John Oliver: A not so 'distinguished' speaker comes to UB

After successful first season on HBO, Oliver talks to The Spectrum about his career


John Oliver says the only distinguished thing about him is his British accent – in his first few minutes on stage at UB’s Distinguished Speakers Series, the comedian described the honor of being asked to come as “misplaced.”

And sure, Oliver’s name shows up on a pretty impressive list of past and future lecturers – which he was quick to point out. Oliver, 37, isn’t the guy who discovered the remains of the Titanic, he’s not a founder of Apple and his antics onstage were far from what the UB community saw in 2006 when the Dalai Lama spoke.

Oliver – however outgoing and outrageous – is humble. He doesn’t act like the guy who is coming off a hugely successful first season of an HBO show that amasses repeat audiences of 4 million. He’s slow to acknowledge his own success – but he barely has time to think about it. Almost as soon as the first season of “Last Week Tonight” ended, Oliver was on the road for his current standup tour, which led him to Buffalo Wednesday evening.

As the third speaker of the series’ 28th season, he put his smart humor – which covered a gamut of American idiosyncrasies and well-deserved Buffalo weather jokes – on display for a packed Alumni Arena.

After openly questioning his own legitimacy as a speaker, he told the crowd:
“Then I read in 2004 Donald Trump came, and then I thought, ‘Oh, f*** it, it means nothing.’” And after taking a jab at Bill Cosby, a previous distinguished speaker whose reputation is currently in question, Oliver said, “All of the sudden, the crown doesn’t feel quite as heavy on my head.”

His humor is sharp and his jokes bold.

His show, which returns to HBO for its second season in February, has run segments on the prison system, net neutrality and Miss America. The late-night comedy show airs Sundays and focuses on current events much like his mentor Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” which Oliver worked at more than five years.

Oliver is not UB’s typical distinguished speaker, and his performance Wednesday night was just that – a performance. Not a lecture, like the series usually offers.

He had the audience teeming with laugher the moment he stepped onto the stage amid manufactured “thundersnow,” comically mimicking the very storm that kept him from Buffalo on Nov. 18, as fake flurries fell onto his head for what he would go on to describe as the “strangest introduction he’s ever had as a comedian.” Buffalo’s weather remained his favorite punch line for the rest of the night.

“Because it’s not a good sign, Buffalo, when you hear about a weather front for the first time,” he said, before he jokingly questioned if the area was also host to “lightning tornadoes” or “quicksand fog.”

In an interview with The Spectrum before the show, Oliver was relaxed and chatty, playfully prodding to learn how bad the storm really was. He wore a casual navy button-up flannel shirt, which he kept on for his act, a far more relaxed look than what he sports on his TV show. But Oliver has a far from a relaxing schedule, even though his show went on hiatus less than a month ago. He performed in Georgia the night after Buffalo – then he was off to North Carolina for two back-to-back shows.

“I’m not a big fan of relaxation, this is kind of relaxing for me,” Oliver said before the show Wednesday. “Doing standup is a nice way to clear my head.”

It’s almost as if Oliver doesn’t realize his own fame. Even on a rescheduled date after November’s massive snowstorm canceled his initial engagement, more than 6,000 people filed into fill UB’s biggest indoor venue.

College students love John Oliver. He was the undergraduate student choice speaker. He knows college students make up a huge chunk of his audience, to the extent, he said, that if college students “went away” he’s not sure the show would be “left with much.” But he said he doesn’t cater his segments to any one type of viewer.

“I guess I’m at the stage where my top audience is just people,” he said.
“I’m just anxious to get an audience.”

But it seems like he already has one. Oliver has already taken over the social media feeds of many 20-somethings and beyond. He posts his show’s lead segments – which are usually about 15 minutes – to YouTube, leaving even a broke college student without an HBO subscription able to enjoy the Brit’s cutting humor. One of his most popular clips has passed 8.6 million views.

“Initially, it was just so people would be able to know who we were,” Oliver said of the clips.

It worked.

But Oliver seems hesitant to admit that – hesitant to admit his show was a smash. When asked what he thought about how his season went, he paused.

"I don’t know really, I don’t,” he started. “I haven’t really had time to come up for air. It went by without any visible disaster, so when you set your sights as low as that, I think anything short of a complete calamity will be a success.”

But to his dedicated fan base, that success is not so questionable. It may seem surprising a British comedian is now making a living off of taking hits at American culture and foibles. It seems like an American audience wouldn’t normally be so accepting of a Brit’s take on the country’s current events. But Oliver has eased into the culture himself; his jabs at jet skis, T-Shirt cannons and U.S. congress come with a certain understanding – he’s in on the joke, too.

Oliver, who studied at Cambridge, has lived in America for more than 10 years. He doesn’t consider what he does journalism, though he says his show does hold high value in diligent fact checking.

“We’ve had a chance to pick a lane and I’ve picked one lane my entire career,” he said.

A student asked Oliver during a question and answer session if he’d ever consider doing non-comedic news, mentioning Stewart’s recent offer to host “Meet the Press.”

Oliver said he’d never consider it.

“I could not be trusted with a sincere moment without trying to think of a joke,” Oliver said.

He’s always seeking out his next punch line, whether he’s saying life in Buffalo – the home of a “snow Armageddon” – is more impressive than life on Mars or talking about how Denver celebrates what he described as “Frozen dead guy day.” Oliver is constantly seeking to be outrageous and hilarious.

He said his team will start thinking and working on the upcoming season through January.

What can viewers expect in the new season?

“The same,” Oliver said. “And more of it.”

Amanda Low contributed reporting to this story.