“I am John Oliver, and let’s just all acknowledge for a moment that this is weird.” And so began John Oliver’s eight-week stint of guest-hosting The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, as the eponymous host takes the summer off to make his feature directorial debut. Last night’s guest Fareed Zakaria congratulated him for pulling off “a brilliant slow-motion coup” — a notion that Oliver dismissed, while granting that “as an Indian, you know how suspicious British people are when they say ‘We’ll just be here for a bit!’”
That was a charming, off-the-cuff, and, yes, very British moment, one of the best of what was a mostly successful first week on the job. Oliver has been with the show since 2007, and while his choice as fill-in host was a little predictable, it made some sense — he’s a fan favorite, after all. Not everyone’s wild about him; the specific critic escapes me, but I recall reading some grousing that “just being British isn’t funny.” That’s true, and Oliver’s act isn’t just “being British.” But his accent and the assumption of politeness tied to it are a powerful comic weapon, as aptly displayed by his reading of a retort to John McCain’s comments on the NSA controversy: “Are you sure that we don’t want to ask someone younger than dirt?”
More importantly, his outsider’s persona makes him a particularly potent commentator on the inanities of American life and politics; that’s been the cornerstone of his stand-up act and his correspondent reports on The Daily Show, and if anything, his iteration of the Daily could use a bit more exploitation of that angle. He’s made a running gag out of how he and his boss assumed it would be the usual slow-news summer, only to have the NSA story drop the moment Stewart was gone. “Jon’s been gone one day!” Oliver wailed. But the scandal has proven to be daily comic gold for Oliver, whether responding to the media obsession with Snowden’s girlfriend (“I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but I am not interested in any pole-dancing YouTube channel right now”), to a bizarre Bill O’Reilly clip (“Have you built a time machine so you can go to brothels in the 1930s?”), or to a mere acknowledgment of the sponsor of their NSA coverage: “Blankets. Cower under them for the illusion of safety.”
The week’s other running joke has been, unsurprisingly, the reaction of Oliver’s colleagues to him getting the gig. That was most succinctly executed in a masterful B-block on Monday night’s show, in which a series of “remotes” from his fellow correspondents turned into a pile-on of resentful grumblings about his temporary promotion. Jason Jones played the “I went to Iran” card, to hilarious effect: “Turns out I shoulda just stayed here singing chimney sweep songs!” Sam Bee adopted a ridiculous British accent, prompting Oliver’s rather notorious trouble keeping a straight face. And when Lewis Black dropped in on Wednesday for one of his occasional “Back in Black” bits, he responded to an Oliver interjection with a perfectly-timed “Who the fuck are you?”
That stuff can only go on so long, but here’s hoping they continue to come up with a fake explanation for Stewart’s absence at the top of every show (this week’s included “performing a David Blaine-like stunt where he goes 90 days without hosting a talk show” and “someone got him pregnant”). And he’s stepping into other functions ably: last night’s desk bit with Jessica Williams was outstanding, and the priceless clip of Pat Robertson talking about Boy Scouts who want to “do sex with each other” gave Oliver the opportunity to try his hand at one of Stewart’s trademark moves: the blinking, smirking, reaction shot.
Oliver has admirably acknowledged his weaknesses: a clumsy Lindsay Graham impression, for example, prompted the admission, “I think we’re all now painfully aware that a Southern accent is not a club in my bag.” And though he was loose and relaxed with Zakaria by week’s end, his first couple of interviews (particularly Monday’s with Seth Rogen) were awfully bumpy affairs. Then again, Stewart’s a fairly hit-and-miss interviewer himself. That complaint aside, he’s in no real danger of the “slow-motion coup” Zakaria warned of, or of finding his place in the hearts of Daily Show viewers usurped by the bespectacled Brit. But the show’s also in little danger of losing viewers during Stewart’s exile; Oliver is delivering a Daily Show that continues to entertain, inform, and puncture.