Like any proper Englishman, John Oliver appreciates a nice cup of tea and a good laugh. Born in Birmingham and raised in Liverpool, Oliver studied literature at Cambridge University before turning his sights to a comedy career. He made an auspicious debut at the 2002 Edinburgh Festival and spend the next few years working in stand-up. Soon after, Oliver became a fixture on the British TV program Mock the Week and the radio series The Department. In 2006, he moved to New York to take a full-time correspondent position on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, for which he earned an Emmy in 2009. Beyond his Daily Show duties, Oliver made his film debut in the Mike Myers feature The Love Guru and signed up for recurring cast duty on the NBC sitcom Community. He's also the host of the Comedy Central series John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show, soon to start its second season. He spoke to us from the Big Apple last week.
Where do you find the talent for John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show?
Lots of them are pretty well known in comedy. Maria Bamford is a hero of mine. And some are people I've seen at gigs. One guy, Mike Lawrence, is very new and just fantastic. It's a combination of known comedians and new acts that we can give the opportunity.
Does making the show make you yearn for your old stand-up days?
I still see stand-up as my job, to be honest. Even though I've been on the Daily Show for nearly five years, at the back of my mind stand-up still feels like my default job. I know Jon Stewart feels the same way. And if he feels that way, having basically built a television institution in his name, you know it goes deep.
Do you think stand-up is still one of the hardest jobs in entertainment?
I don't think it's the hardest, but it's certainly the most direct. It's the way you have to confront failure in its most immediate, visceral sense. I think the consequences of stand-up are more immediately obvious than in any other kind of entertainment. You certainly fail and fall the hardest.
Who were your comedy heroes growing up in England?
Lots of American comedians, I guess, because they pioneered stand-up. So I loved Richard Pryor. There were definitely English comedians I loved. People like Armando Iannucci, Stewart Lee.
Any Canadian faves?
I really enjoyed Canadian comedians when I was 12 years old. I loved those Bob and Doug McKenzie albums. I know most of them off by heart.
Simon Cowell, Piers Morgan etc. Why are there so many British people on American television?
Wow, you lead with Simon Cowell. That is your totem of Brits appearing on American television, is it [laughs] If Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan are your icons of British people on U.S. television, I guess that America still likes being treated badly by British people.
Why is that?
I don't know. I guess that somewhere deep down inside them, America still respects the sound of words being pronounced correctly. Against all their historical better judgments, there is a pull from the motherland.
What was your research to play Prof. Ian Duncan on Community?
There is no research (laughs). The role just requires me to be a drunk man with serious psychological problems who happens to speak in a very similar voice to me. I don't Daniel Day-Lewis the process, to be honest. I don't go deep into the portrayal. I just turn up and try and be funny.
What are your recollections of your film debut in The Love Guru?
Yeah! A little slice of Canadian movie-making there. Working with Mike Myers was amazing. I used to have a picture of him from Wayne's World on my bedroom wall. I did not mention it to him.
Did that experience make you want to do more films?
I don't really have time. I can't really take the weeks and weeks it would take to do a movie, because I write on the show as well.
What was it like providing the voice of Vanity Smurf in the upcoming Smurfs movie?
That was a very tough process. I painted myself blue and wore a white hat, and I shrunk myself for the role. It's a very dark portrayal that I brought to the character of Vanity Smurf. When you hear my little squeaky voice, you will hear the pain as much as you will hear the laughter.
Describe your daily routine for The Daily Show
We have a writers' meeting at 9 a.m. Jon comes in and we talk about what we might do. Then we split off into assignments and write and redraft and redraft. It's not so much reading the newspaper in the morning as it is mainlining cable news almost every waking moment of the day, which is about as mentally healthy as it sounds.
The strangest story you've covered to date?
I've been all over America in search of whack jobs. Probably the strangest place was halfway up the side of a mountain in North Carolina where a guy was living off the grid. We had to walk up the side of the mountain with these increasingly angry cameramen to film this guy and his self-made hut. That was as close to having a sense of the American frontier as I've felt.
Do you feel like an American by now?
No, I don't. For a start, I refuse to sound like them. I'm taking a sonic stance with my accent. I don't feel like an American, but I do have a green card and I would like to stay. I suppose I feel residentially an American, but in my heart I'm still a Brit.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show debuts April 2 on The Comedy Network.