Summer is often a time of experimentation for TV networks. And this summer, when Jon Stewart temporarily left The Daily Show to direct a movie, the series decided to go in a radical direction: using a host who spells “John” with an “h.”
John Oliver debuted as interim summer anchor this week, and after three shows, it looks like Oliver’s job is mainly to keep the ship on course, or the lorry in the left-hand lane, or what have you. “Let’s all acknowledge for a moment that this is weird,” he quipped at the beginning of his first show Monday, but by and large his Daily Show is designed to keep the weirdness to a minimum—and that, focused mainly on Oliver’s British background and accent. (Which, OK, it was a bit weird to hear a British host cracking on Tim Tebow’s ability to throw what you Yanks call a “football.”)
There is a little dissonance in Oliver’s transition from field correspondent to anchor. Though Oliver hasn’t cultivated a fictional persona to the extent that, say, Stephen Colbert did, his job has often been to be a devil’s advocate foil to Jon Stewart, arguing an exaggerated version of journalistic obtuseness to the genially exasperated anchor.
Now that Oliver’s in the anchor chair, he’s had to transition from the voice of irrationality to the voice of reason. By and large, he’s delivering jokes and asides that you could easily imagine coming from Stewart—in a segment on whistleblowers, he declared, “If you are a whistle, this is the week you are getting blown”—though, if you listen closely, there are some different shadings beyond the accent. Where Stewart views the idiocies of the daily news with an eternal wince, Oliver’s tone is a bit more sharp and flabbergasted.
And while Oliver had the gift of a big ongoing story, the NSA surveillance revelations, to fill his first week, he clearly came prepared with self-deprecating material. After a Lindsey Graham impression on Tuesday—a bit that you could see Stewart delivering in an exaggerated Tennessee Williams-esque drawl—Oliver finished with, “I think we’re all painfully aware by now that a Southern accent is not a club in my bag.”
He has enough clubs in his bag, though, and so far is doing well at a fill-in job bound to draw comparisons. (If I’m to nitpick, he’ll need some time to get comfortable in live interviews, and could work on his poker face.) And yet I think there’s more potential in drawing out what makes Oliver different from Stewart, even if that wasn’t what TDS was going for by naming him as the replacement.
The most obvious place to start, of course, is Oliver’s nationality, and in a Tuesday interview with Veep creator Armando Ianucci, it was striking to see two British dudes on American TV, having a conversation about MI-5 and teatime. When Ianucci pantomimed drinking tea with his little finger extended, Oliver cracked, “You’re making us look like the parodies we are!”
The weird-British-interloper stuff is funny insofar as it goes, but I’m hoping that as the summer goes on The Daily Show will do more to mine the substantive differences the temporary host makes possible. For instance, as a British citizen—a vantage he’s used in the past to comment on US immigration issues, for instance—he could cover the NSA programs from the vantage point of the rest of the world that the NSA has said its Internet snooping is aimed at. And when (if) the U.S. news gets slower, it could give the writers an excuse to direct the show, usually heavy on U.S. media and politics, more toward international news and satire: TDS could, for a few weeks, be BBC Fake World News.
The show doesn’t seem overly interested in too much change, though, maybe for fear of losing viewers over the summer break. A bit on Oliver’s first night, in which he was confronted by the correspondents who didn’t get the job, acknowledged the idea that this was more of the same; Jessica Williams pantomimed being trapped under a glass ceiling—”It’s unbreakable, and all I can see up there is a bunch of white penises!
Of course, you could argue that even with Stewart in the anchor chair for 14 years now, The Daily Show isn’t broke and doesn’t need fixing. That may be true, but that doesn’t mean the show can’t use this break as an opportunity to play with what it could become in the future. This interlude may be, as Oliver said, a little weird, but it’s summer—why not make it a little weirder?