‘The Daily Show’: Brit John Oliver temps at a late-night desk job
Somewhere in South London, there’s a storage unit that’s a veritable time capsule of John Oliver’s life, circa 2006. That’s when, as a young comedian on the rise in the U.K., he got a call from “The Daily Show.”
He landed in New York on a Sunday and made his debut as the show’s “Senior British Correspondent” the very next day. Assuming he’d be fired within a month, he had signed only a four-week lease.
Seven years later, if there’s anyone at “The Daily Show” who ought to feel secure in his job, it’s Oliver: On Monday, the Cambridge-educated comedian will begin a summer-long stint as host when Jon Stewart takes a leave of absence to direct his first feature film, “Rosewater.”
But Oliver, 36, is not quite willing to believe that he’s made it. “For there to have been some kind of administrative error makes more sense to me than that this has actually happened,” he says on a sweltering afternoon in late May. While everyone else on “The Daily Show” staff is enjoying a week of hiatus, Oliver is toiling away in his office, a small space dominated by a framed Liverpool F.C. jersey.
Given the intimidating task of steering “The Daily Show” in Stewart’s absence, it’s not hard to understand why Oliver is putting in overtime. Since Stewart came on board in 1999, “The Daily Show” has become a cultural touchstone.
With an average of 2.5 million viewers a night, it’s the top-rated late-night show among viewers under 50 and has racked up an unprecedented 10 straight Emmys for variety series. Though Stewart tends to downplay his influence, his high-profile interviews and blistering critiques of targets like Fox News have earned him a reputation as a latter-day Edward R. Murrow — the kind of personality who can draw 200,000 people to a rally on the National Mall.
Put another way, Oliver has some pretty big shoes to fill. Nevertheless, he agreed without hesitation to fill in for Stewart because, he says, “I’d do anything for him. I’ll paint his house if he wants.”
For the time being, though, Oliver is focused on humorously lowering everyone’s expectations.
“The goal is just don’t have this building on fire when he returns, like one of those high-school-party-gone-wrong movies. You know, the parents are out of town and then they come home and it’s just the smoking remains of what used to be their home,” he jokes. “That’s the worst-case scenario.”
Despite all the self-effacement, Oliver was “the obvious choice” to fill in for Stewart, according to executive producer Rory Albanese. Citing Oliver’s strengths as a writer, producer and on-camera performer, he predicts a relatively seamless transition. “I wouldn’t be too worried that the show won’t be as funny,” he says. “It’s just going to be in proper English.”
It helps that, unlike previous correspondents who’ve used “The Daily Show” as a professional steppingstone, Oliver sees the gig as an end unto itself. Though he keeps busy with his podcast, “The Bugle,” and continues to perform stand-up (his latest special, “John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show,” airs July 26 on Comedy Central), Oliver says he “couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.”
A longtime admirer of British satirists Peter Cook and Armando Iannucci, Oliver first made a name for himself as the co-host of a BBC radio show called “Political Animal.” He jokes that his skills as a correspondent are “completely non-transferable,” but the truth is he seems more interested in the carnival of dysfunction that is American politics than a sitcom or film career.
“Congress never loses its capacity to disappoint you. You’d think it would have bottomed out, then there’s something like the gun control thing, which is the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen in politics anywhere in the world,” he says.
Oliver has been a firsthand witness to the absurdity in field pieces that have taken him to nearly all 50 states and brought him face-to-face with tattooed Occupy Wall Street protesters, tea partiers in colonial garb and pizza-magnate-turned-presidential-candidate Herman Cain.
“I have a good working knowledge of America’s greatest wack jobs,” he boasts, adding that the most difficult challenge in the weeks ahead will be treating guests “like human beings.”
“Having a sincere conversation with people is not something I have done a lot of, either in this show or in my life,” Oliver says.
Yet for all his professed fear of earnest interaction, he speaks passionately about one subject close to his heart. In recent months, Stewart has fiercely criticized the Obama administration over some 900,000 military veterans waiting to receive disability benefits, and Oliver, whose wife, Kate Norley, was a combat medic in Iraq, vows to continue the fight.
“Veterans’ issues are quite close to my heart. I find it quite hard to talk about, actually,” he says, briefly blinking back tears. “Anything with veterans seems like the least you can do, or at least one step more than the least thing.”
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