August 28, 2013

CARGAS | Jo(h)n In Waiting

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Earlier this month, John Oliver ended his three-month stint as interim host of The Daily Show. With Jon Stewart off filming his directorial debut Rosewater in the Middle East, Oliver stepped in to keep the show going and take a turn at the helm of television’s funniest news show (or is it the most informative comedy show?).

In his stand-up, Oliver plays the role of a bewildered outsider. He jokes about his accent, his expertise in collapsing empires and his inability to understand certain aspects of American culture — most notably, his vehement loathing for Tim Tebow. When I saw him last Christmas, he sang the entirety of ”Ignition (Remix)” for no discernible reason other than illustrating the reality that a dour English brunette in nerdy glasses is perhaps the polar opposite of R. Kelly. As a correspondent on The Daily Show, he continued this act, once claiming that Britain is a wildly unhappy place and “the only thing that gets us through the day is the comings and going of a genetically attenuated obsolescence and their collection of tremendously silly fucking hats.” As a stand-up comedian or The Daily Show’s Senior British Correspondent, Oliver implored us to laugh at him — affectionately, of course, but rarely were we asked to sympathize with his persona.

Hosting The Daily Show, however, is a different animal altogether. Jon Stewart is a comedic institution. Left-leaning fans are called to laugh, cry and explode in Santorum-hating rage with him. Sure, he’s self-deprecating, and he’ll point out the immaturity or sheer ridiculousness of his jokes, but rarely is his own confusion or ineptitude the root of the joke. Far more often, he aims to show his own humanity while still letting someone else be the laughingstock. (On another note, this is the biggest difference between Stewart and Stephen Colbert: Stewart points out the inanity of other people, while Colbert adopts their views to elicit laughter.) Throwing Oliver into this position could have been alienating to a rabidly loyal fanbase — not only because Oliver likes to play up his national and cultural background, but also because the butt of the jokes could have changed. And of course, there’s the fact that he is a human being other than Jon Stewart.

Of course, it went perfectly. And we should have known it would. Writers at The Daily Show have screwed up little in recent memory, though a number of transphobic one-liners do spring to mind. (I’m holding out hope that these will retire when Stewart does.) At the beginning of the summer, Oliver hit a few roadblocks in the forms of floundering interviews and talking over audience laughter. But in just three months, he evolved from a host who didn’t know how to maintain a conversation with someone as easy-going as Seth Rogen to a comedian who can make Regis Philbin seem charming and relevant. He mastered the art of talk show timing and struck a balance between self-deprecation and righteous outrage. Most interestingly, however, was the extent to which he played down his Britishness. It came out at times — this was the summer of #RoyalBaby — but he primarily mimicked Stewart’s position of the outraged, appalled or simply bemused insider. The obvious exceptions to this rule were his first and last episode, each of which centered around the idea that Oliver was an incompetent and unqualified replacement. Oliver certainly has no obligation to discuss his nationality or culture, but the near-eradication of it from his comedic repertoire is remarkable. While Stewart might be the sanctified host of The Daily Show, he doesn’t reach the same level of versatility as Oliver; his hilarious but sloppy set at Barton in 2011 is proof of that.

At the beginning of each of his episodes, Oliver acknowledged Stew-art’s absence with a different, increasingly ludicrous excuse (from “Jon Stewart remains trapped in a Chilean mine with 18 other talk show hosts” to “Jon Stewart is currently waiting to emerge from Kate Middleton’s vagina”). Consistently funny and timely, these introductions were a brilliant way to ease Oliver into the role. Never did he attempt to replace Stewart, nor was the audience asked to forget that this was Stewart’s show. Oliver was met with open arms and ready laughter, rather than the animosity that replacement hosts often face. According to Deadline, Oliver attracted an average of 1.3 million viewers during his run. This time last year, the show was averaging 1.5 million viewers. Keeping in mind that last summer was the era of Republican primaries and pre-election hype, Oliver has certainly held his own. Now that Stewart’s returned to New York, Oliver will return to his role as a correspondent. Now, though, he’s gained our affection, trust and a brand new position as everyone’s favorite Jo(h)n-in-waiting.

Original Author: Gina Cargas