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.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

  • 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.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor