Seven years later, John Oliver still can’t quite make sense of his first 48 hours in America.
Then a 29-year-old comedian working the London club and stand-up circuit, he flew to New York on a Sunday evening and reported to a studio overlooking the Hudson River in Midtown Manhattan the next morning. Several hours later, he was standing in front of a packed audience and riffing on President George W. Bush’s latest social faux pas, trading quips with Jon Stewart as The Daily Show’s new “Senior British Correspondent.”
“I just finished the thing and it all happened in a blur, and J.K. Rowling was sitting in the audience,” he recalled in a phone call with BuzzFeed on Thursday. “And I could have presumed I just hallucinated it. And then she came around afterwards, just to say, ‘Well done.’”
Oliver babbled a response, tripping over his dropped jaw and sputtering out a few words of gratitude to the Harry Potter author.
“She kind of gave me a hug and told me to calm down,” Oliver said. “And that’s kind of everything you want from a moment like that, having J.K. Rowling hug you and say everything’s going to be OK… It was like a one-evening guardian angel, and my guardian angel was the creator of a boy wizard. I remember getting back to the place I was staying in, looking at my still-full suitcase, and thinking, What the fuck just happened?”
Like her magical characters, Rowling was able to foresee the future. Despite warnings from his agent that he shouldn’t rent an apartment in New York at first because he’d “probably get fired within four weeks,” Oliver has become a Daily Show mainstay. That Oliver has lasted so long there is in and of itself a feat; he was stepping into huge shoes left by the recently departed Stephen Colbert and Ed Helms, who would soon be followed out the door by fan favorite Rob Corddry. Most of the correspondents introduced since Oliver was hired, from Olivia Munn to Wyatt Cenac, have also left.
Now 36, Oliver will assume the unenviable task of filling in for Stewart on June 10, when the longtime Daily Show host heads off to the Middle East for 12 weeks to direct his first feature film, Rosewater, an adaptation of the memoir of a former Iranian political prisoner.
Born in Birmingham but raised in the town of Bedford, Oliver grew up wanting to be a soccer player, an avid Liverpool supporter whose parents dreamed that he might be the next Kenny Dalglish. He quickly learned that, despite his parents’ hopes and best intentions, athletics were not his strong suit, and he slightly shifted his ambitions, becoming a self-proclaimed comedy nerd.
Delighting in a broad range of humor, young Oliver was especially enamored with Monty Python, Peter Cook, Richard Pryor, and Armando Iannucci, the genius behind the BBC political satire The Day Today and Steve Coogan’s buffoon radio presenter character Alan Partridge, and the creator of the HBO series Veep. Ostensibly an English major at Cambridge, Oliver estimates he spent about three-quarters of his time both devising sketches for the famed Footlights theater and two-man comedy bits with his friend Richard Ayoade, who went on to star in the Channel 4 sitcom The IT Crowd and is now a film director.
“You have to learn to be bad at something before you can learn to be good at something,” Oliver said, dismissing his body of work from that era. “Luckily it was a time before camera phones, and so now that evidence is in peoples’ hazy memories.”
He’s heard the rumor that Stewart had initially been tipped off to his act by Ricky Gervais (whom Oliver hadn’t even met), though he’d just as soon not question how he ended up being asked to submit a packet of jokes and video to the show’s producers in early 2006. Included in the submission was a simulated correspondent chat with Stewart, who was played by the cameraman filming the bit (and who didn’t quite understand the humor of what he was reading).
American politics has a major place in British conversation, and given Britain’s role in the Iraq War, it was an especially juicy target during Oliver’s first years in professional joke-telling. He had been riffing on politics for years with his comedy partner Andy Zaltman, including the live show and podcast Political Animal, so the subject matter didn’t prove much of a challenge when he came to the States.
Openly liberal in his beliefs — “I think it’s pretty obvious, I don’t think this is a big coming-out ceremony,” he said, laughing — Oliver has toyed with tea party members, Second Amendment zealots, and anti-Muslim protestors in some of his most searing segments.
But he holds no great regard for Democrats, either, as he finds the American electoral system baffling and troubling. “It’s pretty objectively not healthy politics to have elections run for a year and a half and cost a billion dollars on each side and for you to be left with two choices,” he said. “I don’t think you could make a coherent case for that being a healthy version of democracy.”
At the same time, it makes his job easier, with characters like Donald Trump and Herman Cain — “great hypothetical presidents” — to toy with during primary seasons. “If elections are going to cost as much money and last for the ridiculous amount of time they do now, people are entitled to want to be entertained during that meaningless amount of time.”
Indeed, Stewart has long insisted that The Daily Show is simply a late-night comedy, yet he grills world leaders in interviews and tackles difficult subjects on a near-nightly basis. Polls have shown that the show is the most prominent source of news for young people, and in 2009, another poll named Stewart the most trusted voice in news. And yet, Oliver stands behind the construct that their program isn’t actually a player in the national conversation.
“I don’t think it has an incredible impact; I’m not sure it has an impact at all on the political landscape,” he said. “It is just a comedy show. We are just trying to make people laugh. We’re just choosing to make jokes about sometimes very serious subjects, from sometimes a serious point of view. But we definitely don’t feel part of that political echo chamber. I think we stand apart from politics, and we stand apart from the news. I think we occupy a different space, and I think we are quite defensive of that territory.”
It’s not altogether surprising that he’d try to maintain that distance, given how frequently the cable news networks are in The Daily Show’s crosshairs. Oliver likened both Fox News and MSNBC to carcinogens, but was especially animated in discussing CNN, which he called “a particularly impressive clown show.”
“They are never more successful than when examining the pointless,” Oliver said of the network, which has gotten flack for mistakes and outsized coverage of less-than-newsworthy events. “It becomes like a philosophical news network, it’s like, ‘What happens when you examine nothing?’ Maybe in moments of frustration with CNN, we should just see it as a performance-art piece, looking at the concept of what something is. ‘If we have 15 news trucks here and live coverage, does that not mean that this becomes something? Have we made it something? Or is it still nothing?’”
Oliver said he’s especially excited to see how CNN is going to cover the birth of Kate Middleton’s baby, to the point that he’s not even planning The Daily Show’s spin on the event; too much of it will be based on what euphoric tricks the Most Trusted Name in News comes up with for what is sure to be wall-to-wall attention. That being said, he’s not short of strong opinions about the Royal Family, calling them “nothing short of ridiculous” and marveling at how they continue to command respect and fervent attention (see: Prince Harry’s recent trip to America) abroad.
“I think they have a kind of weird Jedi mind trick when you actually meet them, that they’ve developed over centuries over breeding,” Oliver said with a laugh. “They’ve just learned something from their strategic marriages and inbreeding over centuries that mean they have certain skills in terms of manipulating the human soul.”
The approach to covering the summer’s other big events, from the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage to the continuing scandals plaguing the Obama administration, will be similar: Watch and quickly react. Producers are at least booking interviews for the coming two months’ worth of shows — there will be four weeks of repeats scattered throughout three months — and in the first week, Oliver will welcome his hero, Iannucci, for an interview he promises will be filled with displays of repressed British emotion.
Before he takes over the show, Oliver is presenting a run of stand-up comedy gigs next week that will be recorded for the fourth season of his Comedy Central show, John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show. The network had to move the tapings up to accommodate his temporary new gig, which will now include much more oversight over the entire team of Daily Show writers. It’s a daunting task, which he’s approaching with characteristic self-deprecation.
“Hopefully I’m going to be able to return it to him in one piece by September,” Oliver said, laughing. “As long as I still have a job in September, I think the whole thing is going to be a success.”