December 31, 2014
Guests: Hari Kondabolu - John Oliver
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Happy New Year. We're going to say goodbye to 2014 with two very funny people as we continue our holiday week series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year. Later, we'll hear my interview with John Oliver. First, a comic who performed several time on the Comedy Central show Oliver used to host. Hari Kondabolu does a lot of comedy about race and ethnicity. His parents are from India. Here's a clip of Hari Kondabolu on "John Oliver's New York Stand-up Show" in 2010.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JOHN OLIVER'S NEW YORK STAND-UP SHOW")
HARI KONDABOLU: I've been traveling all over the world telling jokes. I was doing a show in Denmark last year. I don't know why.
KONDABOLU: It didn't go particularly well, not really the target demographic for this career.
KONDABOLU: I got heckled in a way I'd never been heckled before. A man got up in the middle of my show. He interrupted, and he said, hey, go back to America. Wow.
KONDABOLU: It's amazing. It's amazing because I have been told to go back to so many countries, and...
KONDABOLU: ...Never to America. I've been told Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya. Whatever country we're bombing, I'm told to go back there.
GROSS: Kondabolu also worked as a writer and correspondent on W. Kamau Bell's political comedy series "Totally Biased" on FX. Bell says Kondabolu is the comedy equivalent of a punk-rock concert that breaks out at a human rights rally. Human rights was the direction Kondabolu initially headed in. He worked as an immigrant rights organizer in Seattle while performing stand-up at night, expecting that comedy would remain a sideline. In 2008, he got his MA in human rights from the London School of Economics. He was surprised when his stand-up career took off. This year, he released his debut album called "Waiting For 2042." The title is a reference to the year that the Census Bureau projects that whites will be in the minority in the U.S. Here's an excerpt of the track "2042 And The White Minority."
(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "WAITING FOR 2042")
KONDABOLU: Here's the bigger point. Here's the bigger point, right? Forty-nine percent white doesn't make you the minority. That's not how math works, right? Forty-nine percent white is only the minority if you think the other 51 percent is exactly the same, right? It only works if you think, well, it's 49 percent white people, and 51 percent you people. That's the only way that works.
KONDABOLU: Because that 51 percent is not a united front, OK, and it's easy to find out. Just ask a black guy and a Korean guy what happens when the black guy walks into the Korean guy's store, all right. I bet you the interaction might not be pleasant. I bet you it's not going to be like, hey, teammate. How's it going, teammate? Pretty excited, you? 2042, am I right? It's not...
KONDABOLU: That's not what's happening. There's some historic tension there. It's not a united front. And some of you might be thinking, well, Hari, you're saying that 51 percent is not exactly the same, but you're assuming that all white people are the same. Yes.
KONDABOLU: No, no, of course not. I'm joking - right? - because white isn't a thing. Race isn't a thing, right? It's a social construct; it's a way to divide us. It's not real, and we know this. There used to be signs in this country that said, no blacks, no Irish, no dogs, right? The Irish weren't white; the Jews weren't white; the Italians weren't white, right? Race is a way to divide us. It's not real, and the people of color in this room, you know this 'cause when you ask your white friends what their cultural heritage is, they don't just say white. They give you a math equation.
KONDABOLU: Well, I'm a third German and a fourth Irish and one-sixteenth Welsh and one-fortieth Native-American for college applications. I mean...
KONDABOLU: ...You know how this works.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Hari Kondabolu, welcome to FRESH AIR. You have your master's in human rights from the London School of Economics, and...
KONDABOLU: Yeah, I've wasted a lot of money before I decided to stand-up fulltime, Terry.
GROSS: Well, I've sure you've made so much money in stand-up that it well...
GROSS: It well made up for it.
KONDABOLU: Have you heard my act, Terry? I can play 10 cities.
GROSS: So you got your MA from the London School of Economics in 2008, and in 2005 you moved to Seattle to be an immigrant rights organizer. Did those two worlds ever come together? Did any of the immigrants you were working with ever recognize you from, say, Jimmy Kimmel, or did you ever tell jokes about deportation, which I think is probably unlikely?
KONDABOLU: I mean, a little bit. I mean, I did talk about, you know, immigrant rights, and I talked about immigration and my parents' story. And I talked about - and I talk about it on the album, too, just the ridiculousness of Mexican immigrants being called lazy and stealing all the jobs. Like, how do those two ideas even work together?
So I tried to find ways to incorporate a lot of that. I used to do a bit where I used to read the U.S. citizenship application onstage. And I think that's part of just being over-educated and wanting to do document analysis. But I would actually, like, bring it onstage and read questions, and, you know, try - 'cause for people who don't know, it's like this is what immigrants have to go through to gain status in this country, and it's absurd and something that we take for granted as American citizens.
