Americans love it when British people criticize us. Get Simon Cowell to insult our singing, or Gordon Ramsay to rant about our cooking, or Len Goodman to scrutinize our dancing, and we’ll be very happy. And we might have to fight another Revolutionary War before we understand the reasons why. English journalist and former Top Chef judge Toby Young once theorized that Americans love getting chastised by folks in the U.K. because it reminds us of the days when the United States was still a British colony. He thinks this memory allows us to believe that we’re still underdogs instead of the overbearing imperial power that we’ve become. In light of all this, I have to wonder what Young would make of The Daily Show’s “senior British correspondent” John Oliver replacing Jon Stewart for the next three months.
Oliver’s early Daily Show appearances really focused on his Britishness, which helped make the American politics he covered seem even more absurd. When a Tea Party supporter claimed that the Obama administration was more tyrannical than the British government of 1773, he got huffy. “That’s quite insulting to a British person,” he insisted. “I mean, we were tyrannical beyond this government’s wildest dreams!” His supposed jealousy of this country’s natural citizens was a frequent joke: Once, during an argument with Stewart about immigration, he quipped, “Like billions of other unfortunate people in the world, I tragically was not born American.” All of this probably made him feel less threatening to any U.S. native, especially to those who secretly believe that people with fancy accents are smarter than us.
Whatever the case, Oliver’s self-deprecating British humor certainly worked for him at the beginning of his Daily Show hosting debut. ”Welcome to The Daily Show,” he began. “I am John Oliver, and let’s all just acknowledge for a moment that this is weird. This looks weird, it feels weird, it even sounds weird – and this is my actual voice.” (The upshot? British people talk weird, and it’s funny! Or maybe it’s that they talk funny, and that’s weird?) He lamented that the NSA snooping scandal broke on his first day, preventing him from focusing solely on British jokes about the difference between footballs and soccer balls. Then he revealed his thwarted plans to take a “tea time” break halfway through the show and fly away at the very end, hanging from his umbrella handle like Mary Poppins. (Ha!) But once he started riffing on how to tell the difference between Americans and foreigners (“I guess you could ask, do you want to walk or drive?”) the conceit was wearing a little thin. By the time the other Daily Show correspondents started complaining that an immigrant got the job they wanted, it had gotten repetitive. “I should’ve just stayed here singing chimney sweep songs,” insisted Jason Jones. Wait, two Mary Poppins references in one episode? There must be some very good English jokes about blood pudding and national health care that are being ignored here.
As an interviewer, Oliver is prone to pitching softballs – or whatever they call those soft, ball-like things in the U.K. His “questions” for Seth Rogen were mostly just praise for the actor-director’s new movie This is the End, which Oliver is apparently “relieved” to have loved, noting that it’s a “ballsy move” for Rogen to make his first movie about a daunting subject like the end of the world. Attempts to rope Rogen into the NSA debate went nowhere. (“I dunno,” Rogen responded in the episode’s most unintentionally hilarious moment. “I assume they read all that s—.”) In his defense, Oliver admitted that he has never interviewed celebrities before. And what he lacked in journalistic rigor he made up for in charm. Nervously raking his hands through his hair, he worried aloud that the critics would think he was failing as host of the show. ”I’ve only been here for six minutes!” he pleaded, to which special correspondent Aasif Mandvi replied, “Buzzfeed just posted The 27 Worst Moments of John Oliver’s First Six Minutes.” It was a smart trick that just may get Buzzfeed on his side.
Maybe Toby Young is right: everyone loves an underdog, especially us Yanks. And, so far, Oliver’s playing that role pretty well. He worked in a few good jokes, arguing that the NSA’s information-gathering only affects the very few people who use the internet. (“I’ll bet the Amish are feeling pretty f—ing smug right now,” he said. “Or they would be feeling that way if they had any idea that this story was happening.”) But his best moment came from just telling the truth – which is, when you think about it, what most great comedy boils down to. Chastising the Obama administration for spying, he quipped, ”No one is saying that you broke any laws. We’re just saying that it’s a little bit weird that you didn’t have to.” Somehow, that line was delivered with extra punch, probably someone who grew up in a totally different legal system delivered it. Which brings us back to Oliver’s original question: How do you tell the difference between an American and a foreigner? Well, a smart foreigner is the one who gets away with telling that joke.
Melissa Maerz on Twitter: @MsMelissaMaerz
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