John Oliver's career as lead correspondent on "The Daily Show," active standup performer and occasional actor in TV and movie comedies is quite different from the goals he had at prestigious University of Cambridge.
"I studied English in college, which seems like cheating when you're already English," Oliver says in his familiar accent over the phone in New York. But while at Christ's College, Cambridge, "I started writing sketches, realizing that's what I wanted to do with my life."
While he wouldn't normally think of performing comedy on a stage, he says, "I thought it would be a frightening thing to do, so I tried it. I also got hooked on it. Which I'm sure would be the same case with heroin."
His addiction to comedy led him to his Emmy-winning slot on "The Daily Show," host of the "John Oliver's New York Stand Up Show," also on Comedy Central; a recurring role on the NBC sitcom "Community"; several movies, from "The Love Guru" to the upcoming "The Smurfs"; and a standup career that brings him to Comix at Foxwoods in his Connecticut debut Saturday, June 4.
He describes "a comedic pedigree" at Cambridge, where he was a member of the Footlights troupe, from which Monty Python had sprung decades before.
"I thought I'd try it and I liked it a lot straight away," Oliver says of the comedy troupe. "I spent a lot more time there than on my degree, to the frustration of my tutors. By third year, I was a lost cause. I began thinking I had come there to learn comedy."
"It came out of nowhere really," Oliver says of the show. "I didn't even know they were looking for someone. I guess Ricky Gervais met up with Jon Stewart and recommended me. I came out straight away, so quickly that my stuff is still in storage in England. I came over with two bags and have rarely been back since then."
Oliver had heard of the "Daily Show. " "It was my favorite show. I watched it online and it had just started being aired in England. I'd never been to America at that point and thought it would be so remote that I'd ever get on. It all happened very quickly."
Oliver brought with him an interest in political humor and quickly flourished in a position where Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms and Rob Corddry had preceded him, especially in filmed interview bits, where his English roots came in handy.
"An accent gives you an air of authority," he says. "If you're pretending to be an arrogant newsman, it's quite useful. People mistakenly believe you have some in-depth knowledge because of your accent. And you can get away with more, either because the words sound nicer or you're getting politer than you really are."
Therefore his questions can be more and more outrageous, as when he interviewed immigration advocates and told them that his immigration experience was exactly the same.
Sometimes it's not easy to be such a jerk interviewing people, Oliver says.
"I try to keep it up most of the time. I spoke to Stephen Colbert and he was good in teaching me how to stay in focus; that you have to think about the edit. Sometimes it can be difficult to say things you know you're about to say. But if you know you'll be in edit bay wishing you'd said it, it becomes more annoying not saying it."
By now, he says, the "Daily Show" is so well known, interview subjects "know we're going to come at them there's going to be stupid questions." But because "we choose people because they have a fervent point of view," they usually agree to come on the show anyway. "And the interviews that are most contentious are the ones where they call up and ask for 30 copies for their family."
Oliver is amazed at the access the comedy show continues to get. "We have better access than we've had in the past. We're given journalist credentials even though we have no journalistic qualifications. We're invited to [political] conventions and debates even though we probably shouldn't be allowed in the same room."
As for actual journalists with whom they sometime share press areas, "usually they're really welcoming, saying they love the show until you start messing with them," Oliver says. "Then, as soon as you start annoying them, they realize no, we're not on their side, and that we're there to ruin everyone's day."
Journalists also tell him confidentially they wish they could do the kind of reporting they do on "The Daily Show," where quotes from leaders are often contrasted to things they said on video years ago that are often the opposite of what they said.
"The fact of the matter, they could do what we do, with much more ease than we do it," he says. "We do it with five guys and a stack of TiVos."
His reporting has taken him as far as London for some pre-royal wedding ridicule and as close as Voluntown last year, where he treated two people running civil campaign for state offices as oddities of nature. "Could it be I'd stumbled onto the only living example of bipartisan cooperation actually living in the wild?" he marveled.
Oliver says he fits in stand-up gigs "as often as I can, three or four times a month." He says Lewis Black recommended the Foxwoods gig. And he may well bring someone he plucked out of a McDonald's in Miami to appear on his "New York Stand Up Show," Mike Lawrence. "I'm thrilled to be in a position to give new comics a little bit of a break."
As for what he will cover in his own show here, Oliver is not specific.
"The world is changing so fast," Oliver says. "Things may happen between us talking and the gig. … In terms of changing stuff in Libya, or Donald Trump."
Ah, Trump! It was a major disappointment in the comedy world when he pulled out from the presidential race last month. "It's a disaster!" Oliver says, lamenting all the easy material that would have come from it.
"I think they were posing the question all wrong in the polls, when 8 percent said they want Trump to be president," Oliver says. "They should have asked: Do you want him to run for president? That'd get 95 percent approval.
As it happened, Trump's campaign could have dissolved in a single night of comedy, the White House Correspondent's Dinner, where the prospective campaign was ridiculed not only by the main speaker, Seth Meyers, of "Saturday Night Live," but by the President of the United States, too.
That Trump was present and scowling through much of the material, "made it even funnier," Oliver says. "The jokes were already funny. But to see his completely humorless, jowly face made it hilarious."
This despite the fact that he had already allowed himself to be the subject of a Comedy Central roast the month before.
"I think he thought that was beneath him," Oliver says of the cable event. "But when you're sitting in a room full of powerful people and even the president is destroying you!"
It was almost worth Trump's removing himself from the race. Almost.
"I need this!" Oliver declares. "It's too funny for him not to do it!"
JOHN OLIVER performs in the Comix at Foxwoods series Saturday, June 4, at the Fox Theatre at Foxwoods Resort & Casino in Mashantucket. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show are $30. $40 and $50. Information: 866-646-0609 or http://www.foxwoods.com.