“Trump is a useless dildo.” | Armando Iannucci interviews John Oliver

Armando Iannucci talks to American TV host John Oliver about why voting for Donald Trump is like eating broken glass, the role of comedy as journalism – and why we could end up being ruled by a right-wing octopus

AI: Do you wake up just thinking: “Please not Trump today. Please God, no!”

JO: Yes, in every way. Not just as someone who works in comedy, but also as someone who is a human being. Normally with presidential holidays, things go quiet. Of course, that doesn’t apply here. You just think, “Oh, he’s going to spend a couple of weeks in New Jersey… but he has access to his phone, doesn’t he?” None of us are on a break. The child still has access to a tambourine.

AI: He needs his own personal hurricane that follows him, and just wipes out all phone communication wherever he goes.

JO: That really is everyone’s only hope at getting a full night’s sleep, I’m afraid. When he has all communications knocked out, at which point everyone can exhale and say, “Right, we all need to go to sleep – NOW!” That’s the problem. Our relationship with technology now means that news alerts on your phone are generally hard to escape. So you can be in almost any situation, with family or friends, and your phone buzzes. And there’s a non-zero chance that it’s the beginning of the end.

Our relationship with technology now means that news alerts on your phone are generally hard to escape

AI: With news alerts, do you have a particular one for when it’s a Trump thing? Like a high-pitched scream? Or the noise of a traffic accident?

JO: That would probably be a good way just to kind of sift them out. If your phone could somehow learn to make different noises. One is “Don’t worry, it’s just a celebrity death. Roger Moore died, it’s fine. That doesn’t matter.” And another which is yelling at you: “I’m afraid Pyongyang have done a launch!” That’s basically the scale. From Roger Moore dying, to everybody dying.

AI: And how do you try and find other stuff to talk about on your show, then?

JO: We tend to try and protect the main story from his kind of daily/hourly erratic behaviour. But normally as the days go by, that stuff ends up getting completely destroyed. It happened just this week. We had something ready to go on Friday, and then we just waited, inevitably thinking “Here it comes”. And then – BANG! He decides to pick on football players.

Last Week Tonight... With John Oliver
Last Week Tonight... With John Oliver

AI: I keep reading these pieces which say he’s very Machiavellian. Do you think that picking on football players is really because health care has tanked? It’s a deliberate distraction tactic.

JO: Well, that’s ascribing a great deal of methodical thought to him, which I’m not sure is quite warranted. I don’t think he’s a chess player. I’m not sure he’s strategic so much as he is constantly interested in self-preservation.

AI:He isn’t a chess player but he probably buys lots of chess sets. Ivory ones.

JO: I am in no doubt that there are some gaudy-looking chess sets in his house that are completely untouched.

I’m not sure Trump is strategic so much as he is constantly interested in self-preservation

AI: All made of ivory and dead tigers.

JO: And polar bear teeth.

AI: So he can actually say to people who come round: “Do you know, I’m a chess player?”

JO: Yeah. “I’m a chess player, and that’s a polar bear tooth.” “How does that piece move?” “I’m not really interested in that.”

AI: “I’m not interested, and don’t touch. Don’t touch the pieces.” Someone asked me the other day, how do you describe him? I was at a screening in New York, and thought, “I have to be very careful here because I’m in someone else’s country… but, he’s a dildo.” I think that’s what he is. I think people vote for him for their own satisfaction rather than other people’s satisfaction. To pleasure themselves, rather than each other.

JO: I mean, that certainly sounds great. But, y’know, a dildo is a practical object which is built to give others pleasure and which delivers upon what it promises to do, and I’m afraid that’s where your comparison falls apart. He’s a dildo with no particular interest or capability to bring you to orgasm.

AI: Yes, it calls itself a dildo, but it’s just a small piece of wood. In the shop there’s a little piece of paper saying: “This is the Best Dildo Ever. You won’t believe how good this dildo is.”

JO: Many people have faith and belief in what he’s capable of, but are obviously not willing to risk splinters.

AI: In fact, a lot of them say, “Despite the splinters, I’m still using it.” There is this hard core of support for him still, and it is a massive proportion. You can throw anything at them. Do you actually think, as you’re doing a Trump tirade, that this isn’t going to change a single person’s mind?

JO: Oh, sure. Of course! But I don’t know if it’s about changing people’s minds so much as doing the thing you love. Comedy helps in a way that feels meaningful. But writing something meaningful is also tricky because lots of what happens is so empty of thought at his end, it sometimes takes a lot of effort. I think that the easiest thing to do at the moment is just to narrate chaos.

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.

AI: It’s almost like the public are turning to people like you to do the job of journalism, to outline the facts, because he tends to cover them in so much smokescreen.

