John Oliver: British comedian written off at home has last laugh in US

He performed with David Mitchell and Richard Ayoade in Cambridge Footlights but had to emigrate to gain recognition


"John Oliver has based his debut Edinburgh show on death, a concept he can be no stranger to, given the lukewarm reception his obscure observations receive."

So began a review on the leading British comedy website, Chortle, of the 2002 Edinburgh Festival stand-up routine of a Birmingham-born comedian who tonight debuts his own coast-to-coast show on America's HBO.

In the US, Oliver has made it to the A-list. In New York's subways, his face stares back at you alongside posters for the new Mad Men series and other small-screen hits.

Put his image on British public transport and few would recognise him. Despite the cult popularity of The Bugle, a podcast that Oliver, 37, makes with fellow British comedian Andy Zaltzman, the new HBO star is pretty much invisible in his homeland.

A year after that 2002 review, Chortle editor Steve Bennett saw Oliver again and described him as "a comedic craftsman, taking sometimes unpromising raw materials to create a thing of art". But – aside from a slot on the BBC3 show The State We're In and some panel appearances on Mock the Week – British television largely ignored him.

"It's very rare that someone makes it in the States and has almost no profile over here," Bennett says now of Oliver's "observational comedy with a political edge".

Appearing as a British correspondent on The Daily Show, Oliver "perfectly subverted the US stereotype of the uptight Brit and that really ingratiated him with the savvy comedy audience over there", says Shane Allen, head of comedy at the BBC.

Unfortunately for Oliver, British TV has evolved differently from that in the US and there are few openings for his observational satire, said Allen. "US television has loads of irreverent topical comedy, from the talk shows of Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon and David Letterman to the purer satire of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report; and advertising money is still there as they're geared towards young audiences. John's reactive satire comedy chops haven't got many outlets on British TV."

Oliver has been assisted in his long slog to the top by the British comedy powerhouse Avalon Entertainment, which represents him. Jon Thoday, Avalon's managing director, noted that Oliver was part of the same Cambridge Footlights troupe as David Mitchell and Richard Ayoade. He said his success in the US rather than here was "a prime example of how UK broadcasters are not prepared to risk money on guaranteeing new talent a chance to mature".

According to the BBC's Shane Allen: "If John had stayed in the UK, he'd probably still be doing Radio 4 topical shows and earning meagre money – good on him making the career leap he has."

Oliver acknowledged his debt to The Daily Show host with typically sardonic humour. "Most of all, I'd like to thank Jon Stewart. He taught me everything I know. In fact, if I fail in the future, it's entirely his fault."

He has been openly critical of British arrogance towards American comedy. "One of the laziest stereotypes that British people have of Americans is that they don't get irony," he told The Washington Post. "That has never been true and it's definitely not true now."

But Oliver has another chance to find a television audience among his compatriots: his show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, also starts on Tuesday on Sky Atlantic.

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before