NEW YORK – When the time comes for a young bird to leave the nest, he’s often more than ready to go and doesn’t care too much what Papa Bird thinks.
The analogy doesn’t apply to John Oliver, the former “Daily Show” featured player who debuts his new HBO topical series Sunday at 11 p.m. EDT. He’s extremely loyal to Jon Stewart, recognizes Stewart’s role in giving him the opportunity to get ahead, and sought the Comedy Central host’s blessing to move to HBO.
“I have a pretty intense debt to him,” said Oliver, whose show is called “Last Week Tonight.” “I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for him.”
Stewart’s role as a comedy kingmaker has never been more clear than this month, with Oliver starting the new show and another ex-”Daily Show” correspondent, Stephen Colbert, earning the coveted honor of succeeding David Letterman when the “Late Show” host retires next year.
Oliver, a native of Britain who was always interested in topical comedy, admired Stewart’s show from afar and in 2006 applied for and earned a job on the “Daily Show.” His path to HBO began last year, when Stewart called and said he was taking the summer off to produce a movie. Would Oliver mind filling in as guest host for a couple of months?
He hung up and his legs went weak. Oliver’s wife didn’t help much when he recounted the conversation and she said, “Oh, that’s risky.”
She was right. But her husband nailed it, keeping a formidable machine running smoothly and establishing a comic personality of his own: more bemused and less neurotic or angry than Stewart.
Oliver said he really didn’t have a sense of how well it was going until Charlie Rose was a guest toward the end of his tenure. The CBS newsman said the audience had loved him. Had he thought about his next step?
“That was the first time I’d heard that,” Oliver said. “He looked at me like I was a complete moron. My only barometer for going well was Jon not being mad at me when he came back.”
His phone offered more clues. Offers for work started coming in. It was Oliver’s moment of opportunity, and both he and Stewart recognized it. HBO offered prestige and creative freedom to build a show as he saw fit, so Oliver signed on.
It’s hard to describe something that hasn’t been on the air yet, but “Last Week Tonight” seems to be an apt title. Oliver will give a comedic take on stories in the news. It sounds similar to the “Daily Show,” but he realizes his challenge will be to take on topics that Stewart and Colbert haven’t already done, along with not making the telecast seem dated by the time it goes on the air.
Another challenge – again, one that may become moot once “Last Week Tonight” is up and operating – is for Oliver not to let his respect for Stewart and the “Daily Show” lead him into making a program that feels like a pale imitation.
“John Oliver does bring something kind of different,” said Jonathan Gray, a media and cultural studies professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “The ‘Daily Show’ is primarily about American politics and so much about John Oliver’s shtick reminds you that he’s not an American. It’s not the insider humor of Stewart. It’s more of an outsider’s observations. Sometimes they may look similar, but I think it can allow for a different kind of comic sensibility.”
Oliver, 37, is clearly aware of how dangerous it can be for an outsider to make jokes about Americans. He defuses any worries with a self-deprecatory attitude.
“I clearly love it here,” he said, “because I live here out of choice. You can’t really talk about anything that America has done without acknowledging that Britain had already done it much worse hundreds of years ago.”
Afghanistan, for instance. Britain had its own failed invasions long before the American military went there to hunt for terrorists, he noted.
“It helps to be an outsider to comment on things,” Oliver said. “You don’t want to be in the party that you’re commenting upon. You want to be outside, saying ‘that party is bull.”’
Oliver probably would have been a good choice to fill Comedy Central’s 11:30 p.m. hour on weekdays with Colbert set to leave next year. The timing was lousy; Oliver was already working on “Last Week Tonight” when Letterman announced his retirement. It may turn out to be a positive, since the ending of “The Colbert Report” will mean one less competitor in the topical field.
That’s for the future. Oliver’s more immediate challenge is to get his old “Daily Show” fans to check out “Last Week Tonight.”
“If you enjoyed me last summer and you don’t watch, then I’m in serious trouble,” he said.
David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org or on Twitter(at)dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder.