The Internet features more than its share of negativity and snark—sometimes you’ve just gotta vent. But there’s plenty of room for love, too. With Fan Up, we ask pop-culture people we admire to tell us about something they really, really like.
The fan: John Oliver got his start as a stand-up comedian in the United Kingdom, but quickly transitioned from that to work in radio and TV. Since 2006, though, he’s probably been best known for his work on The Daily Show. He began as the show’s “senior British correspondent” but has become more and more important to the series’ style of humor since joining. Since then, he’s also taken several film and TV roles—including a recurring part on Community—and has co-hosted and produced the podcast The Bugle. This summer, he’ll be sitting in as host of The Daily Show while Jon Stewart takes a hiatus to direct a film. Oliver’s tenure behind the desk begins with tonight’s episode and will continue through the summer.
The fanned: British radio comedy series On The Hour, which ran for 12 episodes in the early ’90s and was a significant break for numerous British comedy heavyweights, including Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci, and Steve Coogan.
The A.V. Club: How did you first come to know On The Hour?
John Oliver: I think I must have been 13 or 14 years old, and BBC Radio 4 has quite a long tradition of written comedy that goes back to The Goon Show and Spike Milligan, which became a major influence on Monty Python. So you can kind of trace a lot of BBC radio comedy and the history of comedy in Britain through radio, which I guess is slightly unusual to Americans.
But On The Hour used to be on repeated on Saturday mornings, so I would come back from playing football, and there would be this show, which sounded exactly like the news. It had all the same production, the overblown delivery of news. There was no comic voice there; it just sounded 10 degrees elevated from the programs that preceded it and followed it, and, yet, it was complete nonsense. Like total batshit nonsense, and I just thought it was absolutely amazing. I used to tape it off the radio. Literally pressing record and play. Building up an archive of episodes—not that there were that many in the end—and I would listen to them devoutly, like some kids listen to music. Like some kids would listen to Jimi Hendrix to learn every note he’d play. I knew almost every word of them by heart.
As a show itself, you didn’t know it at the time, but it was fostering this next generation of spectacular British talent. It was run by this guy, Armando Iannucci, who would go on to do, basically, the TV version of it, which was called The Day Today. It was hosted by this guy named Chris Morris, who did The Day Today as well, then did a series called Brass Eye, and recently directed a comedy movie about suicide bombers called Four Lions.
Steve Coogan is in [On The Hour]. It’s where the character Alan Partridge was invented. It had great writers—a guy called Stewart Lee, who has become one of the best stand-ups in the U.K., and Richard Herring, his writing partner, is also very funny. So you can kind of trace so much of what became the most formative comedy of my teenage years through this one 12-episode radio show of unremitting bullshit.
AVC: Do you have favorite bits?
JO: Not really, because it’s really dense. The reason I think it would translate really well to America is that it’s complete nonsense. Yes, it sounds very English, and some of the names you’ll have never heard of, but a lot of the names they’re making up anyway. So you don’t need to know anything about it because bullshit is completely transferable. If there’s one thing that there’s a universal language of, it’s bullshit. And On The Hour is premium bullshit.
AVC: I listened to three episodes to prepare for this.
JO: What did you think of it?
AVC: I really enjoyed it; I thought it was really funny. My wife didn’t really understand what I was doing. She was like, “What is this? What’s going on?”
JO: Does that not make it slightly funnier?
AVC: It does.
JO: It’s because it sounds real. There were so many ways you could have sold it out and added comedy sound effects, but it comes from a place of being almost plausible. So when they did it on TV, The Day Today, the graphics were only 10 percent more ludicrous than was already the case on TV, so it meant that you could then watch TV news the same way.
And for us, it was way ahead of its time because TV news had not got that ridiculous in the U.K., yet. That chicken has definitely left the coop now. It was actually a projection of what news was about to become and supersede. So when you watch the news now, it is more ridiculous than what The Day Today perceived it to be at the time.
AVC: On The Hour is also parodying the whole medium of radio. That aspect of comedy as a criticism of a medium, what did you think of that when you first came across it?
JO: Well, I liked it because it was a Trojan horse. It felt quite naughty because the BBC is this kind of august institution. It is a great thing, and it is also incredibly infuriating. They were doing something that sounded like the thing that they were mocking. So the idea that people like my parents would be listening to this and not understand that this was a joke. Like with your wife, “What is this?” Has there really been a pile-up of cheese sandwiches on the M4? Because it sounds like there has been. [Laughs.]
There was no wink and they never sold it out for these half-hour, densely, beautifully produced pieces, which is, for all possibilities, obscuring that this doesn’t at all sound like a comedy show. It is all the production elements you would use in a full-scale news production. All the gravitas, but just inflated to a point that it has no gravitas whatsoever. And I think that is where it became this excitingly subversive thing because it just showed that BBC Radio 4 and everything it stood for was just a big bag of shit. [Laughs.]
AVC: Scripted radio programming is still produced over in the U.K., while you don’t see it as much in the U.S. Why do you think it’s hung on over there?
