TV review

A bit weird and wonderful as British comic takes helm

The Times

June 12, 2013


The Daily Show with Jon Stewart 

America’s pre-eminent satirical news show has won 18 Primetime Emmy Awards but has never been hosted by a British comedian. Until, that was, this week, when a Brummie comedian slid into the presenter’s seat.

At the end of Jon Stewart’s final episode — before he departed on a three-month summer sabbatical — John Oliver, who regularly appears on the show as one of its spoof correspondents, made a wittily boorish spectacle of casting him out of the host’s chair.

But on Monday night, when Oliver took charge, he reverted to English type and started the show by apologising with florid self-negation for supplanting Stewart.

“I am John Oliver and let us acknowledge for a moment this is weird,” he began blokey-forthrightly. “This looks weird, feels weird, sounds weird . . . it sounds weird to me and this is my actual voice.”

Anticipating his special guest, the actor Seth Rogen, Oliver added that he would “look forward to explaining to him who the f*** I am”.

Perhaps the position Oliver was establishing for himself was at the lowest, most abject, rung as an anchor — the very British “I’m really rubbish” shtick — even though Oliver is skilled and witty. It was politely deferential to Stewart for sure, if a bit too “golly gosh, it’s only me”.

The 36-year-old former Cambridge Footlights alumnus keeps his delivery arch, blunt and dry. His Birmingham burr is far from indecipherable — although this is America, where anything approaching a regional British accent can have you mistaken for being from another country entirely.

Oliver played with his host’s absence to launch his first riff. Stewart, he said, had left him a note. “Don’t worry, you’ll be great. Besides no big stories break over the summer.”

The audience roared as Oliver eye-rollingly noted that his tenure was barely under way when the National Security Agency phone-tapping scandal had begun.

Oliver said that he had planned to do some charming English jokes, such as introducing the notion that a football was called a football not a “soccer ball”, then fly off set with a roll-up umbrella at the end. And when an off joke about how Michael Douglas contracted throat cancer elicited audience groans, Oliver admonished them: “Jon left you, I’m here.”

As for the the big internet monitoring story, the Amish, who forsake modern communications, “would be feeling pretty smug”, said Oliver, “or would be if they had any idea that this story was happening.”

He noted scathingly that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had rubber-stamped every US Government request made for communication records. “Mr President,” Oliver said to the camera, “No one is saying you broke any laws. It’s just a little bit weird you didn’t have to.”

If the satire bit hard and juicily — a reminder that the English do pointed, comic outrage with a particular élan — the interview with Rogen was a fluffy gushing dud best forgotten. “Thank you so much for turning up,” said Oliver. “I’ve never interviewed actors before.” It showed. “On every level, this film was so funny,” he babbled.

A duff mini-sketch saw a not-really-that-secret camera in Rogen’s dressing room revealing the actor complaining into the phone: “There’s no Jon Stewart. It’s a British guy.”

“I’ll try not to curse so much next time,” Oliver said in farewell to viewers.

That’s not the problem. Let’s allow him one introductory night of playing the apologetic imposter but hope he subsequently occupies the host’s chair with more confidence.

If he succeeds, one important end-credit may change. Even without Stewart’s presence, his wardrobe is still proclaimed as by Giorgio Armani. His “Correspondent’s wardrobe”, on the other hand, is by Banana Republic.

Presumably we’ll know when Oliver has truly arrived when his name appears alongside his spiffy designer of choice.