How did a foul-mouthed Brit with a fifth-grade understanding of American politics become a hit US TV comedian? John Oliver talks about the secret to satire and that clash with Dustin Hoffman
There is a huge billboard of John Oliver in the middle of Times Square, announcing the fifth season of his show Last Week Tonight and causing the comedian to take an alternative route to work. Since he arrived in the US nearly 11 years ago, part of Olivers schtick has been the British person not just at sea in another country, but somewhat at sea in his own skin, a comic trope that aligns with the 40-year-olds fundamental discomfort with the trappings of fame.
Its all happened so quickly, says Oliver, who feels unhappy not only about the poster but, in the British style of ever-decreasing circles of self-consciousness, unhappy about the ingratitude his dislike of the poster might be said to show his employers. Which I know is bizarre to say, 11 years later, but I dont feel Ive come up for breath on any of this yet. He grins with the boyish incredulity that has become a large part of the appeal of his show. The fact there is a poster of me in Times Square is absurd.
It has been a strange thing, particularly for British observers, to watch Oliver transform from Jon Stewarts vaguely Beatles-like young sidekick into a middle-aged man with the heft both figuratively and literally to drive his own hit series. Last Week Tonight, in which he and his team use comedy to animate stories either too complicated or too dull to excite rolling news interest, is a relatively small product in the HBO canon, but clearly a big source of prestige. Watching Oliver land jokes about nefarious town planning, or tease from Edward Snowden confirmation of when the National Security Agency can look at pictures of his penis, not only makes the viewer feel smart, it has the giggly sense of laughing at things were not supposed to find funny. At its best and when it most often goes viral Last Week Tonight is that rare thing, a highly entertaining show with a measure of social utility (at its worst, it has the over-anxious air of someone trying to tap-dance life into the unmentionably tedious). Weve done some really boring things, Oliver says, with the delight of a man who has bucked every commercial principle in his industry and still come out victorious.