JO: I think it’s because of some of the way that the BBC is funded. There is money to do it; there is money to have quite intense production should you choose to do it that way. And also there are so many predecessors to it. Because it was the way people were invited to comedy at first: sitting around as a family listening to these classic radio programs, be it Round The Horne or Just A Minute or I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Clue. These are things that everyone would sit around and watch it together. And then you had Goon Show, which was this way-ahead-of-its-time pure anarchy, which sounds chaotic now. So then it must have sounded like the world was about to end.
Way, way ahead of its time, all that written by one guy, Spike Milligan, who kind of drove himself crazy taking on that scale of work, and it was Goons that had Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers in it, who went on to become a huge movie star. So there is a tradition going way back of British radio comedy, and I think, to some extent, that has been either replaced or protected by podcasts because it’s easier for people to do high-concept things and get it to people, but back then, you had to do it through public broadcasters.
It was much harder back then, which makes what they were able to do even more impressive. You could make On The Hour now on a Mac. [Laughs.] You wouldn’t need to learn every single skill that you would need to know to make an actual news program, which is what Armando Iannucci had to learn. He had to learn everything. How to make an actual news program—he had to be able to do that to do a stupid version of it.
AVC: How much do you know about the production process of this? They only made 12 episodes.
JO: I know. That is kind of quintessentially British, as well. It’s like Fawlty Towers. You do something perfect, then you say, “Right, that’s done now. Now let’s walk away.” It’s like leaving these perfect nuggets.
All I know about it is from reading interviews because I was obsessed with it, so you’d read interviews and work out how they cut each thing, and what kind of tools they were using—that they were literally going into the news studios of the BBC to find their music beds and sound effects, so it could sound as close to the real thing as possible. Which makes it even more funny when you’ve got Chris Morris, saying, “Arise, Sir News.” Which sounds like it could be something they would say. It feels possible. That you would have this pompous British voice saying, “Dr. Fact is knocking at the door. Someone let the man in.”
AVC: You briefly touched on Alan Partridge and Steve Coogan’s portrayal of him. That character really took on a life of its own. Why do you think that was the case?
JO: I think, as a man, Alan Partridge is something that most British people recognize. He’s this very flawed, superficially confident, yet hugely vulnerable individual. And the interesting thing is, as a character, Alan Partridge has played out in so many different mediums. Usually you get a character in comedy in one environment. Here, you see his early days as a sports journalist. Then you see him as a TV sports journalist in The Day Today. Then you see him host his own chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge, which was his own first actual comedy vehicle, and then you see his life after the chat show was gone, in the I’m Alan Partridge series, which is him living in a travel tavern trying to deal with a broken-down marriage and struggling to get back to the top. And now they’re doing a movie, or they have done a movie of it as well. So if you are of a certain age, Alan Partridge has changed as a character with you. You’ve kind of watched this man go on; it’s about as good—Alan Partridge—as character comedy gets.
AVC: You see that also with Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci working in all types of media. How influential have those guys been on your personal style of comedy?
JO: Hugely, especially Armando. He kind of showed that you could do comedy about politics, about very serious things, and still have it be incredibly silly. There were other strands of political comedy when I grew up that could be quite hectoring, certainly quite right-on, quite cool, very Thatcher bashing, very direct, not very obscure. And he could do things that were ludicrous, that would sound ludicrous and would still be incredibly stupid and yet have it be really viscerally, aggressively satirical as well.
AVC: They expanded that into The Day Today, which you’ve talked about a little bit. What did they bring to TV journalism?
JO: Well, it’s basically the same format. Like I said, it was doing exactly what you see on TV news, but doing it slightly bigger, so it still had one foot in reality and one foot in mayhem. So with complete seriousness and spectacular graphics, you’d hear about “bomb dogs.” You know, the fact that the IRA were putting bombs inside dogs and they had to make sure they covered the bottom of them or they’d just blast straight off into the air. And it seemed 50 percent plausible, because of the BBC at that time.
Sinn Féin, the kind of political wing of the IRA at that time—the BBC decided that they would let them on the air, but they wouldn’t let them use their real voices. [Laughs.] So you’d see Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness on BBC television and it would be an actor’s voice saying the exact words that were coming out of their face. And that, by any standards, is fucking ludicrous.
So The Day Today had a bit where they were talking to Steve Coogan, as an Irish paramilitary, saying, “Okay, we’re going to let him speak, but he has to inhale helium before speaking.” [Laughs.] And that was it. That little sketch was just him sucking in helium and then talking about the Irish resistance movement. It was so dumb. It is such a stupid joke, but if you lived in England at the time, it was the perfect way to point out how pathetic this policy was.
AVC: And there was an episode of Brass Eye about pedophilia, which caused such an uproar. Were you cognizant of that at the time?
