NEW YORK — For a few months last summer, while its host took a leave of absence, John Oliver took over “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” With help from a few ripe news developments, including the birth of the royal baby and the death of Anthony Weiner’s career, the brilliantly goofy Brit killed it. He ranted incisively, he raved from the desk like a scholar of the absurd, and “Daily Show” fans and critics loved him.
It was a substitute gig that turned out to be a ripping job audition.
“We could see that he was crushing it,” says “Daily Show” executive producer Steve Bodow, “and that either we were crazy or the world was going to notice. He was good right out of the gate.”
When Stewart returned from his movie project in September, he sat down with Oliver, who had joined the show in 2006. “Jon was great,” Oliver recalls. “He said, ‘Let’s try to work out what’s the best thing for you to do as well as or instead of this.’ ” Like the good dad we want Stewart to be, and who Oliver says he is, Stewart ushered another one of his little chicks — after Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, and Ed Helms — out of the nest.
Oliver spread his wings and flew right from Comedy Central to HBO, where his new series, “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” premieres on April 27 at 11 p.m.
“I didn’t want to leave ‘The Daily Show,’ ” Oliver says, sitting in HBO’s slick Midtown Manhattan offices, the city framed in a massive picture window behind him. “It was tough, really tough. There was no real reason to leave. It was going to take something that was impossible to turn down. And this was it.”
“Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” will be a weekly satire of the news in front of a studio audience, like “The Daily Show.” But with a longer lead time to prepare stories, no commercials, and no reporters other than Oliver, the series will have a different feel to it. And, perched on Sundays, it will not compete with Oliver’s former employer. The format will be loose, Oliver says, noting in an interview only a few weeks before the premiere that many of the details have not been nailed down. There will be curated footage, pre-taped pieces, on-site reporting, and guest interviews — whatever the news dictates.
‘There is nothing I can accuse America of doing that Britain has not done worse in its history.’
There may even be room for that most traditional of late-night props: the desk. “Or we might have a breakfast nook,” Oliver says, bursting into his familiar guffaw.
Oliver’s final appearance on “The Daily Show” last December was a famously emotional affair for him, as the Brit’s stiff upper lip got splashed with a tear or two. He thought he was onscreen to do a piece about the royal family, but Stewart surprised him with an montage of Oliver’s best moments, including the image of the bespectacled joker asking a stymied former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, “Who is the president of Uzbekistan?”
The crying clip went viral. “I knew it was going to be difficult,” Oliver says of that last day, “and then they sprung that on me. Jon could see I was getting upset and he leaned in and asked, ‘Are you all right?’ And I burst into tears. It was just endemic of how he has been with me the whole time. I’m intensely humiliated by it, before the world crying like a little girl.”
Oliver, 36, says his phone exploded with calls and texts when the episode ran a day later in England: “I could tell to the minute when it was on there, when abusive messages from friends started pouring in.”
Before Oliver joined “The Daily Show” in July 2006, arriving in New York the day before his first appearance, he was an up-and-coming political stand-up in England. He appeared as a regular on a panel show called “Mock the Week,” and he frequently performed as a team with Andy Zalzman, with whom he continues to do a topical podcast called “The Bugle.” When Stewart mentioned to Ricky Gervais that he was looking for a Brit for “The Daily Show,” Gervais said he admired Oliver’s work.
Oliver finally met his guardian angel when Gervais later appeared on “The Daily Show”: “I said to him, ‘I heard you were kind of helpful in terms of me getting this job,’ and he was gracious. He said, ‘Yeah, maybe I said something.’ I think I owe him.”
Oliver’s Britishness is an essential part of his comedy brand in America, of course, as he turns the degree of his accent up or down — from Dickensian street urchin to Monty Python clown — for effect. He has cultivated a persona — not as thoroughly as Colbert, but in the same vein — who’s a kind of awkward intellectual dope from across the pond. As he appears to be a bit baffled by America and its strange ways, Oliver has an outsider’s perspective that’s invaluable when it comes to humor.