So, you know, sometimes that was hard in a club on a Friday night. And it's 10 o'clock, and everyone's drunk, and there's a dude onstage reading, you know, a form. It's a strange thing to read a government form in front of a bunch of drunk people. But I felt like if enough...
KONDABOLU: Which is a lot of, like, late-night comedy, but I feel like if I was able to connect with enough people, it was worth doing.
GROSS: You'd get more laughs if those forms had breasts on them.
KONDABOLU: That's something that - I will send that to - I'm sure there's a government website where I can give feedback. That's a great idea, from me and Terry Gross.
GROSS: Well, so what was funny about the forms, like, that you would read and actually, you know, think was funny?
KONDABOLU: People - like, there were questions about, like, whether you were affiliated with a terrorist organization, which is like, why would you even include this?
KONDABOLU: You know, there's a lot of things that were just relics of another era, and, you know, whether you were ever, you know, a sex worker. They don't use sex worker, obviously; they use prostitute. But whatever it is in me had me say sex worker right now to you, but - because it should be sex worker. I mean, that is the proper term.
But yeah, like, they had questions like that, which I always thought, like, let's say you were somebody who was forced into sex work. That's an awful question to have to address on this form when you're so close to something amazing that gives you so much access and power, you know, American citizenship.
So, you know, to me, like, going through these questions with people and kind of making of them, like, felt great. And for people in my audience who have gone through that process, it was probably cathartic, and for me it was cathartic because I'm like - I was thinking about my mom, and my mom's a U.S. citizen, and what her process was like and the fact that she had to go through this, you know, as an Indian immigrant, you know, applying for citizenship.
Like, you know, it felt - it was pretty great to be able to do that bit.
GROSS: Do you ever feel guilty that you're doing stand-up comedy instead of helping immigrants?
KONDABOLU: A lot. I try to get over it. I have to 'cause you can't be a part-time organizer. There's no such thing. Even if organizers are paid part time or not at all, like, they're working full time. Like, you're supporting your communities. You know, there are a lot of folks who don't even get called organizers. They're just folks in their communities who have full-time jobs and families who are doing this because it helps their community. And they're organizers, too. They just don't get called that, and they don't get paid for it.
And it's a full-time thing, and I felt like if I did community organizing part time while doing stand-up, I would be doing both a disservice. I can't - I know I organized the rally, but I can't be there 'cause, you know, I'm going to be on Kimmel.
KONDABOLU: You know, it's a TV spot. I got my tight five ready to be on Kimmel. I can't - what? - you expect me to give up Kimmel because - you know, that's not how this works. And so I felt like, you know, there was a lot of guilt, but, you know, there's also been a lot of positive feedback and people saying that my work means a lot to them, and my comedy is new, and they never thought a voice like me would exist in the mainstream.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hari Kondabolu, and he has a new comedy album, which is called "Waiting for 2042." So your parents are from India. How did their lives change when they moved to New York?
KONDABOLU: Everything changed when my parents moved to New York. Well, my father moved first. It was the late '70s. I think he spent a year in a small town in Louisiana, which for some reason he didn't tell me this for years. He eventually moved to New York, worked at a Duane Reade drugstore - I think the original one, I think, on Duane and Reade Street in New York - and did not have proper shoes, did not have a proper coat, would unload boxes in the snow and stock shelves.
I remember my father telling me this story, which is, like, this is like a typical, beautiful, like, New York story. The folks who, I think, owned it were Jewish immigrants themselves, and they saw my father was studying 'cause I guess my father was going to take an exam. My father's an echocardiogram technician now.
And they saw him studying, and, you know, he thought he was in trouble because he got caught, like, reading on the job. And he explained, like, oh, I'm trying to take this test, I'm studying, and they were so moved by the fact that he was studying that they would let him take shifts where they would hire someone else to do the work, and he would just sit in the back room and study.
And they just - and the other employees would be, like, why is Ravi not working, why is he just studying? And they would say, he's studying, all right, you mind your business, let him study, leave him in peace. And it was just - that was - you know, I hear those stories, I'm like this is beautiful, and this is what New York is.
But it was hard. You know, my father really, really struggled. And my mom - like, it was an arranged marriage. My mother was a doctor in India. And, you know, an Indian woman who was a doctor in southern India in the '70s with her own practice. You know, my mom is a pioneering figure. Like she's - there are not that many women of that era in that region of India who had that, and my mom was that.
