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John Oliver Finds Humor In The News No One Wants To Hear About


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we're starting a series featuring interviews with Emmy nominees. They'll find out if they're winners on Monday, September 17. We're starting with John Oliver, whose satirical news show "Last Week Tonight" is nominated in nine categories, including Outstanding Variety Talk Series, Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series and Outstanding Interactive Program.

Oliver 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 typically 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 interesting. But through a combination of comedy and journalism, he makes it funny and really informative.

Our interview was recorded last March. Here's a clip from the August 19 episode in which the main story was about President Trump waging a trade war. Here's how Oliver started.


JOHN OLIVER: Trade is a subject on which our current president considers himself particularly expert.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Trade - that's what I'm going to do so good. I'll take those trade deals...


TRUMP: ...And make them so good. That's what I do. I love taking bad deals and making them good.


TRUMP: I love trade. You know, trade's always been my thing.


TRUMP: I could name 10 different forms of trade. I know every one of them.


TRUMP: Hey - the Wharton School of Finance right here.

OLIVER: Yeah, I can name 10 forms of trade. There's free trade, fair trade, rough trade, Trader Joe's. That's - what? - eight.


OLIVER: Then there's human trafficking. That's like trading for people. We'll round it up and call it 10 - Wharton School of Finance right here.


OLIVER: Trump has talked a big game on trade for decades, and he's spent...


GROSS: John Oliver, welcome to FRESH AIR, and - glad your show is back (laughter) on HBO.

OLIVER: Thank you.

GROSS: So I always imagine 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...

OLIVER: (Laughter).

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.


OLIVER: That's a pretty good guess, Terry. You've just revealed to our secret sauce live on air.


GROSS: Tell me how it really works (laughter).

OLIVER: You've just Colonel Sandersed (ph)...

GROSS: (Laughter).

OLIVER: ...Our process. That's basically it. You know, we have researchers. 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 this 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.

OLIVER: Right.

GROSS: There's usually an opening in which you, like, review the events of the week. And...


GROSS: Of course the president figures prominently in that. And there's no shortage of jokes in that opening segment about the president and Don Jr. and Jared and Ivanka. But the investigative part is usually not about the White House. How come? Like, you...

OLIVER: Well, I guess...

GROSS: ...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 (laughter) 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).

OLIVER: Often when we introduce that main story, there's quickly a sense of, and don't go. I promise.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OLIVER: I give you my word this is worth 22 minutes of your time. I promise.

GROSS: 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...

OLIVER: Right.

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.


OLIVER: Praise be, praise be.

GROSS: Yes (laughter). 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.


OLIVER: 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...

OLIVER: Oh, yes.

DRATCH: (As Wanda Jo Oliver) ...That most permissive of government agencies.


OLIVER: Wanda Jo, I have heard the word of prophecy.

DRATCH: (As Wanda Jo Oliver) Hallelujah. What did it say, my John?

OLIVER: I'll tell you.


OLIVER: 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.


DRATCH: (As Wanda Jo Oliver) Preferably in the form of cash, although we do take checks.


OLIVER: 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 seeds...

OLIVER: That's right, Wanda.


OLIVER: Please do not send us actual seeds.

DRATCH: (As Wanda Jo Oliver) ...Because we ain't interested in your seeds.

OLIVER: (Laughter) We ain't interested.


OLIVER: 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...


DRATCH: (As Wanda Jo Oliver) Praise legal. Praise our tax attorney. Praise loopholes in all their blessed loopiness.


OLIVER: Let me talk to the brothers and sisters at home. Do you have debt?

DRATCH: (As Wanda Jo Oliver) Debt be gone.


OLIVER: Do you have lupus?

DRATCH: (As Wanda Jo Oliver) A demon plague.


OLIVER: 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. Bedevil us no more.

OLIVER: Curse you, lupus. You probably didn't even know that you had lupus.


OLIVER: But you did. But you don't anymore. It's a miracle. It's a miracle.


OLIVER: It's a miracle - do not...

DRATCH: (As Wanda Jo Oliver) It's a miracle.

OLIVER: A miracle.

DRATCH: (As Wanda Jo Oliver) It's a miracle.

OLIVER: 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: (Laughter) 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 Week Tonight" on HBO. So, as you said, it's legal to say great things will come to you (laughter) if you...


GROSS: ...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 - if - 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OLIVER: 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. So...

GROSS: Why did they do that? Why did they - it's obviously (laughter)...

