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John Oliver guest hosted The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in June 2013. His new HBO show, Last Week Tonight, premieres Sunday. (Getty Images for Comedy Central)

Where Jokes Go To Die, And Other Observations From Comic John Oliver

Apr 25, 2014

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British comedian John Oliver made a name for himself as a correspondent for Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where he spent his time lampooning the media and the politicians on it.

Now, as sometimes happens with an actual star reporter, Oliver has his own show. It's called Last Week Tonight and it premieres Sunday on HBO.

He joins NPR Steve Inskeep to discuss mocking the U.S. with an English accent and why the White House Correspondents' Dinner is where jokes go to die.

Interview Highlights

On Daily Show segments in which he seems to get genuinely angry about a story

I think if there's real anger, it's provoked. Anger cannot be your default setting 'cause it's draining to perform and it's draining to watch. But there are some times that what you're talking about is so frustrating that the whole day has been a process of trying to channel that anger into something funny.

On whether his jokes would still be funny without his English accent

Well, let's hope so because that's basically been my business model for a decade. ... I'm telling you, the kryptonite is if the jokes I tell — if you see them written down, that is no good. ... I am exposed in script form.

On whether he feels the need to differentiate himself from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report

For sure. You know, if a story happens early in the week and they cover it, we probably won't touch it. So, I think we'll end up looking slightly off the regular radar.

On whether it ever feels strange to mock the U.S. as someone who isn't from here

I don't think so. I mean, I've lived here for nearly eight years now and I love it here and, you know, I've married an American. ... And also, I think sometimes it helps to have a slight outsider's voice in comedy, whatever that voice is. And as it happens my voice sounds like I don't belong here. Or at least, I haven't belonged here post-1770.

On whether an outsider's perspective is good for journalism

It would be if journalists were more outsider than they were, but there is a coziness. You see something like the warmth of response ... at the White House Correspondents' Dinner [where] everyone is so comfortable being in the same room as people that they are supposed to be the check and balance on. If the system worked right, you would think that would be the most excruciatingly awkward room to be in, and it's pretty comfy and that comfort is a problem.

On whether he would accept an invitation to perform at the White House Correspondents' Dinner

Oh, definitely. ... Of course, because as a comedian you're attracted to sometimes doing the things that are the most difficult. That room is not a good room for comedy. The people in it and the way it's laid out — that is where jokes go to die. But the challenge — when you see something like the speech that Stephen Colbert gave, when he did it, is just — it's a master class in comedy.

On what concerns him about America's engagement with its wars

You know, this comes from — I have a slightly closer perspective on this because I married an Iraq War veteran, and this does not feel like a country at war.

And I went to Afghanistan to do a USO tour for a couple of weeks ... and it was a fantastic experience, but the disconnect between America and what we are asking young Americans to do is incredible. I honestly think if you ask people in this country whether we were at war, lots of them would forget.

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Armed pro-Russian activists stand outside the Ukrainian regional administration building in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slovyansk, on April 14. (AP)

Does Russia Have The Military To Take Ukraine?

Apr 25, 2014

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Russia says it is once again staging military drills near the border of eastern Ukraine.

Russia's defense minister says the exercises are a reaction to NATO maneuvers in Eastern Europe and what he calls "Ukraine's military machine."

The Russian military carried out similar maneuvers while well-armed, well-trained Russian troops seized key objectives in Crimea. One question now is whether Russia's military is ready to take on a much larger challenge by invading eastern Ukraine.

After Russia completed its annexation of Crimea, this video appeared on YouTube titled: "On the accomplishment of the objective of detachment 0990 from February 22 until March 22 on the territory of Crimea."

For a little more than 7 minutes, it shows a Russian military unit taking key objectives: the Crimean parliament, administration and security buildings, and bases. At first the music seems incongruous, but you quickly realize that it reflects the precision and discipline with which these troops are carrying out their mission. You see masked gunmen entering buildings, securing them, emptying armories and collecting weapons.

Colby Howard, a former U.S. Marine who has been serving as a research fellow at the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) in Moscow, says he was impressed at the smoothness of the operation from what he saw in the video.

"The tactical coordination within the team, on the ground seemed well-coordinated, to the extent that it wasn't their first time," he says.

Howard says the team members, good as they look, still have a ways to go to match the best special operations forces from the U.S. and other countries, but they were more than adequate for the operation in Crimea.

That success looks even better when you compare it with what Russia's army looked like the last time it was in action, during the war with Georgia in 2008.

Its victory was marred by embarrassing technical and mechanical failures, poor coordination and indiscipline on the part of badly trained troops. Ruslan Pukhov, the director of CAST, says Russia's military had to modernize and understand it no longer had enough military-age people to field a giant army.

"We don't have enough people; that's why we [are] supposed to fight in another way," he says. "Now we understand, we [are] also supposed to care about the soldier, because there are not enough of them."

Pukhov says that means hiring and training professional soldiers rather than relying on draftees, and providing those soldiers with better pay and living conditions.

Still, he says, modernization has a long way to go.

"Obviously, such a big machine could not be reformed in such a short period of time, but some important things were done," he says.

