John Oliver is now three weeks into his gig as guest host of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the show is going on a two week holiday break. When I voiced my displeasure with Stewart’s hiatus and his handing the reigns over to Oliver three weeks ago I said it didn’t make sense to write a review of a talk show host based on just one episode, but I think Oliver has enough episodes under his belt that now seems like an appropriate time for some sort of appraisal.
One thing that hasn’t changed since that inaugural outing is that, as I wrote back then, “It seems like the writing staff is simply writing the exact same type of jokes they’d write for Stewart and Oliver is delivering them.” It’s truly remarkable the extent to which Oliver has not been allowed to put his own stamp on the show whatsoever. It’s clear that Oliver is purely there as a caretaker host. The way the entire thing is being handled is something I’ve never seen on a talk show before. Oliver’s role as guest host seems to purely be to keep the show on the air, not imbue it with his own personality whatsoever, and constantly remind the audience that he’s just a fill-in and the regular host will be back in September.
So, contrary to what I wrote three weeks ago, Oliver’s willingness to take on the guest host role seems not to be a testament to his ambition to launch a career outside of The Daily Show but rather a result of his self-effacement. Rather than being what I thought it was then, a prize that should go to the strongest/most senior Correspondent, the guest hosting gig is basically thankless. While the rest of the correspondents get to do fun field pieces for their sizzle reels, Oliver’s job seems to be to make himself as unmemorable as possible while keeping the chair warm for his boss’s return.
The way the whole thing has played out has been so strange I wonder if it was the result of heavy negotiation between Stewart and Comedy Central. It seems like the show is doing the bare minimum to just keep the lights on without Stewart during the summer to avoid having to simply air reruns for three months. Though, to be sure, there will be plenty of reruns as all talk shows take multiple luxurious breaks during the summer months anyway.
Another tradition of summer, in general, is a bit of a news slow down, as elected officials and other newsmakers take their summer vacations and generally do less newsworthy stuff. That, of course, has absolutely not been the case this summer. In fact, Oliver has been forced to contend with an almost mind-blowing number of huge news stories over the last few weeks: from the NSA surveillance program revelations, to the huge Supreme Court decisions on same sex marriage and the Voting Rights Act, to the epic filibuster of the Texas State Legislature by Wendy Davis. So, if either Stewart or Comedy Central were considering simply not airing new episodes during this time period, I’m sure they’re glad they didn’t.
The Daily Show‘s response to all this has been to handle things exactly the way they would if Stewart were still there. Each episode begins with one or two segments of Oliver narrating and commenting on the big news stories of the day, exactly as Stewart would. Just as they did the first night, the writers and Oliver make no effort to alter the material at all to fit Oliver’s English accent or to express a different perspective. It’s exactly the same in tone and content as it is for Stewart, down to Oliver doing goofy voices, accents, and character bits at exactly the same times Stewart would do them. If you’re a big fan and can just hear in your head the way Stewart would do them, it’s always a bit jarring hearing Oliver’s take instead.
In one incredibly “meta” bit the show has already acknowledged how Oliver can’t deliver all the lines as he should due to his different accent/nationality. When it came time for a silly bit on the recent day when news stories about Jimmy Hoffa, White Bulger, and the real-life inspiration of the Jimmy “the Gent” Conway character from “Goodfellas” all came up, Oliver admitted that all of the appropriate accents were more in Stewart’s wheelhouse and proceeded to run a super cut of all of the many Goodfellas references/accents the New Jersey native had done over the years. (Go home and get your shine box indeed.)
In addition to all this Stewart has dropped in by remote once, and The Daily Show devoted a segment to Stewart’s appearance on the Egyptian equivalent of The Daily Show. Besides that every episode begins with a joke about what Stewart is doing while he’s gone and why Oliver is hosting.
John Oliver is doing just fine as guest host of The Daily Show. It’s just that the job description is much different than it used to be back when guest hosting arrangements were more common on talk shows. The job isn’t an audition to eventually take over as host or to get your own talk show as it once was. It’s to be a caretaker of the show, not make any waves, and constantly remind the audience that the permanent host is coming back.