A correction has been added to this post, as indicated below.
Monday night will go down in history as the night that John Oliver began an eight-week stint substituting for Jon Stewart on Comedy Central's “The Daily Show.” Stewart, said Oliver, was “going to a small Italian village to learn how cobble shoes,” but in fact he is directing a movie. It's called “Rosewater,” is based on a book by Iranian Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, and it isn't a comedy; though it will surely not be without comedy.
“Let's all just acknowledge for a moment that this is weird,” the guest host began. “This looks weird, it feels weird, it even sounds weird -- it sounds weird to me, and this is my actual voice.” It did look a little weird, I suppose, but not for long. The cognitive dissonance was nothing a reasonably flexible adult mind could not handle.
Stewart is not himself the first host of “The Daily Show” (now called “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” even with Oliver in his chair). He replaced Craig Kilborn and has been briefly spelled in the past by Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell, among others. But this is first extended hiatus
Tall, dark and beaky (and at 36, Stewart's age when he took over the show) Oliver is a sensible choice as the summer replacement. As its so-called Senior British Correspondent, he is well-known to viewers of the “Daily Show,” on which he's worked before and behind the camera since 2006. But he's also hosted three seasons of “John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show” (also for Comedy Central) and has had a recurring role on NBC's “Community.”
He is a peculiar enough presence to be instantly memorable and contrasts usefully with Stewart, while maintaining his boss's capacity for excitement and umbrage. He also brings weight to the part. Being a fake news anchor, as represented more or less entirely by “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” does require a kind of gravitas commensurate with being a real news anchor. Stewart and Colbert are trusted voices; in their irony, we feel, there is truth.
Discomfort as a comedy device was, nevertheless, built into Oliver's first night, with several preemptive admissions of inferiority. “I look forward to explaining to him exactly who... I am,” he said of fortuitously scheduled first-night guest Seth Rogen (who is not only famous but laughs at everything), adding what seemed to be an ad lib: “That's about 30% a joke.“
Of his impending temporary tenure, Oliver had earlier said, “It’s still going to be everything that you love about ‘The Daily Show,’ just without the thing that you love the most about it.” His comparative physical stiffness does remind us just how rambunctious a personality Stewart is, how active and exaggerated and musical and very comfortable he is in that chair – and how much he moves around in it.
At the same time, the writers are still the writers, the jokes are still good. And Oliver, who has proven himself funny in many venues, had no trouble selling them.
Also fortuitously, history handed him the gift of a fast news day, courtesy the ongoing story of the NSA's surveillance of American phone calls, emails and Internet habits. “I bet the Amish are feeling pretty ... smug right now,” he said. “Or they would be feeling that way if they had any idea this story was happening.”
That there are other “Daily Show” “correspondents” who might have filled Stewart’s chair was also a point the show made for you, giving several a chance to vent (under cover of “remote” reports on the NSA story). Jason Jones, whose 2009 report from Iran -- the actual, not the green-screened Iran -- is what first brought Maziar Bahari into the “Daily Show” circle: “We trusted the guy in charge, believed his promises about advancement and career opportunities and seniority.” Samantha Bee: “Ten years I've been here talking American only to be leapfrogged by a godforsaken foreigner.” Jessica Williams: “I'm having trouble hearing you over this glass ceiling.” Aasif Mandvi: “Buzzfeed just posted the 27 worst moments of John Oliver's first six minutes.”
Rogen was there to promote his new movie, “This Is the End.” (“I can't let Jon Stewart be the only Jew in Hollywood directing movies,” he said, forgetting Judd Apatow for the moment, among many less relevant others.)
“Thank you so much for turning up,” said Oliver.
“It's nice they got a guy with the same name,” Rogen replied. “So I don't have to learn a new one.”
[For the record, June 11, 2013, 3:50 p.m.: A previous version of this post misstated the title of Seth Rogen's new film as "The End of the World." It is "This Is the End."]