John Oliver kicked off his three-month stint at hosting The Daily Show on Monday with a barb about Michael Douglas' throat cancer. The audience only halfheartedly laughed. "HE LEFT YOU!" Oliver roared.
Yes, Jon Stewart has left the building to direct his film Rosewater, and, according to Oliver, to learn to cobble shoes. Oliver gets it in gear after that misfire, and manages to skewer the NSA electronic-surveillance scandal in true Daily Show fashion. "Mr. President, no one is saying you broke any laws," he quips, "It's just a little bit weird that you didn't have to."
This will be the longest time that Stewart has been off the air in his 15 years hosting The Daily Show. That's right, folks, if you remember Craig Kilborn behind the desk, you’re officially old. Oliver is a great pick to take over for the summer (although Sam Bee could have done just as well). That aside, no one can replace Stewart. This is the man who led us through Indecision 2000, 2004, and 2008. Stewart was one of the first people to actually crack a joke after 9/11. "They said to get back to work, but there were no jobs for a man sitting under his desk in the fetal position crying." Later, when he began interviewing guests about the post-9/11 fallout, he got serious without getting unfunny. Holding up a Newsweek cover, he asked then-editor Fareed Zakaria, "Why they hate us?" with a serene, puppy-like expression.
It's Stewart's earnestness that gets him both flak and praise from the people who watch his show. The correspondents get to be cynics (Stephen Colbert, whose tenure actually predates Stewart’s, chief among them for eight years), but Stewart has to be the guy with behind the desk blithely believing the truth is out there. It's hard to imagine Oliver (or anyone else) making themselves quite as vulnerable as Stewart. If you like Stewart, it’s probably because he seems genuinely confused by corruption, greed and willful ignorance. Check out his disbelief at BP's total denial of its egregious safety record in 2010.
Oliver has been on the show for nine years, and he's best known for being the British correspondent who gets to poke fun at Americans and Brits alike. His most recent trip to Australia to cover that country's gun-control legislation is probably the best example of his style.
His befuddlement while hanging out with a man in a kangaroo suit in the Australian outback is the kind of Daily Show absurdity that fits Oliver well. He isn't as bawdy as Jason Jones, or as cutting as Bee. He's snarky, but trades on his British manner to pretend to be more dignified than he is. That translates well in his first outing as Daily Show host. He's witty without being mean -- my favorite type of Daily Show humor.
Oliver's first interview was with Seth Rogen, and we won't get to see him take someone outside the entertainment industry until Thursday, when Daily Show favorite Fareed Zakaria returns. This seems like a deliberate ramp-up for Oliver. Talking to Mavis Staples is low-risk when compared with Stewart's high-wire interviews with Mike Huckabee or Bill Clinton. If Oliver is going to win over Stewart's fans, he'll eventually need to take bigger and bigger risks with his guests. Stewart is able to interview Maggie Gyllenhaal one day, and a Cabinet secretary the next. We don't know yet if Oliver is quite that limber.
It's too soon to start predicting Stewart's departure from the show, although plenty of writers are ready to send him off with a touching eulogy. In the meantime, we have three months to come to a conclusion about John Oliver -- and the man is off to a pretty promising start.