JO: Yeah, but I felt, at the time, that [Chris Morris] had earned that right to play with those toys. If you are going to make jokes about something as serious and as painful as pedophilia, you had better make the best possible jokes imaginable, and they had better come from a place that you can justify. It’s almost a master class in doing comedy that is going to be unpalatable to a lot of people. I remember I was on the road. I was doing stand-up. I remember running back, physically running back from the gig in time to watch it on TV. I thought it was amazing. And then walking down the corridor the next morning to check out newspapers in front of everyone’s doors, and he was on the front of the Daily Mail. “Sick comedy. Perverted comedy on Channel 4. Outrage on television.” That was kind of the opposite of my response to it. My response was, “Wow. That was as responsible a piece of irresponsible comedy as you could possibly get.” It was a master class in comedy. And it’s still hard to watch now.
AVC: These are shows mocking the media while pretending to be a part of the media, which is similar to The Daily Show. Do you see ties between those programs, and what you are doing now on the show?
JO: I think so. This show exists in the real world, whereas that one, mostly, existed in a fictional world. You’re reporting on things in On The Hour and The Day Today that are not actually happening. There is no rapper called Fur Q, and there is not that particular MTV program that they parodied with—that did not exist. With us, we are reacting to real news events, but there’s still that idea of doing it with a 10-degree extra mock seriousness that does apply where you still raise your eyebrow just fractionally higher than they do; you inflect your voice with just slightly more sincerity than they do.
AVC: Both entities have this idea of taking something that is in reality and pushing it to its absurdist lengths. What do you find funny about that idea?
JO: In rooting it in reality, that then changes the way you look at the original thing. Because you see it as more inherently ludicrous. With the The Day Today, it was hard to watch the news after that because you’d think, “Why are you putting on that voice? Why is there some news voice?” Why is there a particular voice, the intonations people supposedly want their information transmitted through? It doesn’t make sense.
Or the graphics. Why do you need that overblown graphics sequence? What does that chart illustrate? You realize when you have those crazy jokes rooted in reality, there is no way to go back into the real world and still take it seriously.
AVC: You mentioned that you heard On The Hour when you were a teenager. That’s a time when people are really questioning the institutions they’ve been presented with. Do you remember this helping you in that process?
JO: Oh, definitely. It kind of verifies that there is something suspicious in what you’re told is an authority figure. My parents would listen to Radio 4 all day, and Radio 4, in most of its form, is fantastic. But it is pompous; there is a paternal quality to it. And it made you think that you were right for laughing at the real thing as well as the parody of it.
AVC: You yourself have done some radio and podcasting. What did you learn from this that you brought with you to those formats?
JO: Well, I did this radio series called The Department, which I wanted to sound dense and to sound like an audio cartoon, and I guess that was from loving the way The Goon Show used to sound because it was constant, dense sound effects. You could do anything. You could have anything happen on the radio; it seems like it was worth using those skills. There was this interview with Spike Milligan where they were trying to make The Goon Show a television program and someone said to him, “Do you want to do a TV show, Spike?” And he said, “Can you show me falling into a cliff and then diving into a pool of sharks, and then fighting them off with a piece of cheese on the end of a sword?” And they said, “Well, no, that’ll be too expensive,” and then he said, “Well, then I don’t want to do it. I can do that on the radio.” So that’s what we tried to do in The Department, which was this fictional government think tank that would solve a different problem every week, and then each suggestion they had, you would hear that suggestion happen.
So if an environmentalist’s a solution was to have an animal world of entertainers or troupes of performing seals doing shows about the natural world like a ballet, you could make it sound like that if you spent enough time on ProTools. You could make it sound like 1,500 seals doing an elaborate dance about the deforestation of the Amazon. It’s possible to make something sound spectacular on the radio.
So we tried that; each thing we’d try, and have some absolutely outlandish element to it, and then we would try and cast some people for real. We’d try to cast a sports commentator so that, in the midst of us doing these silly voices, there’d be one person who would actually be the real person, or a real royal correspondent. We’d try to convince them to do one thing just because you want to blur that line between what is real and what is bullshit.
AVC: You talked a little bit about comedy podcasts. How much easier has it become to throw together this dense audio material?
JO: Just amazing! It’s so much easier! It is honestly easy in a way that it used to so hard that it was prohibitive that you would either need to have incredibly expensive equipment at your disposal or spend a lot of money going to a studio and sitting over an engineer’s shoulder. You don’t need any of that now, and that’s just nothing but a good thing. On The Hour is good enough in any context, but in the context of a time where it was close to impossible to do that, it makes it even more impressive.
AVC: If you were going to pick a few ways this has influenced your work now and how it will influence you going forward on The Daily Show, how would you say On The Hour has set you on that path?
JO: It’s finding the sweet spot in the Venn diagram of seriousness and stupidity. The crossover is the place where I like comedy the most. And that is definitely where On The Hour was and, to some extent, The Daily Show is as well.
And I think [On the Hour] is on iTunes; I think it’s worth Americans looking up. If nothing else, it is an amazing artifact of some of the most important comedy in Britain in my lifetime.