And - but, you know, tradition is what it is, and my grandfather really wanted her to get married. And, you know, she married my father and gave up being a doctor, moved to America. It didn't transfer over and, you know, had two kids, and that was something that never happened for her.
It was hard. Like, my folks struggled. And also I think there's this assumption, especially from relatives back home, that we must be rich. You know, you're in America, you're rich. And the thing is, a lot of my parents' friends in India are retired now. My parents can't retire. Like, they have to keep going.
So it's funny because - I think because I talk about class a lot, I think there's the assumption that I'm a working-class kid and that I struggled a ton and that's a lot of what informs my perspective. And the truth is that I was a middle-class kid - an upwardly mobile middle-class kid - and I got what I wanted and I went to rich-kid schools, and I was informed by that education. And it's not, you know - which is the truth. It doesn't mean I don't have a conscience, and I don't talk about things that affect me, but that is also the truth.
GROSS: I want to play another example of your comedy. And this actually comes from a performance that you gave on the stand-up comedy show that John Oliver used to have in which he showcased stand-up comics. And this part of your act having to do with God.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JOHN OLIVER'S NEW YORK STAND-UP SHOW")
KONDABOLU: I went bowling the other night, and I saw a man pray to his bowling ball - an adult human, an adult human being pray to God for bowling help.
KONDABOLU: Please, God, please, oh, give me this moment of strength. Please, Lord, in your name, give me this moment of glory. No. No, man. God is not going to help you bowl, OK?
KONDABOLU: I think God has more important things to do than help you bowl. But then, I started thinking about how screwed up the world is right now, maybe God does have time.
KONDABOLU: Because haven't you ever had a long list of things to do for the day, and you only pick the easy things to do first?
KONDABOLU: Maybe that's what God is doing. All right, see, genocide, poverty, war. I'm going to get that seven-ten split. Here you go.
KONDABOLU: You're welcome, Buffalo. Oh, hey, Africa, sorry again for the delay. Maybe after the Super Bowl.
KONDABOLU: I'm kidding. Of course, I'm kidding. God doesn't exist. Surprise. We're adult humans here.
GROSS: That's my guest Hari Kondabolu, appearing on John Oliver's show. Are there places where you can't make jokes about there is no God?
KONDABOLU: It's funny, hearing that joke for the first time in a while. I don't tell that joke anymore because I can't stand by it. It's weird hearing it. I just stopped doing it in my act because for a variety of reasons I think I started thinking more about God after that time when I - even probably when I was doing that joke. And I think my view of God has changed a lot because, of course, you know, I question God a great deal, like any human being should. And I want to believe there is a God. I want to believe there's something. And so I stopped telling that joke. How can I say it with such certainty when I don't know and when I really want there to be a God. So...
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hari Kondabolu, and he has a new comedy album, which is called "Waiting For 2042." Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more and hear more of your comedy. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hari Kondabolu, and he has a new comedy album called "Waiting For 2042." And I want to play another track. It's actually the final track on the album. So let's listen to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "WAITING FOR 2042")
KONDABOLU: You all get the general sense of what I do, right? Some of you like it. Statistically, I'm sure some of you don't.
KONDABOLU: Some of you don't really understand the jokes, but you like clapping at the politics, right?
KONDABOLU: Some of you are white dudes dating minority women, and you have to pretend you enjoy this, like I...
KONDABOLU: I know. I've been around. I know how my audience works. I get it. But you get a general sense of what I do, so it's always interesting - right? - when I go to casting offices, when I talk to casting directors who have seen my stand-up. And they'll say things like, really funny, really unique point of view. We have a role that we think would be perfect for you. It's the role of a convenience store clerk in a deli. Can you do accents? Are you comfortable with that? What part of my act did you like, exactly?
KONDABOLU: Your skin is so beautiful. So - cocoa butter. Thank you. Cocoa butter.
KONDABOLU: Now the thing is I get how Hollywood works, right? Like, you get typecast based on your appearance, what they think you are. And the thing is if you really wanted to typecast me based on my appearance and what I have to say, there are roles that I would be perfect for. I actually made a list of those roles tonight.
KONDABOLU: Here are a list of roles that Hari Kondabolu would be perfect for if they existed in the world. The first role, of course, is the role of a young sociology professor at a small liberal arts school in Vermont who is desperately trying to stay hip, right? That is not hard for me.
KONDABOLU: That is not hard for me. This is a scene from that. Hey, hey, you don't need to cite your sources in this class. I trust you. I trust you.
