John Oliver jokes that his satirical news show, HBO's Last Week Tonight, does a 22-minute deep dive on news that "no one in their right mind wants to hear about." In recent weeks, the show has covered, among other things, the Italian parliamentary elections and NRA TV, an Internet channel with NRA programming.
"We like the idea of not just regurgitating stuff people have already seen," Oliver says. "The truth is, if you dig deep enough on anything, everything is interesting. So you just have to get to the point of a story where it becomes fascinating."
Oliver, who first became known as a correspondent on The Daily Show, started his HBO show in 2014. He describes the style of his long-form, heavily researched segments as "the slowest improv you've ever seen."
On how the Last Week Tonight team puts segments together
We have researchers, we have footage producers. And they go away to look at a story and to check that it has been reported accurately, or whether the story has shifted in any way ... and whether there is footage through which we can tell the story.
Then once we feel like the basic foundations are solid, then we can kind of bring comedic writing to that process and work out how we'll tell the story — what elements of it we want to use, what kind of story arc we want to employ — and then we write jokes. So jokes come late.
On starting a televangelist church in order to demonstrate how easy it is to create a tax-exempt religious organization and legally solicit donations
The fascinating thing for us there was to try and show — not just tell — people that this was possible. It's theoretically alarming to have someone say, "And it's completely legal to do this!" It's kind of viscerally affecting when you have someone say, "Give me your money. I will cure your lupus. Give me your money. If you do, you will get more money in return. Seriously. Give me your money."
On how Oliver's audience responded to his fake church
People sent thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars to us [which were ultimately donated to Doctors Without Borders]. ... Once they sent money, we sent them letters back — the kind of letters that we had been receiving from the [televangelist] pastor that we had been in contact with over the previous six months. He had an outline of his hand, and you could put your hand on his hand and pray with him that way. So we had, I believe, an outline of my rear end, so that you could sit where I sat and we could pray together.
We kind of got into a correspondence with people. Then we eventually had to shut it down, because it would've become our entire job. The point of it was to show that the barrier of entry to this is too low and when it's this low, you can have bad actors enter.
On being an immigrant and hearing the anti-immigration rhetoric
I have this newfound love of America, because I've been here 11 years. It's my home. I have an American wife. I have an American son. ... So when people say, even to me, "Go back to where you came from" or "What gives you the right to talk about America?" ... it taps into feelings that are pretty raw for me. ...
I clearly have the nicest possible version of the toxicity of feelings about immigrants in that, like you say, I'm British. There is a fundamental affection, to an extent, for British people, Piers Morgan aside. So I don't have anything like the problems that people that don't look or sound like me have. But the kind of deep injustice of how they're treated — I can't say it doesn't personally affect me or offend me. I kind of feel it personally, because I want to be here. ...
I really love it here. I chose to be here. ... Even though I'm not a very optimistic person, I still have a fundamental faith that America will correct this path, because it has to.
Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. John Oliver's satirical news show "Last Week Tonight" is back with new episodes Sunday nights on HBO, and Oliver is back for a return visit to FRESH AIR. He moved to the U.S. from England in 2006 to become a correspondent on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." Oliver started his HBO show in 2014. He often starts the show with a comic, trenchant review of the week's news, and then he takes a deep dive into one news story - a story that you may not have been following, a story you may not have thought was even interesting.
But, through a combination of comedy and journalism, he makes it very funny and very informative. And you realize how important that story is. Last week, he did a story on the Italian parliamentary elections and the traction the far right has been getting. Last Sunday, in the wake of the Parkland school shooting and calls to boycott the NRA and NRATV, which is streamed by several big tech companies, Oliver thought it was worth asking, exactly what is NRATV? In describing it, he showed clips of NRATV shows devoted to buying guns and using guns. In this excerpt, Oliver talks about how NRATV even has a women's channel.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER")
JOHN OLIVER: Now one of the NRA's female-focused programs, "Love At First Shot,"...
OLIVER: ...Is explicitly about getting women more comfortable with the idea of owning or firing guns. And in one episode, they took a woman who was nervous about firearms and really threw her in at the deep end.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOVE AT FIRST SHOT")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And we're going...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: OK.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: ...To go straight into rifles, and we're going to do it with an AR-15.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: OK.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I know you probably heard about them on the news and...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: ...Everything else.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I hit the target.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You did.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Laughter).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: How did it feel?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Not as scary as I think I was anticipating.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Exactly. It's just this nice, light puff...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: ...Of happiness.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER")
OLIVER: A light puff of happiness. It's a little weird to describe a semi-automatic rifle the way Bob Ross describes a [expletive] cloud.
