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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
  • @iburrell

"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.