Now, the second role, of course, that I'd be perfect for is the role is of a mutant created after a nuclear accident in Winnie-the-Pooh Land, a mutant that has Pooh's body, Piglet's anxiety, Owl's insomnia and Eeyore's depression, a mutant that only has one line he repeats over and over again; I'm so hungry, and I so want to die.
Now, the third role that I'd be perfect for, if it existed in the world, of course, is the role of a former radical leftist activist who is compromised and is now living a life as a middle-class, middle-aged father of three in suburban New York. Right? And here is a scene from that movie. Daddy, daddy, I want to be princess for Halloween. I want to be princess.
No. You will not be a princess because we do not believe in monarchy in this house. Do you understand me? Do you understand me, Gloria Steinem Kondabolu?
KONDABOLU: Now, you walk into your tent and you finish your quinoa and beets, and you bring your sister Bell Hooks Kondabolu out here...
KONDABOLU: ...And have her explain to me why I found a box of Monopoly in her room with the bank still in it.
GROSS: That's Hari Kondabolu from his new album "Waiting For 2042." So the part of your performance that we just heard is about how you're offered all these, like, stereotype roles and, like, what are they thinking? Do they know anything about you or your act? Why are they offering you this? So do you think, like, you will write something for yourself sometime - a TV show or a movie so that you could play a part that you wanted to play?
KONDABOLU: Absolutely. I mean, I want to write my own stuff, and, you know, it would be nice to put myself in it. But I would like to hope that there are going to be better roles offered as well and that I don't need to do everything. You know, like, I appreciate my career being somewhat DIY, but it would be nice to get some help.
KONDABOLU: I mean, certainly, like, you know, Jim Gaffigan cast me in a pilot for CBS two years ago as a vegan cashier at a vegan bakery, and I am not vegan. I'm actually a bit chubby, and I eat everything. I eat in a way - if my parents fed me the way I choose to eat as an adult, they would've lost custody.
KONDABOLU: You know what I mean? Like, I have no - I have no limitations. And so, like, that to me was like he just saw me as a funny comedian who could play this role and could figure it out.
GROSS: You first did stand-up when you were in high school, right?
GROSS: So what was your comedy like when you were in high school? Do you remember any of your really early jokes?
KONDABOLU: A lot of my early material was Indian-centric stuff, lots of accents. I used accents. I talked about my parents. I mean, it was stuff I'm not proud of, but, you know, the goal was to make people laugh and that's all - the only goal I had was to make people laugh. The idea of being true to myself or - I mean, to be fair, like, I really didn't have a self. I was 17, you know.
KONDABOLU: I had no real firm opinions at that point. So if the goal was to get the high of making people laugh, well, then mission accomplished. You know, I'm still doing it, so...
GROSS: At the risk of embarrassing yourself, would you be willing to share some of that early material?
KONDABOLU: Oh, lord.
KONDABOLU: You know, I talk about things my father would say with his accent. I don't do that anymore, obviously, but at the time it was like, it if worked, it worked.
GROSS: Why don't you do that anymore?
KONDABOLU: It doesn't - first of all, I don't do impressions well. That's not the main reason, but that should be noted, to begin with. It's hard having an accent in this country, and you are judged based on it. And I can imagine that it must be hard for my folks to work twice as hard to communicate.
And also the idea that when maybe my father says something, and he walks away, the idea that people are laughing because what he said is funny to them because of how he sounds crushed me when I thought about it. And the idea that I was contributing to that, it was hard. I've been saying this on stage.
Like, my father should be judged based on the content of his words and actions and not the accent that comes with it because he does a lot of ridiculous things that have nothing to do with his accent. And I think that's kind of how I've been approaching it. Like, they're human beings, and they should be viewed as parents and human beings and not just a series of funny sounds.
GROSS: Hari Kondabolu, thank you so much. It's really been fun.
KONDABOLU: Oh, it's been great, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: My interview with Hair Kondabolu was recording in April. His album is called "Waiting For 2042." We have an interview with John Oliver in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, continuing our holiday week series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year. This year, John Oliver began hosting a show of political satire Sunday nights on HBO called "Last Week Tonight."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT")
JOHN OLIVER: I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, wait, you're not going to really do a comic take on the death penalty, right? It's your second episode. I haven't even decided if I like this show yet.