OLIVER: But once "Love At First Shot" has women hooked, the upselling begins, which does actually make sense. Industry research has shown that women will spend hundreds of dollars on accessories in addition to their guns. So you can kind of understand why "Love At First Shot" functions as a kind of QVC for firearms, showcasing products like mag loaders, targets, gun cases and handbags.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOVE AT FIRST SHOT")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: OK. So as you see here, I've got a couple of different style options for you. There are a lot of different varieties of exteriors, but a lot of them really have the same structure in terms of concealed carry.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: I never would've imagined these little neat pockets and hidden closures. Knowing that you can close it, it does put my mind at ease a bit. So it's pretty cool.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER")
OLIVER: Girl, you don't even need a gun because people are going to die when they see that bag.
GROSS: John Oliver, welcome to FRESH AIR, and glad your show is back (laughter) on HBO.
OLIVER: Thank you.
GROSS: So I know you do stories on the show that often take, like, weeks to research, but...
GROSS: ...Was this show about NRATV done in response to Parkland?
OLIVER: No, actually. We started watching NRATV back in December.
OLIVER: So we've watched almost all of it, and we were thinking this might be just, you know, an interesting bunch of material to show people - you know, showing them something they hadn't seen before. And then when Parkland happened, it slightly re-contextualized the piece from kind of here's something that you would never think of watching to here is something you may have heard about because of boycotts. And yet, when people have called for boycotts, they're not necessarily entirely sure exactly what they are calling to have boycotted. So it made it more relevant than we actually intended it to be.
GROSS: What was it like for you to watch all of the NRATV?
OLIVER: Well, when you watch all of, it kind of has a pretty profound effect on you because - what we're trying to show you is little pieces. But when you watch the whole thing, it does give you pause. It kind of makes you panic because it's just wave after wave of fearmongering. And it can make you think, oh, maybe I need to have a gun, which is entirely the point. I guess that's what was interesting. The distance that we found interesting was - you know, the NRA portrays itself as its MO being, you know, fiercely, dogmatically defending the Second Amendment, and yet NRATV really is just, to an extent, shilling for gun companies.
GROSS: And selling a lot of products.
OLIVER: Yeah, it's about saying that you need a gun, so that you will buy a gun. It's infomercial.
GROSS: So I always imagined your staff being a combination of journalists and comics. And the way it happens in my head...
GROSS: Because I'm not there, and I don't know anything about...
GROSS: ...What's really going on. But the way it happens in my head is that you have a group of journalists who do this deep dive into a story, and then a group of comedy writers who turn that story into a comedic take on - you know, using all the investigative stuff that the journalists have come up with that then the comics would, you know, transform that into a comic take on this really important story. So tell me...
OLIVER: Yeah. That's a pretty good guess.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
OLIVER: That's a pretty good guess, Terry. You've just revealed our secret source live on air.
GROSS: Then tell me how it really works.
OLIVER: You've just Colonel Sandersed (ph) our process. That's basically it. You know, we have researches, and we have footage producers. And they go away to look at a story and to check that it's been reported accurately or whether the story has shifted in any way, meaning that lots of the data that we'd be using would be out of date, and whether there is footage through which we can tell the story. Then once we feel like the basic foundations are solid, then we can kind of bring comedic writing to that process and work out how we'll tell the story, what elements of it we want to use, what kind of story arc we want to employ. And then we write jokes, so jokes come late.
GROSS: One of the things you don't do is focus every show on President Trump. There's usually...
GROSS: ...An opening in which you, like, review the events of the week. And, of course...
GROSS: ...The president figures prominently in that. And there's no shortage of jokes in that opening segment about the president and Don Junior and Jared and Ivanka, but the investigative part is usually not about the White House. How come? Like...
GROSS: ...You intentionally stay away from that.
OLIVER: Yeah. I mean, we've done it a little bit, but, yeah, the vast majority of our main stories are not about the day-to-day goings-on in the White House. And even when we approach Trump in the main story, what we'll try and do is find a framing device where, again, we can bring something slightly different to it - whether it's his relationship with the truth, or whether it's the way that the world sees him and why that is a problem. But, yeah, the majority of the time, we try to get him out of the way as early as possible, if at all, and then move on to something that no one in their right mind wants to hear about.
GROSS: (Laughter) You mean, because it's a story that seems kind of arcane, and you're going...
OLIVER: 'Cause it's...
GROSS: ...To make it interesting? Yeah.
OLIVER: Yeah. 'Cause it's interesting - 'cause, like, the truth is, if you dig deep enough on anything, everything is interesting. So you just (laughter) have to get to the point of a story where it becomes fascinating.
GROSS: Right. And my take on that is that you can make anything interesting, but you have to be the person who can make it interesting. That...
GROSS: ...Any story is potentially boring or potentially interesting.
OLIVER: (Laughter) That's true.
GROSS: It takes an interesting person to make the story interesting (laughter).
OLIVER: Yeah. So it's - that is the thing that's - we spend the most of our time on sometimes...
OLIVER: ...Trying to sell people on the idea that the subject that we've just brought up (laughter) makes them want to turn their TV off.
