It’s still called The Daily Show “with Jon Stewart”, only now it’s not with Jon Stewart.
In a press release announcing that he’d be standing in for two months as the host of America’s leading comedy news show, the Birmingham-born comic John Oliver was quoted as saying: “Don’t worry, it’s still going to be everything you love about The Daily Show, just without the thing you love the most about it.”
On Monday night, as he eased into Stewart’s chair for the first time, Oliver probably dispelled the worst fears of any young American liberals who were concerned that their hero’s replacement would turn out to be a stiff, boring Brit. The new chap was nervous, certainly, but no less funny than his boss on an average evening. And, as his debut celebrity guest, Seth Rogen, noted: “It’s nice they got a guy with the same name, so I don’t have to learn a new one.”
Over the past decade, under Stewart’s stewardship, The Daily Show has been an unlikely beacon of sanity in the mad swirl of US television news. During the Bush administration, surveys suggested it had become many viewers’ primary news source. With 10 Emmy Awards in as many years and 2.5 million viewers per night – making it the top-rated late-night show among America’s under-50s – there’s little reason to think that has changed under President Barack Obama.
So Stewart has earned a holiday. But instead, he’ll be spending the next eight weeks in the Middle East, directing his first feature film, Rosewater, an adaptation of the Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari’s memoir of incarceration by the Tehran regime, Then They Came For Me. Stewart’s choice of guest host, a 36-year-old ex-Cambridge Footlight, began work on Comedy Central’s flagship programme a day after landing in America for the first time, in 2006.
“It sounds weird to me,” Oliver said, introducing the show in his chirpy Brum. “And this is my actual voice.”
In one neat sequence, each of the other regular correspondents – including the long-serving Jason Jones and his wife, Samantha Bee – fulminated about being passed over for the hosting slot in favour of Oliver, as they reported from as far afield as “NSA headquarters”, “Hong Kong” and “Utah” (meaning, more likely, from a green screen in the next-door studio).
Part of the charm of The Daily Show is in Stewart playing straight man to his correspondents’ comic personae; in his capacity as “Senior British Correspondent”, Oliver has always been an arrogant, ignorant, indignant hack. Now he, too, must play it straight. Luckily, he had big news to tackle on his first day: the NSA whistleblower scandal. On any real TV news show, a major breaking story would be terrifying for a rookie anchor. On a fake news show, it’s a gift box of comic material.
Stewart’s original go-to guest host was Stephen Colbert, a former cast member who now has his own comedy news show. If Oliver keeps this up all summer, he might expect the same.