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.
The best TV shows and films coming to the servicetv
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
- 2 Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes, may now face death penalty
- 3 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
- 4 Dakota Johnson's 'It's only Isis' Saturday Night Live sketch sparks controversy
- 5 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
Broadchurch series 3: David Tennant and Olivia Colman to return for third season, ITV confirms
EastEnders may bring transgender character to Albert Square to challenge 'traditional' viewers
Game of Thrones season 5 spoilers: What we can expect according to George RR Martin's books
Indian Summers recommissioned: Channel 4 confirm a second series of British Empire drama
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Russia's roadmap for annexing eastern Ukraine 'leaked from Vladimir Putin's office'