GROSS: Oliver had been a correspondent on "The Daily Show" for seven and a half years and hosted the show in the summer of 2013 while Jon Stewart took a break to direct his movie. On John Oliver's HBO show, which returns February 8, he does long kind of investigative reports on complicated issues, issues that aren't already on everyone's radar, even issues you may have thought were boring. And he makes the reports informative as well as laugh-out-loud funny. Here's one example from June. The subject was net neutrality, the idea that the Internet should be a level playing field with all data being treated equally, whether it's coming from a big corporation or a little start-up. The FCC has been considering rules that would end net neutrality and create a data fast-lane for companies willing to pay a premium price. But the issue is sometimes discusses in hard-to-follow, technical and bureaucratic language, which is where John Oliver comes in.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT")
OLIVER: Our government looks set to end net neutrality and let these companies run hog wild. And we're just going to let them. And you know why? It all comes back to this.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It seeks comment on ways to construe additional language in section 706 and even suggests using section 230B to broaden the scope of the commission's usurped authority.
OLIVER: Oh, my God. How are you still so dull?
OLIVER: And that's the problem. The cable companies have figured out the great truth of America. If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring. Apple could put the entire text of "Mein Kampf" inside the iTunes user agreement, and you'd just go agree, agree, agree - what? - agree, agree.
OLIVER: And that's why advocates should not be talking about protecting net neutrality. They shouldn't even use that phrase. They should call it preventing cable company [bleep], because that is what it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: John Oliver, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on your new show. I really love it. Is this part of how you see your show, taking things that people might dismiss as being too boring or too complicated or, you know, not relevant to their lives and showing why it's interesting, important and how you can actually make it funny?
OLIVER: Maybe. We've kind of been drawn to things that are not being covered, really. Net neutrality is - that would be a key example 'cause that is the most important thing that is honestly too boring to care about. And yet, it is a pivotal moment in a very, very key issue. And so, yeah, that's what we're trying to use our time on at the moment, or we have been. It's been that or, you know, the death penalty or the Indian election. Nothing that makes you scream, oh, this is going to be inherently hilarious.
GROSS: The weird thing is that I learn things from watching your show. Like, I hadn't been paying attention to the Indian elections till I saw your show, and it seemed like, wow, that's really interesting.
OLIVER: Oh, that's - oh, Terry, I can take...
GROSS: But it's embarrassing for me to admit that.
OLIVER: Oh, no. I can take that from people in the street, but if you...
GROSS: It's horrible. I know.
OLIVER: If Terry Gross is saying that...
GROSS: I know. It's awful.
OLIVER: ...We're in such trouble as a nation. You're the canary in the coal mine.
GROSS: Well, you'll save us all.
OLIVER: If Terry Gross doesn't know about the Indian election, we're in serious trouble.
GROSS: Well, thanks for embarrassing me even more than I was already embarrassed. So in introducing the net neutrality piece, you said the only two words more boring than net neutrality are, featuring Sting. Do you worry that, one day, you will be a party with Sting and there will be a chill in the air, because you said that?
OLIVER: Of course. Of course. But that is the key thing. You've hit on a profound truth in comedy, there. And that is that what you can never do is then be at parties that Sting would be at.
OLIVER: And that's true of basically everyone I ever make fun of. As a comedian, you should not be in rooms where the people you're making fun of also are because you'll realize at the end of the day, they're just people. You can't risk having that kind of compassion infect your mission to attack. So, no, yeah - so my solution to that is not to curb my jokes. It's to not put myself in the same room as the consequences of those jokes.
GROSS: But that means with every year that you're doing satirical comedy, there are fewer rooms you can enter.
OLIVER: Yeah, but that's what you're supposed to be. A comedian is supposed to be an outsider. You're supposed to be outside, looking in. I don't want to be at parties in D.C. with politicians. The comedians shouldn't be there. If you feel comfortable in a room like that, there's a big problem.
That's what's so concerning about when you see journalists so comfortable around politicians. That's a red flag. There should be a kind of awkward tension whenever a journalist walks into a room that politicians are in 'cause you should have done things that have annoyed them in the past. And the same as a comedian - you're no one's friend. You should be no one's friend, other than other comedians.
GROSS: Last summer was a big summer for you because when Jon Stewart was in the Middle East directing his film, he asked you to host for him. And you were fabulous hosting the show. And that's basically - that was basically the consensus of opinion. And I just want to play a short excerpt of what I think was your first night...
GROSS: ...Hosting after Jon Stewart left you in that position.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")
OLIVER: Before Jon left, it was very sweet. He was very warm and supportive, and he actually gave me this little note here and it says, don't worry, you'll be great. That's nice, although subjective. Besides, no big news stories ever break out over the summer.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: U.S. officials acknowledge that intelligence agencies are secretly collecting millions of Americans' phone records on a daily basis.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Private calls of Americans, whether they've been suspected of a crime or not.
