schools was, he recalls, “literally greener”. Unfortunately, he never got to play on it. “We were never allowed to play them at sport because I guess it was just: ‘You don’t want to see this, kids. You don’t want to see what life could be like.’ We had broken glass on our school sports field because that’s what happens.” He laughs. “But, yes, it looked so nice from outside. You pressed your face up against the railings and watched these boys with nice hair running around.”

Did he grow up in a political household? “Not really. My parents were busy rather than political. If you were in state education under the Thatcher government and the echoes that came after it, you got the rough end of that stick. It was tough to see both of them have to deal with that. They were not vocally political but it was pretty clear who they were getting screwed over by.”

I ask whether his humour was shaped by this period, and he thinks for a moment. “Class is not something that translates here [in America],” he says. “I’m more aware here and I try to be a bit more careful of the kind of chip-on-the-shoulder bit.” He pauses again. “But it probably has. It probably informs the way I see the world, in that I see the flipside of things.”

He saw another side of life at university: he read English at Christ’s College, Cambridge, but immediately felt out of place. “It was horrible,” he says, recalling the ordeal of studying medieval texts. “We’d never even done Chaucer at school so I had no experience of Old English whatsoever. When you’re already feeling out of place and that you don’t belong there, you already have an imposter mentality. Then you have a piece of paper in front of you and the eight people in your group are reading it and you’re thinking: ‘I don’t know what this means . . . I’m an idiot.’ So yes, I just felt like a fraud, academically. Not without justification.”

Socially, too, he felt out of place. “I remember a really fancy dinner in my first week. I didn’t have a gown, I’d never owned a suit before. It wasn’t like I was a Dickensian street kid but it was still so outside of my comfort zone. The master at the top of the table was talking about Latin and he said Latin should be a requirement again. I said: ‘Yes, but they didn’t teach Latin in my school. And he said: ‘Exactly’. I’m thinking, ‘OK! Well, thank you for such a warm welcome.’” Things changed when he discovered Footlights, the university’s theatrical society and the launch pad for some of the UK’s best known comedy stars. John Cleese, Stephen Fry and Oliver’s own doppelgänger David Baddiel are all former members. He also met Richard Ayoade, who went on to star in the sitcom The IT Crowd, and to write and direct films. “He was also feeling a little bit dislocated so we auditioned for some shitty little Footlights concert, and we both got in. And it was really fun. I put everything into that. I was not that focused academically but I loved comedy.”

Our waitress returns! I say a silent prayer of thanks and we quickly order some cut rolls to share: a dragon roll, which consists of eel and avocado, that she recommends, and some others with yellow tail and spring onion, shrimp tempura and spicy tuna. Being English, we also fancy some tea. “What a couple of parodies,” Oliver says.

Waiting for them to arrive, we talk about our shared affinity for Liverpool Football Club and its rocky start to the season. “I just want them to play well,” he says, wistfully. “I don’t need them to win the league. I just want . . . hope.” Jurgen Klopp, the club’s new German manager, has inspired a certain excitement, he notes. “Klopp could not have been met with more messianic fervour than if he’d rode into Liverpool on a donkey and people had laid out palm trees in front of him.”

I ask how his comedy has evolved since he started on Last Week Tonight. The programme shares some stylistic similarities with The Daily Show but the weekly format means his team can dig deeper, often devoting more than 15 minutes to a topic, and mixing comic diatribe with investigative reporting. The absence of adverts on HBO helps, he says: on a commercial channel “You’re forced to break a story up into sections because Doritos will have their say.”

These segments are released on YouTube after they have aired and attract a vast audience each week. Almost 12m watched the segment on Fifa. After Oliver’s viewers complained about potential changes to net neutrality the proposals were ultimately scrapped. Similarly, the show is credited with helping a new agriculture bill pass without the amendments that would have prevented the US department of agriculture from taking action against meat companies that pressurise poultry farmers. Is he deliberately practising comedy as activism?

“That’s not the goal,” he says, firmly. “That is a completely unintended byproduct. All we are focused on is trying to make really the best comedy show that we can and make it interesting and immediate. The after-effects and the ripples are nothing to do with us.”

Well, you brought down Fifa’s Sepp Blatter, I say, as our rolls arrive. “I definitely did not. I’m glad he’s down, if he actually is. It could well end up being like the end of Terminator 2,” he adds, conjuring a vision of the rotund Swiss administrator as an indestructible cyborg.

Oliver’s show has risen to prominence at a time of upheaval in the late night comedy ranks. This summer, after 16 years, Stewart left The Daily Show. The appointment of South African comic Trevor Noah, now almost two months into the job, sparked controversy when some rather tasteless tweets that he wrote a few years ago came to light.

I want to know what Oliver thinks of this and whether Noah was the right person to succeed Stewart. He parries the question. “If he’s got trust to win back, then he’ll do it or he won’t,” he says. “It’s not fair to say that he’s replacing Jon, because you can’t replace the best person to have done the job. The show is going to be something else.”

There have been other changes on the late-night scene. Stephen Colbert, another ex-Daily Show correspondent, quit his own Comedy Central series and succeeded David Letterman as the host of The Late Show on CBS. Yet, amid the changes, there remains a lack of women in late-night hosting roles.

“It’s ridiculous, indefensible and absurd,” Oliver says flatly. “You can’t defend it.” What explains it? “Who the fuck knows? It makes no sense. There are plenty of women who would be more than capable of doing these jobs. Not just now but over the previous 30 years.”

He is enjoying the experience of working for HBO, whose executives apparently leave him alone to create the show he wishes. “They don’t say anything,” he says, disbelievingly. “It’s the dream in terms of TV, in many ways. They give you rope and more rope and more rope . . . and then you either hang yourself . . . or you have a big pile of rope. So at the moment I’ve got a lot of rope.”

It is a clear contrast with his experience in the UK. “Working at the BBC was a nightmare because they were so concerned about the licence fee and there’s a kind of editorial cowardice around the place.” He would receive comments from managers concerned about jokes causing offence. “You can say that joke is actionable, it’s libellous, then you understand and you take it away but to say, ‘We think that’s offensive,’ that’s just subjective. There was a general feeling that they didn’t want to rock the boat.”

We have made short work of our rolls and time is almost up. Oliver has to meet his wife, Kate, a former US army medic whom he met while filming a segment for The Daily Show at the 2008 Republican National Convention: the couple’s first son was born this month.

He puts his Mets cap on to leave. I wonder if he’ll ever return to the UK. “I feel like this is my home, which is an odd thing to say about somewhere that you don’t objectively belong.”

This article was first published November 20, 2015. The author, Matthew Garrahan, is the FT’s global media editor. The illustration is by Sam Kerr.

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