OLIVER: So yeah. Often, when we introduce that main story, there's quickly a sense of, and don't go. I promise - I give you my word this is worth 22 minutes of your time. I promise.
GROSS: So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is John Oliver who hosts "Last Week Tonight." It's a show of investigative comedy that takes a kind of deep dive into issues in a very funny but truly informative way. It's on Sunday nights on HBO. We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEEP BLUE ORGAN TRIO'S "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is John Oliver who first became known in the U.S. as a correspondent on "The Daily Show" and, for the last few years, has hosted "Last Week Tonight," a show of investigative comedy - which they take a deep dive into political subjects and make it funny and informative. And it's on Sunday nights on HBO. "Last Week Tonight."
Sometimes your segments - your long takeout segments end with, like, a call to action. One of my favorites (laughter) was about how easy it is to call yourself a church and get tax-exempt status.
GROSS: And then with the tax-exempt status and various other loopholes, collect money from your followers, exploiting their problems and making promises you can't keep and then pocketing the money. So you became a mega reverend and started a church called Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption.
OLIVER: Exemption, that's correct. Praise be. Praise be.
GROSS: So with your wife, Wanda Jo Oliver, played by Rachel Dratch, you did a little TV show at the end of your segment on televangelists and did something on your church, Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption. And I want to play that clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER")
OLIVER: (As himself) Praise be to all of you watching us tonight or joining us online at www.ourladyofperpetualexemption.com.
RACHEL DRATCH: (As Wanda Jo Oliver) But most of all, praise be to the IRS, that most permissive of government agencies.
OLIVER: (As himself) Wanda Jo, I have heard the word of prophecy.
DRATCH: (As Wanda Jo Oliver) Hallelujah. What did it say, my John?
OLIVER: (As himself) I'll tell you. I'll tell you, my Wanda. It says the viewers at home must plant a seed.
DRATCH: (As Wanda Jo Oliver) A seed, an almighty seed - preferably in the form of cash, although we do take checks.
OLIVER: (As himself) It can be $5. It can be $10. It can be $77. We need you to sow your biggest seed.
DRATCH: (As Wanda Jo Oliver) That's money. Don't send us seed.
OLIVER: (As himself) That's right, Wanda. Please do not send us actual seeds.
DRATCH: (As Wanda Jo Oliver) Because we ain't interested in your seeds.
OLIVER: (As himself) We ain't interested. We ain't interested. Please send us your actual money to this address at the bottom of your screen. If you do this, and this is real, great things will happen to you. And that's apparently something I'm allowed to say.
DRATCH: (As Wanda Jo Oliver) Praise. Praise legal. Praise our tax attorney. Praise loopholes in all their blessed loopedness (ph).
OLIVER: (As himself) Let me talk to the brothers and sisters at home. Do you have debt?
DRATCH: (As Wanda Jo Oliver) Debt be gone.
OLIVER: (As himself) Do you have lupus?
DRATCH: (As Wanda Jo Oliver) A demon plague.
OLIVER: (As himself) Touch your hand to the screen right now and we shall cure it. Touch your hand to the screen right now.
DRATCH: (As Wanda Jo Oliver) Curse you. Curse you, demon lupus. The devil is no more.
OLIVER: (As himself) Curse you, lupus. You probably didn't even know that you had lupus but you did. But you don't anymore. It's a miracle. It's a miracle. It's a miracle. It's a miracle. Do not delay. Call this actual number right now - 1-800-THIS-IS-LEGAL because, amazingly, all of this is. This is all legal. Call this toll-free number and plant your seed.
GROSS: That's really hilarious. John Oliver...
OLIVER: Rachel Dratch is so funny.
GROSS: That's John Oliver and Rachel Dratch on an episode from last season of "Last Week Tonight" on HBO. So as you said, it's legal to say great things will come to you (laughter) if you do this, if you pay the money and everything. So how did you find out what you could say?
OLIVER: I guess the fascinating thing for us there was to try and show, not just tell, people that this was possible. Because it feels, you know, it's theoretically alarming to have someone say and it's completely legal to do this. It's kind of viscerally affecting when you have someone say, give me your money. I will cure your lupus. Give me your money. If you do, you will get more money in return. Seriously, give me your money. And people sent it in, no tax obligations. It was kind of showing that you could hack into this system and everything was allowed. So yeah, people sent thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars to us.
GROSS: Why did they do that? Why did they - it's obviously a comedy sketch.
OLIVER: Well, 'cause it's fun. You know, we were - we sent them back things. Once they sent money, we sent them letters back, the kind of letters that we'd been receiving from the pastor that we'd been in contact with over the previous six months. He had, you know, an outline of his hand. And you could put your hand on his hand and pray with him that way. So we had an outline, I believe, of my rear end so that you could sit where I sat and we could pray together.
