"Let's all just acknowledge for a moment that: This. Is. Weird," John Oliver said last night, opening his first round of hosting The Daily Show for the summer. While Jon Stewart will be away for the next twelve weeks directing his debut film, Rosewater, the most celebrated comic to come out of The Daily Show since Stephen Colbert will be keeping the anchor's chair warm, temporarily shifting the tone from a native commenting on U.S. politics to a foreigner doing the same. And while the type of conservative patriot who would be irked by that dynamic probably doesn't watch ,anyway, this does present new challenges for what is ultimately the show's greatest asset: its writers.
Fortunately, John Oliver has been one of those writers for some time. It's possible that this is why the comedy bits starring Oliver have been, for the most part, the only endurable non-Stewart part of the show over the last few years. About halfway through last night's episode, the entire "Best F*cking News Team" made separate appearances in a sketch mocking Oliver for getting the hosting gig over them. It was cute, but honestly, there isn't a single actor on that team I could possibly stand for a full 22 minutes -- let alone the whole summer. When their bits come on, I usually let the dog out to pee.
Still, try and imagine Jon Stewart hosting a BBC news satire, filmed in London and making inside jokes about East Enders and mincemeat pies. That's sort of what watching last night's The Daily Show with John Oliver was like. (And if you don't know what East Enders is, that's kind of my point.) The format was the same, down to the tone of the sketch and Oliver giving a "boom!" punch-line. Yet these jokes about Michael Douglas and American Idol were delivered by a pasty Brit with an accent as thick as the Queen's knickers.
Whether he's commenting on British events like the London Olympics or the Royal Jubilee, or reporting on state-side issues like Occupy Wall Street or gun control, Oliver's character is always presented with a Dickensian wink. Just as Colbert speaks through the lens of conservative hysteria, John Oliver is always served in the context of a foreigner in a strange land. "I've gone to Iran and risked my life and freedom," said Jason Jones while hazing Oliver about the gig. "Turns out I should've just stayed here singing fucking chimney-sweep songs."
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Part of the reason the world fell in love with Jon Stewart was that he was a New Jersey boy with a vested interest in what happens to 9/11 first responders, delayed military benefits and whether Tucker Carlson is an assjack. And that made the hilarious wisdom he delivered each week all the more urgent and relatable. I know John Oliver is only going to be captain of the ship until Labor Day, but there will have to be a shift in the show's commentary style over the next three months in order to sustain what made The Daily Show worth tuning into every night (or morning, if you're a thrifty Hulu subscriber -- or a cheap bastard with a Torrents account).
Last night's episode was totally watchable, though many of the jokes felt tailor-made for Stewart. Other than when he was being self-deprecating or teased by his co-workers, Oliver never settled into his role as the British eyes on American society as he often did in his previous sketch comedy. He was slightly nervous, humble, and a little too school-girl-with-a-crush on guest Seth Rogan. I'm sure that he'll gain some bedroom confidence at some point this summer, delivering a limey perspective on Washington and Lindsay Lohan to set him apart from the show's usual home-town hero. And if he doesn't, when Stewart returns we'll at least have plenty of Americans-get-England-out-of-another-mess jokes to go around.
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For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.