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John Oliver is Still an Outsider

And that's just what the increasingly insidery, decreasingly funny 'Daily Show' needs

Maryann Ventrice

When John Oliver takes “The Daily Show” hosting chair on Monday—as Jon Stewart jets off to the Middle East for three months to direct a film about an imprisoned Iranian journalist—he will bring a distinct comedic style to the gig. Oliver is cheerfully absurd where Stewart is self-serious; loose and goofy where Stewart is coiled and intense. And though he has lived in America since 2006, his political outsideriness is key to his comedy. His rarefied Britishness has been a foil for crass Americanism throughout his seven-year run as the Senior British Correspondent on “The Daily Show.” “We turn the program over now to someone whose accent falsely makes you believe you can trust him,” Stewart announced in one broadcast. “Americans just don’t understand dry wit,” Oliver said during the 2008 election coverage.

Other “Daily Show” correspondents, including Stephen Colbert and Rob Corddry, have hosted the show before during Stewart’s absences, though never for more than a week at a time. And at first glance, Oliver seems like a somewhat surprising choice to take over a show that relies on the host’s highly personal outrage at the American political landscape. But as “The Daily Show” has become increasingly rooted in Stewart’s umbrage, it has also become less funny. So Oliver’s outsiderness might be just what the show needs.

Oliver started out as a correspondent by playing a cartoonish foreigner, alternately commending the American political system with faux earnestness and lambasting his own. For his debut appearance in 2006, he stood in front of a cheesy London backdrop, Big Ben looming behind him. “Hello, Jon, or as you imagine we say here, ‘ellooo Jon, how are you?’” he said, sliding into a Cockney accent. Then he analyzed a news clip featuring George W. Bush and Tony Blair in which Bush, mouth full of food, addressed the prime minister as “Yo, Blair”: “Your president’s down-home folksy wisdom has the rare ability to cut through the vagaries of international diplomacy,” Oliver deadpanned. Over the years, his sense of the absurdity of American politics has persisted, but his satire has gotten increasingly nuanced and sharp.

And even as he has become more integrated into American politics, he’s maintained the goofball levity that is characteristic of his fresh-off-the-boat act. At the vice presidential debate in 2008—which Oliver introduced as “a clash between a woman who has been saying stupid things to America for five weeks, and a man who has been at it for 35 years”—he played the roguish schoolboy wreaking havoc in the lunchroom. He got a crowd outside the debate to chant “We want gaffes!” and yelled “Fall over! Trip!” as Palin and Biden took the stage. “Do you think he’ll say, ‘I like big butts and I cannot lie’ and just point at her?” he asked someone before the debate. “Palin sounds like a folksy child, Biden doesn’t,” Oliver declared by way of analysis. And his recent segment on gun control, in which he interviewed American gun lobbyists, was hilarious. “How many political careers have been tragically ended by gun control?” he asked, unblinking.

On his current Comedy Central series, “John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show,” he offers baffled commentary on the American political system in a similarly incredulous vein: “Every four years we decide to, out of nowhere, give a shit about Iowa.” “Campaign ads are the backbone of American democracy if American democracy suffered a gigantic spinal injury.” His news parody podcast, “The Bugle,” weighs in on British and American politics with segments like “Uncle Rupert is The Real Victim.”

This head-shaking exasperation sets his act apart from the dire victim complex that Stewart has increasingly nurtured since the 2000 election. The emergence of Stewart as a genuine cultural and political force, a card-carrying member of the media establishment, has clearly changed the show, making it feel, at times, more like another mainstream ideological talk show than an envelope-pushing experiment. By 2010, Stewart was hosting his sanctimonious Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall and sparring with Tony Blair about how to handle extremism; by 2011, Esquire subtitled a profile of Stewart “From late night comedian to liberal conscience.” When he was interviewed on “Fresh Air” a few years ago, the conversation mainly focused on Stewart’s dismay over the inadequate healthcare that September 11 rescue workers received. So it seems appropriate that his leave of absence from “The Daily Show” will be devoted to a decidedly unfunny project.

This isn’t to say that Oliver will substantively change Stewart’s show. Oliver has long provided a lighter comic contrast for Stewart’s inflamed self-righteousness, but he also has a sneaky and likeable way of embodying Stewart’s own ideology. The undercurrent of real anger is partly what makes “The Daily Show” so good, and Oliver has been open about his genuine frustration with the American political system: “The recent gun debate is as pathetic a piece of policy as I’ve ever seen,” he recently told Rolling Stone. As an interviewer, he has the ability to ask confrontational questions with a disarmingly innocent air. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he said to one gun lobbyist. To a flak who claimed that the Republic party is “real people, it’s real values, it’s common sense,” Oliver replied: “Can you be—more generic?” In a sense, Oliver may be set to channel “The Daily Show”’s earliest instincts: the old David v. Goliath attitude that targeted large subjects with small-bore satirical marksmanship and a clear sense of fun. Those were the days when Stewart was animated by scrappy underdog enthusiasm, before he started to feel the weight of his own influence.

Of course, Oliver is not really an outsider anymore. He has lived in America for nearly a decade and is married to an American woman he met at the RNC. But he has still kept the nose-against-the-glass bemusement that seems poised to brighten “The Daily Show”’s dudgeon. In a recent podcast with Grantland’s Andy Greenwald, Oliver described stand-up as “an outsider’s art.” There’s reason to think that hosting “The Daily Show” is too.