OLIVER: So we kind of got into a correspondence with people. Then we eventually had to shut it down because it would have become our entire job. But yeah, the point of it was to show that the barrier of entry to this is too low. And when it's this low, you can have bad actors enter. So that was why.
GROSS: So what did you have to do to become a church?
OLIVER: We had to just register as a church. I believe we did it in - Texas, I believe.
GROSS: So what did you do with the money you collected?
OLIVER: We gave it to Doctors Without Borders.
GROSS: And did people know you were going to do that?
OLIVER: No. We could have kept it. That's the thing. We just didn't want it. So we gave it to - yeah - to them because they could do more with it than we could.
GROSS: So what did you get in the mail in addition to money?
OLIVER: We got a lot of things that I probably can't say on NPR, Terry. So your listeners can only imagine the - there's almost - almost everything you can't really say on NPR. So we got, I believe, like a three-foot wooden dildo. It was an artisan dildo, yes. Yes, we did get that. We got some bobbleheads. People sent us so much garbage. There was lots of pictures of me and Rachel Dratch. We had a whole room, at one point, filled with the kind of detritus of offerings that people had sent to the church. It was an amazing thing to witness. It was really fun.
When I was a kid, if you could send something to a show and then they would send you something back and then you could be involved in something, it was really fun for me. So like getting into a tangible relationship so that people could be actively involved in the joke, that their involvement would help bolster our point. It was a really fun thing to do.
GROSS: I remember when I was growing up and Oral Roberts was on TV and he'd have, like, a tent revival meeting and do all this healing like, put your hands on the screen. He put his hands toward the camera, so it would be as if you could put your hand on his hand. And you do something similar like that in the bit that we just heard. And so, like, he's doing a tent revival. And I'm, like, a Jewish kid growing up in an apartment building in Brooklyn. And the whole thing just looks, like, so different to me, so unlike anything in my neighborhood.
OLIVER: Sure. It was - watching it - getting glimpses of it in England, it was kind of this curiosity of wow, look at this. Honestly, it was just look at this level of enthusiasm. You know, I don't come from a country that has a great deal of like visible demonstration of feelings. So watching someone really commit - the Anglican Church in England is a very dour, monotone, like, you mumble your prayers and then you return to the holes that you came out of.
OLIVER: And - whereas like the quintessentially American enthusiasm of faith was already fascinating. But again, like, the point wasn't so much that. The point was more the toxicity of seed faith because it preys upon people who cannot afford it. Like, the idea that you want to just make a gamble, send money to a pastor, maybe my lupus will go away - that doesn't feel benign to me, but it is certainly less insidious in my mind than when they're directly targeting their message at people that do not have money.
So they're saying, are you, you know, drowning in bills? Best thing to do - ignore those bills, send me money. Money will come back to you. So at that point, you are targeting the weakest, most-vulnerable people, people with escalating medical bills. And that feels profoundly wrong to me. And so that outrage was what we were building our stupidity on top of.
GROSS: Were you threatened or harassed by anyone within any of those churches or any of the leaders of those churches?
OLIVER: I mean, I think the big threat really is afterlife-related, right?
OLIVER: It's going to be, have fun now, you will be dancing in the flickering flames of hell. But we were in a six, seven-month correspondence with this one pastor, Robert Tilton. So he, you know, because we realized, oh, if you send him money, he'll send you something back asking for more money. So then you send him more money, and then he'll send you like little prayer clouds made out of velvet and a little sachet of oil to anoint it with. And then you - he asks for more money, so you'll send him more.
So we just wanted to keep - months and months and months we were getting these letters from him with all these crazy little tasks that we could do for and with him. So eventually, at the end of that process, we called him up to say, hey, just so you know, we have been involved in this correspondence with you. We're a TV show. And, you know, to an extent, the tone of the conversation changed a little bit from that point.
GROSS: So here's another episode I want to ask you about. Last year, you did an episode on coal in which you talked about Bob Murray, who owns a large coal company called Murray Energy. Before the broadcast, his lawyer sent you a cease-and-desist letter. After the broadcast, the company sued you, HBO and Time Warner for defamation. So on your second episode of the season, you announced that a few days earlier the judge had said he's going to dismiss the suit. But then you said - but it's not really all over yet. So what's the status of the lawsuit?
OLIVER: Yeah. So the judge has said that he plans to dismiss it. So it's in the process of being dismissed. And until it is fully dismissed, I can't talk about the intricacies of the case however much I badly want to. Every bone in my body is screaming out with desire to tell you about it. But we kind of want to let the process go all the way through until it's fully over, at which point we will tell everybody about what happened because I think it is an illustrative story of just how dangerous it is to have people launching these kind of lawsuits. Because it's fine for us because we can fight back and win. If he sues local newspapers, as he has done, it's harder for them to fight back.