OLIVER: Are you [bleep] kidding me? Jon's been gone one day - one day. We had such a fun, gentle first show planned for as well. You know, a few harmless I'm-British jokes - like this is a football, not a soccer ball. We call it a football. Halfway through the show, we were going to break and have a little tea time. And then at the end of the show, I was going to fly off at the end with an umbrella. It was just a bit of fun, just a bit of summer fun. And instead, Jon Stewart is barely out of the door, and it turns out that not only is the government tracking everyone's phone calls, but that's just the tip of the [bleep]burg.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Now we're hearing it goes way beyond phone records to our Internet habits and who we email with.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The National Security Agency is building this massive new data center in Utah.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: This is a mammoth facility. The published reports indicate that it can hold five zettabytes of data.
OLIVER: Zettabytes? You've actually got to be careful with those. I think that's how Michael Douglas got throat cancer. Boom.
OLIVER: Hey, hey, he left you. Jon left you. I'm here.
GROSS: That's John Oliver last summer substitute-hosting for Jon Stewart when Jon Stewart was making his movie. So what kind of real advice did Jon Stewart give you before he left for the summer?
OLIVER: He gave me lots. He gave me lots of advice. I don't know how transferable some of it is 'cause it's so specific. You know, it helps me every day now thinking about it, you know, running my own show.
But I think there was one day, to be honest, in particular, that was very, very difficult. And it was something I'd been concerned about going in. And I'd said to him, if something really - occasionally, when something really painful happens, there are times when people just want to hear from Jon about it. And, you know, there have been times in the past when he's helped people, you know, with comedy to kind of feel some kind of catharsis through some very difficult events. And I said, I'm worried that I have no authority to occupy that position. You know, I can make fun of things, but if anything painful happens, I'm worried that it's unearned - any authority I have is unearned. And he'd said, well, now would be the time that you would have to earn that.
GROSS: I want to play your last appearance on "The Daily Show," and...
GROSS: And in this, Jon Stewart is setting up your piece. You're sitting at the desk with Jon Stewart, and he's setting you up to talk about the royal family.
GROSS: So here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")
JON STEWART: You know, it's funny, do you - I thought that went pretty well. Did you think that went well, that bit?
STEWART: I just thought it was funny. Like, did you think us discussing this was like - that we got laughs?
OLIVER: Yeah, a few.
OLIVER: Not bad.
STEWART: Do you think it's weird that we worked on this all day? This bit we did here, like - 'cause it's like, I don't know if you know this but like, John Oliver, how long have you been here?
OLIVER: Seven and a half years.
STEWART: Seven and a half years - but John, because - and we've all known this, you're a tremendously talented individual. You know that, you know we know you're tremendously talented.
OLIVER: ...Whatever you said there.
STEWART: John got his own show on HBO, which is long overdue, and we're very excited for him. But this is his - unfortunately, his last night with us. And I went - it's true. So I, today, went through this enormous - I guess your people would call it a charade of writing this [bleep] royal nut bit...
OLIVER: We're not doing the bit?
STEWART: No, of course we're not doing the [bleep]. What do you think we're doing here?
OLIVER: I thought you cared?
STEWART: No, I don't care. I don't care. You know what? There's only one British royal I care about tonight, and his name is Prince John Oliver.
STEWART: So let me show you - here's what I want to talk about a little bit. So you came to us from - I think you came from Elsberry Unlightly (ph). I don't remember the town you come from.
OLIVER: I forget as well.
OLIVER: That's offensive. That's offensive, but fine.
STEWART: It should be. But what I loved about what John brought to us was a broad range of characters from different backgrounds.
GROSS: John Oliver, you seemed to be totally thrown with the fact that this piece that you'd been writing and preparing all day was a charade, and it was basically a surprise party for you.
OLIVER: Yeah, it was very difficult.
GROSS: We could see you wiping tears from your eyes. And I thought Jon Stewart looked surprised, like he wasn't expecting you to be that emotional. And he was almost a little concerned.
OLIVER: Yeah, I think - well, the problem - I think that this is the - the moment when I fell apart was - I think he could see that I was getting upset towards the end. And he - I don't know if you can even hear it on camera, but he kind of - I can't remember - he kind of like brings me in and he said - asked me - are you OK? And I just fell apart 'cause that was just such - it was so emblematic of the way he'd been with me over nearly a decade, which was constantly checking if I was OK, helping me through things, teaching me how to do things that I perhaps should already know how to do.
You know, before he left for the summer at a time when he had no time, when he had a movie to prepare, he was so generous with, you know, giving me advice on how to run things, when there can be problems in the process, how to feel when something like this happens. He helped me with everything. He was always so generous. And so at that moment, the fact he said, are you OK - that was - I'm afraid my elegantly constructed British dam was broken.