OLIVER: Well...

GROSS: It's obviously...

OLIVER: ...'Cause it's...

GROSS: ...A comedy sketch.

OLIVER: ...'Cause it's fun. Again, you know, we were - we sent them back things, however. 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, a 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OLIVER: And we could pray together. So we kind of got into a correspondence with people. Then we eventually had to shut it down because it would have become (laughter) 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: I remember when I was growing up, and Oral Roberts was on TV. And he'd have, like...

OLIVER: Right.

GROSS: ...A tent revival meeting and do all his healing - like, put your hands on the screen, and he'd 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 (laughter) to me...


GROSS: ...So unlike...

OLIVER: It was...

GROSS: ...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 feeling. So watching someone really commit - like, 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OLIVER: 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 - if I 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 threats really is afterlife-related, right?


OLIVER: He's going to be - have fun now. You will be dancing in the flickering flames of hell.

GROSS: We're listening back to our interview with John Oliver, whose HBO show "Last Week Tonight" is nominated for nine Emmys, including outstanding variety talk series. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with John Oliver last March. His HBO satirical new show "Last Week Tonight" is nominated for nine Emmys, including outstanding writing for a variety series.


GROSS: 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 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 actually bought ads on Fox TV, parodying 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. And then we'll talk about how you've done it. So here's a real ad that's run on Fox TV.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Catheter Cowboy) Attention, catheter patients on Medicare. I'm a professional cowboy, and I use catheters - been cowboying 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 (ph).

GROSS: OK. So that's an excerpt of a real ad.

OLIVER: Real ad - very real, painfully, painfully real.

GROSS: And here is 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.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Attention, catheter patients.

THOMAS KOPACHE: (As Catheter Cowboy) 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. 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. 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, 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 season when we wanted - where 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 a 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 realize, oh, he watches the commercials too. 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: 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 (laughter), you know? So it's not like you're being demonized by Donald Trump for...

OLIVER: Yeah, not as much as the president...

GROSS: ...Being British.

OLIVER: ...Loves Norwegians. Norwegians are the gold standard...

GROSS: That's true (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've 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.

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, like, feelings that are pretty raw for me. So the way that 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 - there is a fundamental affection to an extent for British people, Piers Morgan aside.

GROSS: (Laughter).

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, (laughter) 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, not 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 that America will correct this path.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded in March with John Oliver. His HBO series "Last Week Tonight" is nominated for nine Emmys. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. And we'll listen back to my 1996 interview with comic playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon. He died Sunday. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're doing a series of interviews this week with Emmy nominees. Let's get back to the interview I recorded in March with John Oliver, whose HBO satirical news show "Last Week Tonight" is nominated in nine categories, including Outstanding Variety Talk Series. Before launching his own series, he was a correspondent and guest host on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart.


GROSS: Let's talk about you. Your parents were from Liverpool. You didn't grow up there.


GROSS: 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 Tremoloes, 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). Also, 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.


GROSS: Did you play an instrument?

OLIVER: I did. I did. I played the viola, which is the - 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.

Now, 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, where's it - when you start being able to technically play the notes of, like, an incredible piece by Bach, like the Bach "Double Concerto," just one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, and playing it at my absolute best always butchering it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OLIVER: So it was really, really disappointing to (laughter) 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 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 (laughter) ceiling that was reinforced by concrete.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OLIVER: I was not getting through that thing. 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 (laughter) seem to merit. Even our show now, we work so much harder on (laughter) this show than is probably evident - (laughter) right? - when you watch it. And the grinding minutiae of that is sometimes some of the most fun work we do.

GROSS: 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, and I just didn't care...

GROSS: In your life? In your family?

OLIVER: Yeah. Yeah. And I just didn't feel like there were any answers that I liked coming (laughter) - 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. Is the - 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 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 were medical deaths, or were they killed, or...?

OLIVER: 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...

OLIVER: Yeah. Yeah, I think...

GROSS: ...When it comes to if 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 (laughter) - 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: 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 recorded in March. His HBO series "Last Week Tonight" is nominated for nine Emmys, including outstanding variety talk series and outstanding writing for a variety series. Our series of interviews with Emmy nominees continues tomorrow with Scott Frank, who wrote and directed the Netflix western series "Godless," and Allison Janney. After a break, we'll remember playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon, who died Sunday at the age of 91. We'll listen back to a 1996 interview with him. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.