If the key to comedy is in the timing, then you'd think a man without the ability to speak would be at a severe disadvantage. But as Stephen Hawking demonstrated on "Last Week Tonight" on Sunday, he has a higher understanding of time and timing than most humans.
Hawking, the much-honored theoretical physicist, is almost completely paralyzed due to the effects of a motor neuron disease related to ALS. The 72-year-old travels in a wheelchair and can only communicate through a computer device the generates speech for him with minimal inflection.
Not exactly someone who you'd think would be able to handle sarcasm, banter and teasing well. But you'd be completely wrong.
Hawking is no stranger to Hollywood, as he's guested on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "The Simpsons," but when Oliver traveled to his office at the University of Cambridge, he had only his considerable wits to help him out. Turns out, the guy knows how to verbally spar with the best of them.
Oliver had Hawking as the first guest in what's billed as an ongoing series, "Great Minds: People Who Think Good." And when Hawking acknowledged it was the single greatest honor he's ever received, Oliver pushed the issue.
"It's a little hard to read your tone of voice," Oliver said. "When you say that, are you being sarcastic?"
"Yes," Hawking replied.
But the scientist saved his Grade-A material for when the discussion turned to the creation of artificial intelligence, which Hawking warns will likely not have a positive outcome for humanity.
"Who is talking to me right now," Oliver asked. "You, or the sentient computer pretending to talk on your behalf?"
"It's me," Hawking replied.
"Who's saying that, Stephen? You or the machine?" Oliver wanted to know.
"Both of us," Hawking replied.
It's never wise to try and outwit one of the smartest men on the planet.