Wednesday, October 10, 2007

John Oliver is an Optimistic Curmudgeon

John Oliver’s job on “The Daily Show” is to take what’s essentially bad news – the collection of half-wits running for president, terrorism, racism, et cetera – and make fun of it. Considering that he is dealing with the same news cycle as network news programs, his first reaction to tragedy has to be to find comedy in it somehow.

“My instinct is always no, oh, that could be funny,” he says. “There’s something funny in that. Well, wait a minute, let’s just let the gravity of the reality sink in. then we can trivialize it.”

Watching the news, it’s easy to think the world is in the worst shape it has ever been. And, as the cliché goes, if you’re not upset, you’re not paying attention. But taking a historical perspective (read Voltaire’s Candide), it seems things have always been pretty terrible, and you wonder if you just need to ignore the worst of it to preserve your own sanity and trust the world will keep turning, an idea I brought up with Oliver. “You’ve just got to have some half-hopeful voice saying, let’s hope our gardens grow at the end of the day,” he says. “That’s pretty much all you can hope for.”

That’s when I brought up the idea of being an optimistic curmudgeon, a philosophy that seems to resonate with Oliver. “I think that’s the best way to be, though,” he says. “That’s the only to balance it out. There’s no point in being cynical all the time. But equally, blind optimism just seems willfully inappropriate.”

Oliver says that’s why he has always been a political comic, going back to his days in stand-up and writing for the BBC in his native England. Comedy has been his way of dealing with more serious issues (Will Kaufman wrote an excellent book about this dynamic, called The Comedian as Confidence Man: Studies in Irony Fatigue, which is now out of print). “I guess that has always been my coping strategy with the world,” he says. “If I can’t laugh at something, I don’t really know how to relate to it. That’s kind of got even more entrenched working here. Because now, when you see the news, something terrible,

I interviewed “Daily Show” correspondent John Oliver for this week’s Comedy Notes column in The Boston Globe, which you can read in the Friday, October 12 edition. We did wind up addressing the philosophy of the optimistic curmudgeon, so I thought I’d include that detail here. See the Globe for a more in-depth story.

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