GROSS: So I understand you can't talk about the lawsuit, but I'm wondering what kind of legal team you have on the show because it seems to me there's lots of stories where somebody might sue you even if it's just a harassment lawsuit.
OLIVER: Yeah. Well, that's - exactly. But so we absolutely have a legal team. And we also - to any company that we talk about, we're in contact with them throughout most of the process of us writing it. So, you know, we want them to be involved in it because we don't want to get anything wrong, you know, for obvious reasons - partly legal and partly just you don't want to build an argument on sand because it will just collapse. So, you know, we're in regular contact with the companies that we talk about. And we were in regular contact with the - all the coal companies that we talked about. And he was one of them. And then he was particularly aggressive before the show even started.
GROSS: My guest is John Oliver. He hosts the series "Last Week Tonight" which is shown Sunday nights on HBO. After a break, we'll talk about the satirical commercials he placed on Fox News hoping the president would see them. And we'll talk about Oliver's early life before he became a comic. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "THE QUINTET PLAYS CARMEN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with John Oliver. His HBO series "Last Week Tonight" is now in its fifth season. He satirizes the week's news and then takes a deep look into one story in a way that's both really funny and informative. He moved to the U.S. from England to become a correspondent for "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" back in 2006. When we left off, we were talking about "Last Week Tonight."
So I want to give another example of you doing something related to the story that you're following but doing it in the real world, not just in the confines of the studio. And this is really hilarious. I mean, you've been trying to slip information into Trump's mind knowing that he watches Fox TV and that he often, like, tweets things that he's just heard on Fox. So you're - you actually bought ads on Fox TV parroting an ad that often runs on Fox. And so to set this up, I just want to play the real catheter cowboy ad or at least one of the real catheter cowboy ads that's run on Fox, and then we'll play the way that you parodied it.
GROSS: And then we'll talk about how you've done it. So here's a real ad that's run on Fox TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Attention catheter patients on Medicare - I'm a professional cowboy. And I use catheters. Been cowboying (ph) for 25 years. I've broken 14 bones, had two concussions and a punctured lung. I know pain. And I don't want any more of it, especially when I cath.
GROSS: OK, so that's an excerpt of a real ad. And here's...
OLIVER: Yup, real ad.
OLIVER: Very real. Painfully, painfully real.
GROSS: (Laughter) And here's the John Oliver "Last Week Tonight" ad, or at least, one in a series of ads. And this one is about health care policy. And, again, it's kind of geared to an audience of one. It's geared to President Trump to slip real information into his mind as he watches Fox News.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Attention catheter patients.
THOMAS KOPACHE: (As character) Hi. Me, again. I'm a professional cowboy, and I use catheters. Been cowboying for 25 years. And there's two things I know. I don't like pain when I cath. And health care is a complicated business. Everybody knows that - literally, everybody.
KOPACHE: (As character) Also, if my premiums go up and subsidies go down, I'm going to wind up paying more. That's basic math there, fella. That's like replacing my catheter with a garden hose.
KOPACHE: (As character) I don't want that. I do not like pain when I cath. The point is, if that happens, millions of folks like me might get real angry, which is worth thinking about if you're the sort of person who really likes being popular. You get that, right? Right? You get that.
KOPACHE: (As character) Right?
GROSS: OK, so that's the parody ad from "Last Week Tonight." So tell us the backstory to that.
OLIVER: Well, it was - I think it was our first story of last year - of last season - where we wanted - when we felt like we had to talk about Trump's relationship with the truth before we talked about anything else that year because it felt like there'd been a seismic shift in the way that we were going to collectively live our lives in America. So yeah, the end of that was realizing that he was receiving a huge amount of information from early-morning Fox News programming, which is not the kind of place you ideally want someone getting information that they will then act on.
So this is a guy who has access to the best information available, and he's choosing to get it from these three circus clowns on the couch. So then we found a clip of him on Air Force One with the commercials from Fox News blaring loudly in the background. And we realized, oh, he watches the commercials, too.
OLIVER: So at that point, we felt this is the best way to try and get to him - is that you can become part of his morning briefing now. That's what's so egregious. "Fox & Friends" has always been a ludicrous program. But they have a huge responsibility now because they have the president's ear. So when they pass on misleading information or poorly framed data, it's going to have a real-world impact. So what we wanted to do was try and slip information into him when he's at his happiest and most relaxed, which is when he's zoning out to "Fox & Friends."
GROSS: So was Fox willing to run these ads?
OLIVER: Yeah, they ran them.
GROSS: So do you have any indication of whether the president actually saw your catheter cowboy ads?
OLIVER: (Laughter) I don't. That is a good question. I don't have...
GROSS: Wouldn't you like to know?
OLIVER: I don't have - I would love to know. I will say that his actions would indicate that he didn't see them or (laughter) if he did, he disregarded the information because his actions on health care so far would not suggest to me that he'd seen that ad, absorbed its contents and applied that to his health care plans.
