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John Oliver’s Daily Show: A Little “Weird,” But Maybe It Should Be Weirder

Oliver is effective and prepared with British-guy jokes, but here's hoping The Daily Show uses this summer as a chance to experiment with its formula.

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Comedy Central

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?

12 comments
KasijaPomanov
KasijaPomanov

It is Weird. What they should of done is let Lewis Black and other corespondents do the show so they would keep it fresh

jhoughton1
jhoughton1

Y'all do realize the Daily Show has writers, right?  No matter who's sitting in the chair. Jon Stewart doesn't just sit there and riff. 

jondelfin
jondelfin like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@jhoughton1 The problem for me is that so far, at least, it sounds like they're still writing for Jon Stewart. Almost nothing in the non-meta material (Oliver's self-referential stuff) sounds like anything other than what JS would say. I'm a big fan of JO's work (TDS, stand-up, The Bugle), and my hope is that by next week, he'll be more him and less Jon.

jhoughton1
jhoughton1

@jondelfin @jhoughton1 Yes, well...they do have a franchise to protect.  I don't remember, did Colbert ever fill in for an appreciable amount of time?  And if so, did he make it a Colbert show or try to color inside the lines laid down by Stewart.  I would think the latter.  Stewart is the money; you placehold for him, you don't change the show.

FrankBlank
FrankBlank

Ponziwonk is overthinking things here.  BBC fake world news?  Huh?  The world, where's that?  In the heartland?  Florida?    

TheHoobie
TheHoobie

I do kind of miss each guy in his older role (Oliver was so particularly great at cussing out the host [not that Mandvi, Bee, Madrigal, and Williams are slouches!], and Oliver's host-patter is currently so similar to Stewart's that it's hard not to feel a bit of cognitive dissonance and miss "the real thing"). I wonder if part of Oliver's discomfort in interviews isn't just that he's star-struck. That didn't work so well for me when he was interviewing Iannucci, but his sweetness with Mavis Staples last night (eg, ridiculing his own accent) was really endearing. With Jon Stewart in interviews, I always liked how you could just tell when the overtly respectful Stewart secretly did not have a lot of respect for the person on the other side of the desk (he seems to reeaaally dislike Arianna Huffingpo, which is hard to ding him for).

Although I agreed with one minor point in it (I too watched that IRS segment wondering what its point of view was), I otherwise really didn't like this question-begging article:  http://www.salon.com/2013/06/07/do_we_need_a_break_from_jon_stewart_too/ I hadn't realized that apparently It Is a Truth Universally Acknowledged that we are all sick of Jon Stewart, and the article includes that infuriating bruxism-inducing canard that the Rally to Restore Sanity was a lame failure because it didn't pick a side. And I like Stewart's accents! Even though his Donald Trump doesn't actually sound much like Donald Trump, it somehow just nails Trump's coarse, crass essence.

Even though I love John Oliver and I'd love to see more perspectives on the news and different stuff on late night, I'll still miss Stewart, and I hope he comes back refreshed and ready to pick up pretty much right where he left off. When he's on a roll and nailing some stupidity to the wall with passionate fury, there's just nothing better. I feel like we need that, that he helps make the world a better place, often literally:  http://swampland.time.com/2010/12/20/did-jon-stewart-turn-the-tide-on-the-911-first-responders-bill/

TheHoobie
TheHoobie

Oh, another issue I had with that anti-Stewart article in Salon is that---either because he misunderstands their arguments or because he wants to shoehorn them into his "Jon Stewart's a false-equivalencer" narrative---the author (Daniel D'Addario) doesn't portray Paul Krugman's and Jonathan Chait's objections to The Daily Show's treatment of the debt ceiling correctly. For both Krugman and Chait, the main problem was that Stewart/The Daily Show didn't seem to understand the factual fundamentals of fiscal policy, not that they weren't blaming the Republicans enough. Here: http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/12/lazy-jon-stewart/ and here: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/01/jon-stewart-flunks-econ.html

vilechuckles
vilechuckles

@TheHoobie I read the article and you shouldn't take it too seriously.  It came off a little petty and just for good measure he threw in the false equivalency crap to seemingly give his grievances an air of legitimacy.  What a lot of liberals, including a lot of liberal press, don't get is just because they aren't hiding where they're coming from or "They lie, we don't" doesn't mean you're not dirty.  They participate in the same tribalistic garbage and audience pandering.  They like to ignore they're a mouthpiece for a party that's as equally bought and sold as the other.

FrankBlank
FrankBlank

@TheHoobie re: flunking econ - Economics is merely a meth driven version of amateur sociology.  How can you flunk something that calls itself a science yet can't predict anything?  

vilechuckles
vilechuckles

@TheHoobie Yeah, a lot of people soured on him after the rally, especially liberals and a lot of the liberal press.  I went, I'm glad I went, but I was disappointed.  I don't fault Stewart for it, but he seriously underestimated how seriously everyone else was taking it.  I really had no idea what to expect but I was hoping it could be THE RALLYING CRY.  Instead we got an o.k. stage show, a good speech, and just like that everybody left.  In the end he got what he inadvertently wanted because now no one is expecting him to be the mouth piece anymore.

TheHoobie
TheHoobie

@vilechuckles Huh. I can see where it might not have lived up to its promise. One issue I had at the time was that I was dismayed when the Colbert Report was roped into and attached to it---as much as I love Stephen C and understood that people naturally want to see him and Stewart as a complementary pair, it seemed like a bad idea in that Colbert's schtick would be working at direct cross-purposes to the idea of the rally. Oh well---I wanna say that at worst, the rally was a noble experiment....