JO: That’s why I have no interest in interviewing him, and I never have. The problem with talking to him is that you’ll say something which absolutely demands pushback and correction, but he hasn’t stopped talking. He’s still going. At which point the person interviewing him has a really tricky choice to make, which is: do I go back to that first thing and hold him to the fire for the rest of my 20 minutes and go all in on this, or do I just try and keep up with him? And I don’t think trying to keep up with him really works because he’s literally talking faster than he’s thinking. And he’s not talking that fast.

AI: He doesn’t do dialogue. It sounds like he’s speaking to a reporter, but he’s not, is he? He’s sort of conversing with himself so there’s no way in. He’s in this kind of bubble of his own spoken thought. He has this habit of starting one sentence, then starting another one, and another, so he has about five different sentences on the go at once, y’know.

JO: Yeah, it’s halfway between a full unedited interior monologue and freeform jazz, because the little front notes return to recognisable themes. It kind of makes sense coz it’s like he’s riffing. He’s like a verbal clarinet.

AI: Do you think people will get bored?

JO: The one thing he’s terrified of is probably boring people, so he would rather disgust you, terrify you, inspire you, shock you, but he’s incapable of being boring, and not just because of the situation he’s in. The “Rocket Man” thing that he said about Kim Jong-un would be, by any rational metric, a very dangerous thing to say. He just threw it out to the crowd because he knew they’d like it. And they did.

AI: Now he’ll probably go around saying, “I came up with that phrase, Rocket Man”.

JO: That’s right.

AI: And it’ll be a great court case between him and, I dunno, Bernie Taupin. Which would be fun. How do you find dealing with Trump supporters?  There was a large female vote for Trump, a middle-class vote, an educated vote… It’s almost like politics doesn’t work anymore. You put up anyone who is in any way conventional as a politician and they will just be torn to pieces by the electorate for being political or the establishment.

Trump doesn’t do dialogue. He’s sort of conversing with himself so there’s no way in

JO: It feels like we’re drowning. You’re just trying to keep your head above water rather than thinking about what the future of swimming will look like. I think part of Trump’s appeal was a complete break from what people have become sickened by. But what that means going forward, I have no idea.

AI: It’s spreading. You’ve seen the vote in Germany, but in the UK, there’s the Farage factor and now the Jacob Rees-Mogg factor. The people are just lashing out for anyone who’s the most inappropriate person to have. I sometimes wonder whether we’ve just got bored with every political idea and thought, and we’ve run out of words. We’ve used up everything.

JO: I think there might be something in that. There’s always been a drive to want to change, to want something new. But this is so wildly concerning because it is actually the person you’re meant to be electing, yet it’s someone who really has no concept of how to actually do the job. So it’s like saying, “I’m bored of all the food I’m eating so why not try some broken glass? Maybe that’ll be interesting”.

AI: “Or the splintery piece of wood that Trump supporter has been using repeatedly.”

JO: It’s almost like we’ve forgotten what reality is.

AI: Well, this has got depressing.

Last Week Tonight... With John Oliver

JO: Look, this is the perfect distillation of the writing process. We go, “Oh, that’s funny! What he said is really funny! Oh, this is funny as well.” Then, “Hold on a second, this is all meaningful in an appalling way. This isn’t amusing anymore.”

AI:“I’m going for a walk… Get me a robot to write this. I don’t wanna write it anymore!” That’s what will happen next. People will decide that it’s human beings who are the problem in politics and we should stop electing them because so far they’ve been disappointing.

JO: Exactly. Elect a robot or that German octopus that can predict World Cup games. Maybe try that.

AI: Yes. And then we discover it has extreme right wing views. For some reason. Which up until now it could only keep to itself, being an octopus in the sea, but now that it’s been given a public platform…

JO: When you ask leading questions, it turns out it’s an absolute arsehole. “Do Jews bear some responsibility for the Holocaust? Oh, octopus, come on!”

AI: Well, there we are. I think we’ve arrived at our metaphor. I’m sorry to depress you on one of your days off.

JO: That’s fine. I’ll just go and take a walk. I’ll just do a full Reggie Perrin into the river. I look at the river every day, thinking, “I think Reggie had it right.” I just don’t quite have the courage of his convictions.

AI: “Day five of the comedian John Oliver’s disappearance, and rescuers have today said they have not yet abandoned hope of finding him…” Then: “His body was found at the bottom of the sea, alongside the bodies of Samantha Bee, Seth Myers…”

JO: He is basically satirising himself a decent percentage of the time anyway, so I’m not sure he needs to fire or deport us. He just makes us redundant.

Last Week Tonight… With John Oliver is available weekly on Sky Atlantic