GROSS: OK. So we haven't spoken since Donald Trump was elected president. Were you surprised by the outcome?
OLIVER: I was a little less surprised than perhaps I thought I would be. I mean, I'd watched the Brexit vote earlier in the year, which had been kind of turbocharged by some of the same, you know, social issue baiting and misinformation being spread. And so I was kind of so profoundly disappointed by that decision that as the election night results came in in America, I could - my muscle memory was kicking in of, I think I know how this story plays out. So yeah, I was less surprised than maybe I thought I'd be.
GROSS: As an immigrant, how is the anti-immigrant rhetoric affecting you? And I don't - Americans love Brits, you know? (Laughter) So...
GROSS: It's not like you're being demonized by Donald Trump for being British (laughter)
OLIVER: Yeah, not as much as the president loves Norwegians.
GROSS: That's true.
OLIVER: Norwegians are the gold standard.
GROSS: (Laughter) I know.
OLIVER: ...For completely benign reasons, I'm sure. I can't think what it is about a Norwegian which is particularly attractive.
GROSS: But I wonder what - how being an immigrant is affecting how you're hearing the anti-immigration rhetoric.
OLIVER: Well, I guess I've - I guess, like, the really honest answer to that is it probably hurts more because I have been through the immigration system. So I have a slightly more detailed understanding of some of its flaws than the average American naturally would have because there's no need to go through it. Also, you know, I have this kind of newfound love for America because I've been here 11 years. It's my home. I have an American wife. I have an American son.
But the sense of whether or not you belong here - I feel like this is my home, right? So when people say, even to me, go back to where you came from or, you know, what gives you the right to talk about America? - despite the fact it's my home - it taps into feelings that are pretty raw for me. So the way the immigrants are being treated is - I guess what I would say is I clearly have the nicest possible version of the toxicity of feelings about immigrants in that like you say, I'm British. You know, we've - there is a fundamental affection, to an extent, for British people, Piers Morgan aside.
OLIVER: So I don't have anything like the problems that people that don't look or sound like me have. But the kind of deep injustice of how they're treated - I can't say it doesn't, like, personally affect me or offend me. I kind of feel it personally because I want to be here. I really love it here. I chose to be here. And I love it here now. You know, I love it here even though the country is kind of at its worst in recent years in terms of its attitude towards immigrants. And I would still make a case for people coming here. That's the crazy thing. I guess I still - even though I'm not a very optimistic person, I still have a fundamental faith America will correct this path.
GROSS: I'll tell you what. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is John Oliver. And his show "Last Week Tonight" recently started a new season Sunday nights on HBO. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NAOMI MOON SIEGEL'S "IT'S NOT SAFE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is John Oliver, who first became known as a correspondent on "The Daily Show." And then a few years ago, he got his own show on HBO called "Last Week Tonight." It's a show of kind of investigative comedy in which he takes deep dives into stories in a very funny, satirical way. But you come away learning a lot.
Let's talk about you. What were you like as a child? And did you watch a lot of TV and movies and listen to a lot of comedy?
OLIVER: I did. I watched a lot of TV and listened to a lot comedy. It was my absolute favorite thing. So yeah, I was utterly obsessed with it.
GROSS: So what did you watch, and what did you listen to the most?
OLIVER: Well, when I was a little kid, there was - I'd watch everything on TV from, like, Jasper Carrott, who was a comedian from the city was born in, Birmingham. So he sounded a bit like me. I thought he was really funny. And then radio comedies - the old radio comedies like The Goons, "Hancock's Half Hour." And then eventually, I really fell in love with what Armando Iannucci was doing. He had a radio show called "On The Hour" that was fantastic with Chris Morrison, Steve Coogan.
GROSS: And he's the creator of HBO's "Veep."
OLIVER: That's right. But yeah, I kind of, like a sponge, just imbibed basically anything that resembled comedy throughout my childhood.
GROSS: So your parents were from Liverpool.
GROSS: You didn't grow up there. But they're from there. So were they partial to the Beatles? Did you grow up with a lot of Beatles?
OLIVER: Yes, of course (laughter). Of course, the Beatles and all the other Liverpool bands, you know, The Tremeloes, Gerry and the Pacemakers - yeah. Lots of - that whole Liverpool sound echoed around our house.
GROSS: And did you grow up loving it or grow up thinking, that's my parents' music - I'm staying away from it?
OLIVER: Actually, I loved it (laughter). There were other parts of my parents' music that I definitely took a hard turn away from. But I absolutely loved the Beatles.
GROSS: What did you take a hard turn away from?
OLIVER: Barry Manilow.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK.
OLIVER: I couldn't really see the point in Barry Manilow (laughter). Or, you know, no kid should be listening to their parents' Barry Manilow CDs and going, this guy gets it. This guy is singing about my life.
GROSS: So your mother was a music teacher. Did you play an instrument?