GROSS: My guest is John Oliver. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Let's get back to the interview I recorded in June with John Oliver, whose HBO satirical news show "Last Week Tonight" premiered this year.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: You've done political satire in England as well as the United States. What are the first issues that you felt engaged with?
OLIVER: That's a good question. I don't know. I mean, I grew up in Thatcher's Britain, so it was not - it was difficult not to have an opinion when you're growing up, especially because both of my parents were state school teachers. You know, they taught in regular schools - what you call public schools. And so you kind of see the consequences of particularly rough policies there. And so, yeah, I saw my parents kind of struggle a bit under some of what Thatcher was doing. So it's hard to grow up apathetic in that particular time. She was a pretty polarizing figure.
GROSS: So how did you figure out that the comedy you wanted to do was political satire as opposed to, you know, autobiographical stand-up comedy or, you know, sitcom comedy?
OLIVER: When you first start doing stand-up, I think all you want to do is survive. You just want to leave the stage to something - with something resembling the dignity that you walked onto the stage with. And then as you get better, then you start to think, well, maybe if I've got what basic performance and writing skills I have now, it would be interesting to turn that to stuff I'm actually interested in.
So then, like, the comedy that you're capable of and your areas of interest - then, they generally collide for the first time. And so then you just try, incompetently, to talk - to use comedy to talk about something that you're passionate about. And yeah, that's a recipe for comprehensive failure for a while. But hopefully, on the other side of that is something which is much more satisfying to do.
GROSS: So you were passionate about politics.
OLIVER: I was. Yeah, yeah, I guess so. Yeah, I was pretty interested at the time. And it was also - you know, the run-up to the Iraq War was an interesting time, as well. So, yeah, I became more interested in writing, you know, comedy about current affairs.
GROSS: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think your wife is a veteran of the Iraq War.
OLIVER: She is. Yeah, she is. She is in the U.S. Army. She was a combat medic with First Cavalry.
GROSS: So do you share the political - same political point of view about the war in Iraq?
OLIVER: That is a very difficult question because I'm trying to think to what extent I'm kind of licensed to talk on her behalf. She was very young when she went to war. And I think she and most veterans at the moment of the Iraq War are having a very difficult time looking at what is happening in Iraq right now. No, 'cause she and many of them - you know, they spilled blood in that country. And to watch what is happening with ISIS at the moment, I think, is truly heartbreaking for them. You know, it's a difficult time for Iraq War veterans, this.
And, you know, America is not particularly engaged with its war or with its veterans of those wars, in particular. And I think it's very easy not to think about them a lot. But to a certain extent, I kind of - we live with that war. You know, the fact she fought in that war is part of her life. You know, it's a big part of her life. She turned 21 in that war. You know, she was in Fallujah. And it's difficult. It's not my - these are not my stories to talk about, really.
GROSS: No, that's fine. So it must be sobering when you're trying to say funny things about the war in Iraq or what's happening now in Iraq or, you know, Afghanistan or whatever 'cause it's so close to home to you, you know the real - you know your wife knows the real meaning of war, that she's been through it.
OLIVER: Yeah. And so...
GROSS: And it must be very sobering reminder that, as funny as you want to make a sketch, that, you know, it's real.
OLIVER: Well, yeah, of course. But the stakes are higher, so, you know, you need to be absolutely confident the whole time of why you're telling a joke and what that joke is. Yeah, you want to keep that in mind, you know. And it is - yeah, it's a more visceral reminder of that, you know, I guess. I actually went to - I went to Afghanistan this last summer with her. Just - in fact, it was the day after - the day after I finished "The Daily Show" for the summer.
GROSS: I can hardly think of a more relaxing way to wind down from hosting "The Daily Show" all summer.
OLIVER: (Laughter) Well, it's just - I've wanted to do it for a long time, because - and it was very hard to find the time - but I really wanted to do it because, you know, from my wife or from friends of hers or, you know, Rob Riggle, who used to work on "The Daily Show" and who was a Marine - they often talked about how much it meant just to have someone - not even if it's someone you like, in particular - just someone from back home coming and just trying to take you out of your own head for a few minutes.
So, yeah, it's kind of a - you know, comedy is a luxury at the best of times to do as a career. And it's one of the rare times you actually feel like it has a - some tangible use, where, you know, you look out at an audience of people that are just exhausted with guns in their laps, and you think, I will do whatever it takes to make you laugh. I even tased myself. I tased myself in the leg.
GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, really?
OLIVER: Someone had a Taser, and they said, do you want to tase yourself? And I thought they'd laugh if I did. And so, yeah, I tased myself in the leg, and it hurt. (Laughter) And the last thing I can remember - one of the other guys who I went over there with - I remember, as I was jolting myself in the leg - I remember hearing him shout, I thought you were smarter than this.
OLIVER: But I'd do anything. I'd do anything to make them laugh. You know, it was a privilege to be there. But, yeah, it was amazing to go.
GROSS: John Oliver, it's just been wonderful to talk with you. Thanks so much and congratulations again on your new show.
OLIVER: Thanks, Terry. It was a real, real pleasure.
GROSS: John Oliver recorded in June. His satirical news show, "Last Week Tonight," returns Sunday February 8 on HBO. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan review a collection of short stories she describes as parables about the comic futility of life. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says during this time of year, when there's a seasonal lull, she has a chance to catch up with less publicized books worthy of notice, like a short-story collection by an octogenarian writer. Here's her review of "Death By Pastrami."
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: No, it's not a posthumously published mystery novel by the late, great composer and conductor, rather "Death By Pastrami" by Leonard S. Bernstein is a collection of short stories, mostly about life in the garment district of New York City. This Leonard Bernstein knows whereof he writes. He owned and managed a garment factory. Now in his 80s, he's published his first work of fiction, making him a veritable Grandma Moses of the Garment District.
The 17 brief stories in "Death By Pastrami" possesses the rough charm of an almost bygone New York that's all about hustle and bustle, streetwise humor and bottom lines. If Damon Runyon had written about hemstitch machine operators instead of gangsters, guys and dolls, he might have come up with something close to Bernstein's tales.
The first story, called "A Guided Tour Of Seventh Avenue," sets the wry tone of this collection and introduces the uninitiated to the distinct culture of this New York neighborhood that's been on the verge of extinction for a good 30 years and yet is still trying to tough it out. Our narrator, looking around at the pushcarts and dusty lofts, says, it is difficult to explain Seventh Avenue to an outsider. How to explain civilization standing still? What the hell? I try. You want to know why there is no change? Because it takes imaginative people to effect change, and all of them have left for Asia. Do you know how long it takes to get 12 cartons of fabric up to the 15th floor of a garment center loft? In that amount of time, a manufacturer in China can sew enough dresses to close a medium-sized city.
On we readers walk, past rows of sewing machines operated by Hispanic women doing piecework, until we meet a master fabric cutter who's missing his index finger - an occupational hazard, we're told, among cutters. Our narrator dryly comments, there's an old joke that if you went to visit Local 12, the cutters' local, and didn't know where you were, you could find out quickly by shaking hands.
Entertaining as these vignettes are, there's more to "Death By Pastrami" than the anthropological delights of surveying a land that time forgot and one, by the way, cleansed of its darker history of sweatshops and labor disputes.
Bernstein has a flair for crafting parables about the comic futility of life. A stingy computer engineer in a story called "Navy Blue Forever" decides to pare down his work wardrobe to a basic blue suit and red tie until his refusal to be a slave to fashion becomes its own armor of sanctimony, turning him into a killjoy at office gatherings.
In the title story, we hear about a salesman named Fleishman who sells funerals. Our helpful narrator clues us readers in to what that job entails. You don't think of funerals being sold, but of course they are, just like encyclopedias and municipal bonds. Funeral houses print business cards, advertise their services and hire sales people. They also give discounts similar to Macy's, although the funeral houses suffer no seasonal lulls. People die, after all, at a reasonably steady pace throughout the year.
Fleishman shouldn't gets the brainstorm to trawl for business around places where people are likely to keel over and so starts prowling a New York deli, where anyone eating a pastrami sandwich is taking his life in his own hands. The fat content is enough to shut off the arterial system for a month. Blood has as much chance of reaching the heart as a car has of getting through the Lincoln Tunnel on Thanksgiving Day.
But when other funeral salesmen get wind of Fleishman's ghoulish success, they begin crowding into delis, German restaurants, French bistros and other high-caloric dining establishments putting the patrons off their food and ruining business.
So it goes. Most of Bernstein's stories end with the literary equivalent of a shrug, a distinctive New York gesture. These stories are both quaint and timeless, a fanciful addition to the literature of place, even as the place they celebrate has pretty much faded out of fashion.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author of the new book "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." She reviewed "Death By Pastrami" by Leonard S. Bernstein.
So that wraps up FRESH AIR for 2014. All of us on the show wish you a happy and healthy new year.
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