When Jon Stewart announced that he would be taking a three-month leave of absence to direct his first feature film—a passion project and political drama based on Maziar Bahari’s memoir Then They Came For Me—it took a few moments before the panic set in over the second bit of information, somewhat lost in the shuffle: John Oliver would take over as a guest host, the first extended substitute in Stewart’s tenure. No tragedy had ever kept Stewart away—and some of his greatest moments have come from steeling himself to perform in light of harrowing events. But a project of personal significance led Stewart to seek out some well-deserved time off to pursue directing a film.
Since Craig Kilborn left the show under acrimonious circumstances, and Stewart took over, The Daily Show has moved in a sharply political direction, which led to a dramatic improvement and steady rise in popularity as the George W. Bush presidency offered consistent opportunities for political lampooning. The Daily Show is so synonymous with Stewart to the point where in his other appearances, whether on Crossfire or as the first in-studio guest on Rock Center With Brian Williams, he seemed just a tad out of place. He took a show without a clear direction and placed a permanent stamp on it—with the help, it must be said, of former Onion writers Ben Karlin and David Javerbaum—to the point where there are serious questions about what The Daily Show without Jon Stewart would look like. Well fear not, because everything about the first week without Stewart in 14 years suggests everyone involved is just trying to keep the ship afloat while the captain goes ashore to explore for a bit. In that regard, it's a little bit like the fourth season of Community, only not as soulless and a lot funnier.
Of the correspondents—and really, of all working comedians at the moment—Oliver is a natural choice to take over the chair on a temporary basis: He’s a relatively younger stand-up veteran with comedic acting and hosting experience who focuses on political humor. His most notable quote to those who know his work (or are only casually aware he exists) is an observation on the inability to pass gun control legislation in the United States.
In his first week, Oliver acquits himself just fine as a guest host. He’s funny and engaging, and he proves capable of building a rapport with the studio audience, vamping and improvising when necessary, adopting Stewart’s trademark self-deprecation (though trading the Jewish bent for British stereotypes).
But that’s not the prime value of Stewart as a host. Sure, he has impeccable timing and just the right mix of righteous indignation, furious anger, and pure disbelief at ridiculous political news. Where Stewart truly shines, however, is in the relationship he’s developed and maintained with the viewing audience, the personal history he’s cultivated over the past 14 years covering momentous political occasions, pratfalls and breakthroughs, horrors and delights. John Oliver’s first week demonstrates that someone else can do a show just like Stewart, with all the mannerisms and similar delivery—but without the lead anchor, this isn’t really The Daily Show. No voices, no turning to different cameras, no established impressions or opinions or callbacks. Oliver doesn’t have a wealth of history to play off of to make fans of the show laugh at him. It’s telling that the show doesn’t have a re-recording of the introduction or a new graphic to reflect the guest host. This is Stewart’s show until he retires or dies, and the deference Oliver shows to Stewart even when using mock arrogance about slowly taking over demonstrates how everyone feels about the end of Stewart’s tenure, which is no longer an unfathomable figment far off in the distant future.
Now, to the shows themselves, which drum up a typical amount of comedy for a summer week when only the occasional scandal provides riffing fodder. Oliver has the benefit of mining the NSA scandal for a few days of material, something that always made Stewart’s shows better. Without something significant to comment on, the comedy can get a bit lean. And it’s yet another instance where The Daily Show proves it hasn't gone soft under a Democrat President, continuing to mock hypocrisy wherever it appears. But the best segment of the week was the first real in-depth reference to Stewart’s absence, as each correspondent showed up to give Oliver shit about his hosting duties and complaining about seniority or glass ceilings that should’ve afforded Jason Jones or Jessica Williams a shot. The show should’ve stopped there, since every subsequent joke about Stewart’s working holiday and Oliver’s green hosting status only weakens the earlier, stronger material. Stewart is gone for a few months, so there’s no need to keep bringing it up. Just move ahead with the satirical news commentary, and finish these episodes.
From these first four shows, it appears that Oliver won’t have to stretch too much to fill Stewart’s shoes. Guests like Seth Rogen have built-in promotional reasons for appearing (and along with Evan Goldberg, Rogen has done quite the publicity circuit on podcasts and television the past few weeks). Armando Ianucci offered Oliver the chance to gush over one of his idols, Mavis Staples took up interview time with two songs, and Oliver notes that Fareed Zakaria has been a guest so many times that it pales in comparison to his own interview segment experience.
With that and prerecorded 60 Minutes-style reported pieces, Oliver isn’t being tasked with replacing Jon Stewart, just with holding his place for a couple months. Comedy Central has scheduled repeats for part of Stewart’s absence shooting his directorial debut, meaning that this is a very temporary patch—but if Stewart’s film performs well, perhaps The Daily Show will adopt Johnny Carson-style guest hosts.
For now, Oliver won’t have to struggle to fill Stewart’s place or make the show his own. All he has to do is keep the train on its tracks until the real conductor returns. But what the first week of The Daily Show without Stewart in over a decade really reveals is that Comedy Central now has an institution on its hands unlike anything nighttime cable entertainment has ever seen. This is The Tonight Show of cable, with Larry King Live as the only quasi-equivalent in the past few decades. And when the inevitable time comes for Stewart to retire or move on if he so desires, Comedy Central will have an extremely difficult challenge finding the right person to follow a middling comedic supporting actor who took hold of an opportunity, found his voice, and became a cultural icon.
- This isn’t just like what happened when Johnny Carson got ready to retire. There were clear paths of succession there. Oliver isn’t looking to build a résumé as a future successor. And many longtime correspondents—like Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Rob Corddry, and Wyatt Cenac—have moved on to other things. But there’s no precedent for this situation at Comedy Central, and there aren’t many comedians or actors as well-suited to Stewart’s gig, with the timing, the ambition, and the intelligence to do what he does on a nightly basis.
- Best performer in the rag-on-Oliver correspondent fest: Samantha Bee. Somebody get her a chance to play the lead.
- Best interview of the week: Armando Ianucci. It’s impossible to say enough nice things about the guy, and for Oliver’s first interview that stretches to online bonus content, it’s just about perfect.