OLIVER: I did. I did. I played the viola, which is, you know, the slightly larger violin. I played it kind of all the way through my childhood. The thing that I found frustrating about it was that the better and better you get at it, the more incredible music you potentially can play. And that is when you realize how bad you are at it. So I - the better I got at it, the more frustrating I found playing it because I realized that I could not make the music sound the way I wanted to make it sound. And it was so infuriating because you just feel so impotent.
You know, there were girls that I played with that they also - when they played the violin could make it sound just spectacular. And I knew if I practiced for the rest of my life I would never be able to make it sound like that. So it was that weird situation of as I got kind of good at it the more and more I wanted to smash it into a wall.
GROSS: So what was the music you were comparing your own playing to? Was it chamber music?
OLIVER: Yeah. Yeah. Like, you know, when you start being able to technically play the notes of like an incredible piece by Bach or like the Bach Double Concerto - just one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written - and playing it at my absolute best, I always butchering it. So it was really, really disappointing to kind of feel that the better I got, it felt like the worse I actually was.
GROSS: Did you have more patience for comedy, you know, for working and working on...
GROSS: ...A sketch or on jokes?
OLIVER: I definitely did. I still do now. So I can't really square those two other than that I think there was some part of me that realized with playing music that there was a hard - there was a glass ceiling that was reinforced by concrete. I was not getting through that thing.
OLIVER: And with comedy, I don't know. I don't know if it was feeling like, oh, I can break through each of the, like, stages of progression here. I feel like I can get to the other side. I feel like I can do this. I don't know if it was an innate, deeper sense of confidence. But I've always been willing to really grind out work with comedy and, you know, put far more effort into it than necessarily it would seem to merit. Even our show now, we work so much harder on the show than is probably evident when you watch it. And the grinding minutiae of that is sometimes some of the most fun work we do.
GROSS: You know, when you put it that way, I'm thinking how what you do is really like the opposite of improv because...
OLIVER: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...You don't have to, like, fact-check improv.
OLIVER: Yeah (laughter).
GROSS: ...And have a team of lawyers to make sure you won't be sued and do a lot of research. Yeah.
OLIVER: It is. You're right. It is the polar opposite of improv. Or it is the slowest improv you've ever seen.
OLIVER: Not so much yes, and. There's, well, hold on. Maybe yes, but actually, this situation is a little more nuanced than it initially appears.
GROSS: Do you still listen to chamber music?
OLIVER: Not much. Not much. That Bach double is still, I guess, my favorite piece of music in the world. I was got - so I was kind of emotionally attached to that as well because when my uncle died, that was the music that was played at his funeral when I was, like, 15. And so I was immensely emotionally connected to it because I was devastated by his death. And so that was what was even more frustrating when, eventually, I was in a situation, like, 18 months later where I could play the music. I couldn't make it sound the way I felt it deserved to sound. That's what was so heartbreaking.
GROSS: Yeah. I really understand that.
OLIVER: Do you play? Do you play anything?
GROSS: I played piano as a kid. I had piano lessons. And I experienced what you did in the sense of just being incredibly frustrated that I couldn't possibly play what I was hearing and liked.
GROSS: And I couldn't - I just couldn't figure out how to bridge that gap. And the sheet music that I was getting from my teacher was, like, nothing that resembled what I actually listened to and enjoyed. And I had no idea how to get those sounds. And...
GROSS: ...Which is a tribute to how bad I was because so many people are totally self-trained. Do you know what I mean? And, like, they don't need any teacher at all, and they could just sit down and play it. But I knew I couldn't.
OLIVER: It's incredible. Yeah. You see people play by ear and play, like, with real flair and feeling. And I just couldn't do it. It was just a mechanical process of, I could technically play the same notes - the correct notes in the right order, but I just couldn't transpose any kind of feeling into my fingers.
GROSS: So let's take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is John Oliver. He hosts the HBO Sunday night series "Last Week Tonight," which is often called investigative comedy because they take deep dives into stories but put a really comic slant on it. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is John Oliver, who first became known as a correspondent on "The Daily Show." For the past few years, he's hosted his own Sunday night HBO series, "Last Week Tonight," in which he reviews comedically the news of the week and then takes a deep dive into one story. And you always come away both laughing and learning a lot of new stuff.
Did you go to church a lot when you were growing up?
OLIVER: I did until I was, like, 11 or 12. And I just didn't believe in it. There were too many - there were some bad things happening then.
GROSS: In your life?
OLIVER: And I just didn't get...
GROSS: In your family?
OLIVER: Yeah. Yeah. And I just didn't feel like there were any answers that I liked coming from the church - that I went to, anyway. I don't want to say that was reflective of every church. But yeah, we went as kids. And, you know, there were kids at school that died. And my uncle dying was really devastating to me. And I just didn't feel like - when you asked, like, a hard question and you were kind of brushed off with, well, it's, you know, God's will, that kind of knocked me out of it. You just think that's - if that's true, then I want nothing to do with this. Like, you just can't say that it's God's will that, like, these kids at school die for no reason. That's just not a good enough answer. Like, you got to wrestle with it a bit more than that.