“There’s a long tradition of people from another nation being able to present their cultural criticism or satire as having a distance that a native seemingly doesn’t have,” says Jason Mittell, professor of American Studies and Film & Media Culture at Middlebury College. “It feels like Oliver understands us differently than we do because he wasn’t born here. He’s seeing America as this other thing that he can hold at arm’s length. It creates the illusion of a perspective that he does a good job of playing up. He captures this outraged confusion at whatever crazy thing he’s talking about in current events.”
Oliver agrees: “There is an outsider mentality as well as a faux authority thing that probably helps me comedically,” he says. Sometimes, he says, he’ll refer to Americans as both “we” and “you” in interviews with American politicians, so they don’t know which side he’s on, to “wrong-foot” them. That’s one of the ways he has gotten painful admissions on record, such as the time on “The Daily Show” when a former adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that success in Washington wasn’t to get legislation done so much as it was to get reelected.
“There’s a respect for authority in America that is a little odd to me,” Oliver says. “You respect the office, and never mind the person in it. That is not the case in England. In England, you always want to punch up. There is no respect for the office, the building, or any of the people who go in or out of it. There is much more deep-rooted contempt.”
Oliver makes it clear, though, that he is an equal opportunity lampooner. “There is nothing I can accuse America of doing that Britain has not done worse in its history,” he says. “So I’m coming from a point of self-criticism at the start. That helps in a way. And if it’s clear that you love the thing that you’re criticizing, that helps.”
And yes — press the “aww” button on the laugh track — Oliver says he does love living in America. Obviously, his success with American audiences is a plus, and he has found an enduring mentor in Stewart, from whom he continues to get professional advice. But he has also created a home life here. After exposure to dogs at the “The Daily Show” offices, he is the gushing owner of his first, a mix named Hoagie, who, he says, changed him instantly: “It’s the kind of responsibility I’ve run away from my whole life.”
Oh, and Oliver also got married in 2011, to married Kate Norley, an Army medic who served in Iraq. They met at the 2008 Republican Convention, when she and members of the group Vets for Freedom helped hide him and his “Daily Show” crew from security.
When Oliver got the HBO gig, Norley was on emergency deployment in the Philippines as a first responder to Typhoon Haiyan. “I got to speak to her once on this spotty satellite phone,” he says, “and she’s saying, ‘We had to do emergency C-sections and amputations and there are dead bodies everywhere, it’s worse than people are letting on, it’s just death, death, everywhere.’ And there’s no point at which you can go, ‘I’ve got some news as well!’ It just doesn’t matter.”
She is, he says, “very American with a capital A,” and that “once you’ve bled for America, you definitely get to say you’re an American in a slightly louder tone of voice.” Being with her has changed him, he says, to the point where, the day after his last “Daily Show,” he did a USO tour of Afghanistan to entertain the troops. “She grounds me in the fact that what I do doesn’t really matter at all, and also I’m a little more defensive of how America is perceived overseas. America takes a lot of [expletive], much of it well earned, from the rest of the world. And yet when something terrible goes down, people are waiting for Americans to fall out of the sky and help them.”
He gestures out the window, where the sun beats down on a mass of buildings and stores. “If you don’t have anyone in your family who’s serving,” he says, “you can very easily think that we’re not at war now. But we are. This is a country at war. There’s a massive disconnect between America and its military, and being married to a veteran removes that disconnect in a very substantial way.”
As Oliver talks at length about the sins of gerrymandering, or the election in India, or the problems of money in politics — “Kentucky,” he says, “they’re going to potentially spend 100 million on that Senate race. Kentucky. KENTUCKY!” — it’s clear he’ll never lose his perspective, no matter where he lives. “He was in his late 20s when he moved here,” Bodow of “The Daily Show” says. “He was a fully formed adult. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.”
Bodow says that Stewart has a great eye for talent, and that he expects his best and brightest to eventually move on. “And John Oliver is as ready for his own thing as anybody getting their own show ever is,” he says.
Oliver, however, feels a little more anxious about his new gig. “I’m appropriately nervous,” he says, “which is extremely [expletive] nervous.”Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.