Some people get all cranky about the assertion that we're living in a "Golden Age" of TV. They say, "Hey, who are you, Mister Critic, to decide that? I like my cheesy sci-fi show, so phooey to you and your deep dramas."
Whatever. Can we all agree that we are certainly living in a very, very good age of late-night comedy? Most weeknights, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report offer rich and often raw mockery of the day's events. Jimmy Kimmel can be mightily mean and funny. Letterman can still stir himself to expressing refined and funny contempt for some tomfoolery or other he's observed. Most significantly, Jay Leno is on his way out, perhaps heralding an ending that marks a new beginning.
Soon comes John Oliver, to do late night comedy for HBO.
Oliver, long a sidekick to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and, last summer, temporary stand-in host for many weeks, says he's ready to go solo. Kind of. Nervous, excited and very funny about the prospect.
HBO scheduled an appearance here for Oliver at the end of its presentation; it turned out to be the perfect moment. He came after a disturbingly unpleasant session for HBO's Girls, in which the show's producers and Lena Dunham failed to show any grace in dealing with questions about Dunham's nudity and by the lack of racial diversity on the series.
So Oliver arrived, sarcastic and ready to laugh, at both himself and whatever he was asked. First he dealt with a question about how he assessed his stand-in gig for Stewart. "I set myself the achievable goal of just not destroying that particular franchise," he said. "So the fact that it's still there and Jon is still doing it, I took that as in the 'win' column. I guess it went well. Comedy is subjective. I'm sure some people thought, 'Get that British imposter off my favourite TV show.'"
There followed a long bit of whimsical comedy in which Oliver responded to the news that Sarah Palin would be here for breakfast the next morning. "Good for her. Good for her. So she has a new show on a sports channel, does she? She's going to do to sports what she did to politics." Then he claimed he was tempted to stick around and crash the event. A critic offered to give him an accreditation badge.
His HBO show won't air until this spring, he says. "This is, I think, day three of production. So the format does not exist at the moment. We're working on that. It will be making fun of things. That is a fairly broad format. So we're going to work that out over the next few months. And as for Jon [Stewart], I ask his advice on anything. I'll probably ask his advice on whether I should check into this hotel tonight and go to breakfast tomorrow morning. As a comedian, I'm almost allergic to sincerity, but he has been incredible."
Oliver was in such fine fettle that he offered to brainstorm with the critics right there, about possible titles for the HBO show. Soon, came this: "John, considering your surname is Oliver … " And Oliver did a long, heavy-British accent drawled, "Yeeeees?"
The critic ventured, "Could I have some more, please?" Oliver feigned outrage at this use of a quote from Oliver Twist. "Well, that's racist! You see, it's okay for me to do Dickens humour. But you really cannot do Dickens humour. Please understand how offensive that is, to one of our greatest novelists. You're suggesting as a title, Can I Have Some More, Please, with John Oliver?"
"Hold on, here. Let me just break down what just happened in this room. You thought, 'Well, he's going to HBO, you know, premium channel. He wants to cause a stir. What about Can I Have Some More, Please.' Are you thinking of me holding out a bowl of gruel, as well? Hmmm. Well, I'll put it on the list."
Part of Oliver's charm and one of the foundations of his wit, is his Englishman's startled perspective on the United States, something he's managed to nourish without alienating the American audience despite working in the U.S. for more than seven years.
"This has been a key seven-and-a-half years, he says, making a rare foray into semi-seriousness. "I arrived for the last years of President Bush's administration. There have been different things to make fun of. America has been very generous in what it has offered up as joke subjects over the years. And American politics in particular is a circus of crazy that is unparalleled around the world."
This brought a wave of laughter. Oliver stood up to leave. "And you can take that as both a compliment and an insult," he shouted. "I mean it as both!"
His HBO show will begin by airing only once a week. On the evidence of his Daily Show work and his presentation here, viewers will ask, "Can I have some more please?" And nobody can possibly be cranky about the quality on late-night TV comedy these days.
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