GROSS: Were these kids friends of yours?
OLIVER: Yeah. I knew them, yeah. It was just - yeah - it was just like a sequence of really sad, awful events and it just...
GROSS: Were they medical deaths or were they killed?
OLIVER: Some. Some were medical, out of nowhere. Some were killed. It was just awful. And so it's hard. Like, that's the time when you're looking for some kind of answers. But the answers that I got were such garbage that I said to my parents, I'm out; I'm not doing this anymore.
GROSS: Were they OK with that? Because sometimes when you're 11 or 12, you don't have that much autonomy when it comes to whether you're going to church or not.
OLIVER: Yeah. I think by the time I said I was out, I was kind of - I might have been 13, 14, maybe a little older. I can't remember. And they were - I think they were - yeah - not thrilled with it, but there was other things that I did on Sunday morning. Like, I could go to a drama class or something. They wanted me to just do something, which is fair. You know, don't just sleep. So I did other things on a Sunday morning that was not church. And yeah, I think I was pretty firm about it. I was not that rebellious as a kid, but I was really done with church in a pretty big way. And I think they could probably feel that this wasn't just a petulant tantrum. This was more, there's nothing here that is helping me get through what I'm going through.
GROSS: So this might be too personal. But, you know, a lot of parents feel that they should expose their children to religion, whether the parents believe in it or not, so the children will have a choice. They're welcome to reject it as they get older, but at least they'll have the option. Do you want your child to - your child, I think, is, like, 2 or 3 right now.
OLIVER: He's 2, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. Do you want to expose your child to church or to faith, or are you not going to?
OLIVER: That's a good question. I guess I would be fine with him trying it. I'll take him to whatever faith he would like to try out. I'm fine with taking him along to it. At the moment, I'm just trying to introduce him to avocados, let alone institutionalized religion.
GROSS: How's he doing with the avocados?
OLIVER: Actually, not bad. Not bad. If he takes to Christianity the way he's taking to avocados, he might be a priest. But yeah, I don't know. I actually haven't thought about that yet. But I guess I would not - I would not lead him directly to it. But if he wants to wander towards one of them, I'm happy to say, sure, let's - we can go and see what this is like if you fancy.
GROSS: So President Trump is planning a military parade. Your wife was a U.S. Army medic in Iraq.
GROSS: How do you feel about a military parade?
OLIVER: Well, I'm not thrilled about the idea of a military parade because, you know, we don't need one. So I don't think the intentions for that parade are particularly good. You know, if it was a military parade to honor people who've served, that's one thing. But I don't know if that's the reason that he wants to have one. I think it's more like a series of phallic objects going past him. He's like, look, I can use all of these. Look at the stuff that I've got. The reasons for it are the worst possible. But yeah, I - you're right. My wife was in the military. So I find some of his glib statements about the military utterly infuriating.
GROSS: So one of the things coming up for you, you're going to be doing one of the voices in the new animated film version of "The Lion King."
GROSS: What character are you doing?
OLIVER: I'm Zazu. I'm the bird, Zazu.
GROSS: So will you be doing - like, are you going to use your voice or like do a totally different character voice?
OLIVER: I really appreciate the implication that there is degrees of my performance, Terry.
OLIVER: I'll be using my voice. I'm not going to Daniel Day-Lewis myself. I've not lived as a bird for the last six weeks. No. It's going to be some version of my voice. Yeah, that's what I did so far. I'm sure we're going to have to go back and record some things but...
GROSS: Oh, you've done it already?
OLIVER: I've already done some, yeah. It was incredible fun.
GROSS: Well, it's so great to talk with you again. Thank you so much for coming back to our show.
OLIVER: Oh, you're welcome, Terry. It's always fun to talk to you.
GROSS: John Oliver hosts the HBO series "Last Week Tonight" which is shown Sunday nights. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we remember comic and comedy club founder Barry Crimmins. He died last week at the age of 64. In the '90s, after coming out as having been abused as a child, he became an activist trying to stop pedophiles operating on the Internet. We'll listen back to our 2015 interview with him and his friend, comic Bobcat Goldthwait, who directed a documentary about Crimmins. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIETER SCHOEMAN, VESSELIN GELLEV, LONDON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA AND DAVID PARRY'S "DOUBLE CONCERTO IN D MINOR FOR TWO VIOLINS, BWV 1043: VIVACE")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIETER SCHOEMAN, VESSELIN GELLEV, LONDON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA AND DAVID PARRY'S "DOUBLE CONCERTO IN D MINOR FOR TWO VIOLINS, BWV 1043: VIVACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.