John Oliver knows from discomfort. In 2006, he moved to America to join one of television’s most beloved shows—The Daily Show with Jon Stewart—where his job entailed harassing strangers on the street. He also had to perform stand-up for an entirely new audience and eventually host a televised showcase for it on Comedy Central. But all of that experience ultimately served as prologue to his greatest challenge yet—taking over as host of The Daily Show this summer.
Jon Stewart has temporarily departed from the program in order to direct his first film, Rosewater. Before leaving, however, he entrusted Senior British Correspondent Oliver with the keys to the kingdom. It’s not only a huge honor, but a huge responsibility. The Daily veteran is learning the hard way that there are a lot more expectations when you’re behind the desk for the whole show, rather than three-minute increments.
As the fourth season of John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show begins on July 26, the comic and host opened up to Co.Create about not fearing failure, what he learned from Stephen Colbert, and leaving your comfort zone without losing your mind.
You have to do stand-up quite a long time before you learn how to do it well. It was probably years before I was confident enough in stand-up that I was able to talk about the things I wanted to talk about, the way I wanted to talk about them. Normally when you start off, your mood is dictated by the audience’s response afterwards. Then as you get better, you start to take ownership of your experience a bit more and think, "Actually, I’m pretty sure I’m going in the right direction, even if something went horribly wrong tonight."
It might not be a comfortable experience to do something, but you can become more comfortable in it over time until it’s second nature.
The thing I was the most nervous about [in joining The Daily Show] was the sit-down interviews and the man-on-the-street interviews. What I did was I watched a lot of Stephen Colbert’s unedited interviews and watch how he handled situations. I could see him and his mind working out how things were going to go. He was working out the edit in his brain as he went along, so in watching him, you start to realize how you can both be in the moment when you’re talking with someone and also have one eye on what you need to get for the overall concept of the piece. I would watch him hammer at a point to make sure that he had what he needed to get the moment he wanted.
I’m not really much of an actor, so when I started on The Daily Show, I was just trying to adopt the faux authority of a newsperson. Having a British accent definitely gave me a sonic leg up on that because there is a faux authority to the British accent in and of itself. So I think it was just about saying everything with 10% more emphasis and 15% more of an arched eyebrow.
This summer, it’s felt so physically strange to be sitting behind that desk and to be having actual conversations with people. My training is generally making fun of people in interviews, so having an actual human conversation is not something I have a great deal of experience in. My instinct before has been to lash out at everything anyone says at any point, and you need to curb that and have an interesting talk with someone. That was intimidating at first, but its something I’ve really enjoyed.
Stand-up comedy seems like a terrifying thing. Objectively. Before anyone has done it, it seems like one of the most frightening things you could conceive, and there’s just no shortcut—you just have to do it. There’s no real way to learn how to do it other than through your own failures, so you just have to fail, fail, fail, fail less, fail slightly less, fail slightly less. Then succeeding is not necessarily the next point—you just want to fail to a non-humiliating degree, which becomes its own success. Then you just try and minimize your failures.
You don’t really know when stand-up material is TV ready; it’s just at what point you’re willing to let it go and not work on it anymore. I’m not sure there is a point at which you think: And that is finished.
I definitely pace a lot. For The Daily Show, Jon usually throws around an American football, or what you would call a football, backstage a little bit. The only thing that changed in the show since I’ve started hosting is that I kick a soccer ball. I kick a soccer ball back and forth, just to take my mind off things. Other than that, it’s just relentless pacing.
I don’t know if I really did prepare to take over The Daily Show. There was no Rocky montage sequence, running through a butcher’s market punching a steak and getting oranges thrown at me. I guess I prepared over seven years working here. I tried not to think too much about it. Then we moved the taping of the stand-up show forward, and we were shooting the week before I took over. As it became clear I was going to have to do it, I was concerned. "Oh boy, that seems like a lot to take on over a couple of weeks." But I think it worked out, because I didn’t really have time to think about anything. In comedy, you tend to overthink everything, and to sometimes have that inclination taken away from you is not a bad thing.