Less than a year ago, John Oliver was eagerly downplaying expectations as he prepared to step in for “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, who was going on hiatus to direct his first feature film. Oliver’s stated goal was simply: “Don’t have this building on fire when (Stewart) returns.”
But during Stewart’s 12-week absence, the native of Birmingham, England, proved to be more than just a diligent house sitter.
After more than seven years as a correspondent on “The Daily Show,” the Cambridge graduate has stepped into the spotlight with his own new topical humor show, “Last Week Tonight.” In a sign of his ascension to the top of the comedy ranks, Oliver now commands prime real estate on HBO’s marquee Sunday night.
As a host, Oliver stayed true to the tone established by Stewart while infusing a boisterous, slightly goofy energy. Like a true pro, Oliver even pulled off an interview with Aaron Sorkin conducted nearly in the dark after an unprecedented power outage.
“I think we all felt very, very strongly that the only person who could do that job would be Oliver,” says Tim Carvell, former head writer at “The Daily Show” and now an executive producer on “Last Week Tonight.” “The only person who didn’t know it was Oliver himself.”
Though he likes to joke that, as an Englishman, he’s “not in touch with 95 percent of my feelings at any given moment,” in truth Oliver comes across as a bit of a softy. As he puts it, he cried “like a little girl” during his last “Daily Show” appearance, and his wickedly sharp humor seems to derive from genuine concern rather than condescension.
“He fully recognizes how awful and bizarre the news is,” Carvell says, “but he covers it with this weird sort of glee. There’s not a cynicism or sourness to him.”
Oliver, who for years played the role of Senior British Correspondent, also discovered he loved hosting. “After that first week,” Oliver recalls, “some guy came up to me in the street and said, ‘I’ve never seen you smile before.’ And I realized he’s probably right.”
With a show airing at 11 on Sunday nights, Oliver is not competing with his friends at “The Daily Show” and is insistent that even if he were, it would be “a pretty mismatched prizefight.” He also continues to turn to his mentor for advice.
“There is almost nothing I could ever do in the future I won’t be able to trace back to something Jon taught me.” Oliver says. “He is the Yoda.”
But like Luke Skywalker, Oliver has risen to become a formidable competitor in his own right. Without him to replace Stephen Colbert, who takes over for David Letterman on “Late Show” next year, Comedy Central is left with a huge space to fill at 11:30.
HBO’s promos for “Last Week Tonight” have made light of its relative untimeliness (tag line: “Breaking News, on a weekly basis”), but Oliver thinks the slower production pace will help the show distinguish itself. With the luxury of a week to put packages together, he hopes to go in-depth on stories overlooked by the U.S. media, such as the general election currently underway in India.
“I don’t think people are going to come in and say, ‘Oh, (“The Tonight Show” host Jimmy) Fallon did this whole monologue on the Indian election.’ I think we’re all right,” he says.
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