NEW YORK — Is there anything remotely funny about General Motors’ handling of an ignition-switch defect linked to at least a dozen deaths?
John Oliver admits it’s tough terrain. “I don’t think there were a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, great, corporate malfeasance. This is a comic gold mine,’” the British comic and news satirist recalled the other day. “It’s actually pretty grim.”
And yet Oliver and the writers of his forthcoming HBO news-parody show, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, took a whack at it last week in a test run for the program. Applying what he learned as the “senior British correspondent” on The Daily Show, Oliver and his fellow wits found a potentially amusing angle: the media meme, pushed by GM itself, that the company would somehow handle the unfolding debacle better or differently because its new chief executive, Mary Barra, is a woman and “a mom.”
“It’s so ridiculous,” said Oliver, gleefully recalling the source material, “the amount of times people mentioned that her quintessential chromosome situation was going to be a huge benefit to her while giving exactly the same [expletive] rote responses in that situation. It was really an amazing moment. It shows that a woman could give exactly as appalling a response” as any male executive.
Score one for gender parity. And score another for the Oliver twist on the news, which could vault Last Week to the top of the crowded ranks of TV shows making merry at the expense of the news and the news media.
Loud and loquacious, Oliver, 36, owes a debt of thanks to America’s journalists, particularly the Washington kind, for the very nice career he’s having. If it weren’t for the news media’s vapidity, cupidity, general stupidity, Oliver might still be back in his native England, doing who-knows-bloody-well what.
Instead, he’s become an almost-star on this side of the Atlantic, one of the few British comic performers to make it on American television. Oliver’s work on The Daily Show was so consistently sharp — check out his classic three-part series on American hypocrisy about gun control from last year — that host Jon Stewart promoted Oliver from fake reporter to fake temporary anchor when Stewart took a leave to direct a movie last summer. Oliver nailed his big chance, winning over critics and keeping Stewart’s fanatically loyal fans tuned in for the two-month interim. (He’s also had a recurring role on the NBC sitcom Community, playing an acerbic, alcoholic British professor).
His reward: HBO hired Oliver away last fall (with Stewart’s blessing, Oliver says) and handed him his own show, which debuts later this month.
As Oliver described it the other day in an interview at HBO’s midtown headquarters, Last Week will be quite a bit like The Daily Show, only once a week instead of, you know, daily. The resemblance to his former TV home doesn’t stop with the host, however. The new show will be run by executive producer Tim Carvell, who was the head writer and co-producer on The Daily Show.
But don’t expect The Weekly Daily Show. Oliver knows he’s at a time disadvantage. The challenge, he says, will be to pick up on stories that haven’t yet been chewed over by his old friends at The Daily Show and The Colbert Report — as well as by Kimmel, Conan, Letterman, Fallon, Ferguson, Bill Maher, Seth Meyers and Saturday Night Live — by the time Last Week gets around to them.
“There are certain things to which you’re going to be the last visitor to the party,” says Oliver, a boyish, rangy fellow whose narrow face and shaggy mop are set off by fashionably unfashionable dark-framed glasses. “That’s going to steer us in a different direction.”
Oliver & Co. dropped a few hints about what to expect last week by releasing two videos on YouTube that parodied the Republican National Committee’s latest outreach ad to young voters. The bits were a mild hit, with one racking up more than 180,000 views.
The videos highlighted Oliver’s immersion in popular culture, as well as his political worldview. Both pre-dated his arrival on U.S. soil in 2006 (he’d never been to America when The Daily Show hired him as a writer that year). He’s been talking about those subjects in his stand-up act, on his long-running podcast, The Bugle (with British pal Andy Zaltzman), and as a panelist on the BBC news-quiz program Mock the Week.