Russia put a big share of its oil wealth into defense spending, but at least one analyst says the country still doesn't have enough well-trained professional soldiers to carry out an invasion of Ukraine.

Russian conscripts serve only one year, meaning that they spend much of their time in training, and are only combat-ready for about half their stint in the military.

"That's why it's so important that we either move now, and order the conscripts to stay in units because of a war situation, or we don't move at all," says Pavel Felgenhauer, a defense analyst and columnist for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

Felgenhauer says that half the draftees are ready to be discharged, so unless Russia acts by the middle of May, the army won't be fully combat-ready again until sometime in August.

And that, he says, could give Ukraine the time it needs to bring its own outdated and demoralized military up to fighting strength, which would make it a much more dangerous opponent for Russia.

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Informational pamphlets are displayed during an enrollment fair on the last day before the sign-up deadline at the Bay Area Rescue Mission in Richmond, Calif. (Getty Images)

Confusion, Cost Lead Some Californians To Go Uninsured

by Stephanie O'Neill
Apr 25, 2014 (Southern California Public Radio)

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Scott Belsha says he opted out of buying health insurance because he has never had it and has managed to stay healthy. Steven Petersen says he would consider a catastrophic health care plan, but remained uninsured this year. Beth Engel enrolled her daughter in Medicaid. But Engel found her options too expensive and will until the next enrollment period to reconsider health insurance for herself.

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Despite a surge in enrollment in the two weeks before the April 15 deadline to enroll for health insurance under the federal health law, many more Californians still haven't signed up, and they're unlikely to.

Many people are uninterested, confused or skeptical.

Scott Belsha, from Long Beach, Calif., falls in the skeptical category.

"I've been consumed with living my life, and I'm fortunate to be healthy," he says. He works as a musician and carpenter, and he's never had health insurance. His parents, who own a small business, always paid cash for medical care, most of which they were able to get from a doctor friend.

"I haven't ever been to the hospital or broken a bone," he says. "But I'm 34, and I should probably start thinking about it."

Steven Petersen, 40, of Los Angeles, says he looked into his options, but couldn't afford $240 a month, the lowest premium he could find. He'd prefer a cheap, catastrophic plan. "I just take care of myself every day, and eat well and try to stay healthy," he says.

The Affordable Care Act's individual mandate requires nearly every American have to insurance or pay a tax penalty of either $95 dollars or up to 1 percent of income, whichever is greater.

But Larry Levitt, senior vice president at the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, says he wasn't expecting every uninsured person to sign up during this first year. "The expectations are that enrollment will ramp up over a period of years," he says.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that even years from now the number of uninsured will be large: about 30 million nationwide. Some of those people will be living in states that have opted not to expand Medicaid to adults without dependent children. Others will be immigrants who don't qualify for coverage under the law. "But the biggest category are people who simply will choose not to enroll," Levitt says.

Beth Engel, in Ventura County, Calif., is a 32-year-old mother of a nearly 3-year-old daughter and describes herself as an early supporter of the Affordable Care Act.

"I was very hopeful," she says. "I thought, 'Wow! I can have a job that I love that doesn't necessarily have insurance but I get insurance affordably.' "

Engel, works part time as a hotel clerk and qualifies for tax subsidies that reduce premiums for her and her toddler to about $200 a month. But she chose not to buy insurance for herself this year. "I found that the premiums were still very high, and I just couldn't afford them," she says.

Even though now she's armed with the knowledge she can take the subsidy upfront in the form of a reduced insurance premium, she says she's reluctant to do that without thoroughly understanding the plans offered through the state-run marketplace, Covered California.

"Maybe I'm reading these incorrectly," she says, "but it just didn't make sense, and I thought I'm not going to put money I don't really have to spend into a program that I don't really understand."

Engle did get her daughter health coverage through Medicaid. People in California and other states that expanded can enroll year-round. As for her own medical needs? She'll go without health insurance and pay the penalty, which for her is less than the cost of insurance. She says she'll reconsider her options when enrollment opens again in November.

This story is part of a partnership with NPR, KPCC, and Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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Ayodeji Ogunniyi and his father, Abimbola "Yinka" Ogunniyi, at their first American home in South Holland, Ill., in 1993. (Courtesy of Ayodeji Ogunniyi)

After A Shocking Loss, Finding Healing By Teaching Others

Apr 25, 2014 (Southern California Public Radio)

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Ayodeji Ogunniyi, is an English teacher at Thornton Township High School in Harvey, Ill. Steven Petersen says he would consider a catastrophic health care plan, but remained uninsured this year. Beth Engel enrolled her daughter in Medicaid. But Engel found her options too expensive and will until the next enrollment period to reconsider health insurance for herself.

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Ayodeji Ogunniyi was a pre-med student when his father was murdered by three young men. So Ogunniyi decided that becoming a teacher, not a doctor, would help ensure his father's death was not in vain. (This StoryCorps interview initially aired Oct. 30, 2011 on Weekend Edition Saturday.)

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Ernie Ranglin. (Courtesy of the artist)

Heavy Rotation: 10 Songs Public Radio Can't Stop Playing

Apr 25, 2014 (Southern California Public Radio)

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Heavy Rotation is a monthly sampler of public radio hosts' favorite songs. Check out past editions here.

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