What’s so funny about John Oliver

The Emmy-winning political comic has a standup gig at Kennedy Center that's nearly sold out.

John Oliver has accomplished the impossible. He has personally won 13 Emmy Awards and doesn’t have a six-pack. Do you have any idea how hard that is?

While most of the seats for his upcoming stint from Tuesday, December 28, to Saturday, January 1, at the Kennedy Center appear to be sold out at this point, it is absolutely still worth a shot to try to get a ticket if you can.

John Oliver

Oliver is, of course, the titular host of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on HBO, which has won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series six years in a row, as well as two Peabody Awards. Oliver was included in the 2015 Time 100, and was described as a “comedic agent of change… powerful because he isn’t afraid to tackle important issues thoughtfully, without fear or apology.”

He also used to get heckled out of comedy clubs.

Oliver started his career with stand-up comedy (after being a member of the famous Footlights while in college at Cambridge) and, perhaps surprisingly, did not succeed in the UK. For whatever reason, his stylings didn’t fly there. Why?

Some have argued that the most popular brands of humor in the UK tend to be more surreal, or dry, or slightly less bold and direct in their messaging. Meanwhile, Oliver’s humor tends to lean more into a blend of Pythonesque wit and the Daily Show’s style of “direct observation made humorously” rather than drier, even passive-aggressive observations.

Also, very few people actually ever define the word Pythonesque when they use it, so out of the sheer goodness of my heart I will tell you specifically what I mean: Oliver too uses a highly creative, ebulliently, and unabashedly silly approach to juxtaposing the formal with the absurd. Yes, the Pythons were frequently surrealist and dry, undoubtedly. But they also made the sketch “How Not to Be Seen,” where a British government spokesman delivers a droll PSA on how citizens can avoid, simply, “being seen.” As the off-screen spokesman courteously directs the volunteers to reveal themselves from behind bushes in a Windsor-accented voiceover, each is shot, one by one, without any elaboration or explanation whatsoever.

This specific sketch demonstrates the value of not being s–…uh, of combining “dry” British humor with a (literally) “point-blank” approach to directly attacking an opponent. 

John Oliver on ‘Last Week Tonight.’ HBO photo.

Oliver has in many ways fueled Last Week Tonight with this very approach. And while the show seems to have changed its comedic style somewhat in the last two to three seasons, this technique, nay, superpower (its then-innovative power helped catapult the Pythons to a footnote in history books… in fairness, it’s probably the best comedians can hope for), is still very much present.

More broadly speaking, perhaps this is why British humor tends to be so successful as a comedic template. The wild and exaggerated, juxtaposed with the dampened, organized, and understated — i.e., the British “stiff upper lip” — is objectively funny. It is. I won’t be taking comments about subjectivity; it absolutely, objectively is.

And given that many traditional stereotypes of the British include some degree of formality and stiffness, to have a disenchanted Brit using that stiffness and incredulity in his personal idiosyncrasies, whilst still delivering the news and commentary with an unabashed furiousness, ultimately combines into a genius juxtaposition of traits for an engaging comedic performance. And even if Oliver (or his director on Last Week Tonight, Christopher Werner, whom I got to interview last year on my late-night show at Georgetown!) are not even actively or purposefully trying to achieve this — if Oliver is reciting the news items with a degree of measured formality and then flying into a rage driven by how he actually feels, or drolly reading off a very silly joke that might make even him break — he’s hitting all the points that make up an ideally designed comedic performance regardless. So kudos.

Setting aside Oliver’s joke-to-joke stylings and thinking now about the format in which those stylings can thrive, and have best thrived: some have observed that Oliver’s more direct, point-blank style of addressing an event or attacking a public figure works more effectively in a one-man comedic monologue on a late-night show (or as the co-host of The Bugle), than if they were shoehorned into “side quips” on a panel show like Mock the Week (where he was a frequent guest on the first two series when he was based in the UK). You can find clips of his appearances on the British news panel show Mock the Week from 2005-ish, where the audience can be heard, deafeningly, not laughing.

It may very well be this “directness” that helps Oliver thrive in his semi-journalistic (sans the semi, really) sphere of Last Week Tonight. On this show, he is essentially a cable news host reading off an op-ed into a camera — except that op-ed is more comedic in nature than your standard David Brooks or Thomas Friedman fare. Direct transparency in discussing facts and commenting on them is fundamental to clear journalism — or the clear setup of a joke that will make the punchline hit all that harder.

Sadly, it seems that Oliver hasn’t had much extra time to engage with his first love of stand-up for much of the last decade and a half. And during that time, his own personal “voice” has largely been at best filtered, and at worst, obscured by the voices of other talented writers. While Oliver hosts Last Week Tonight and is credited as one of its writers, for those who are aware of his authentic personal style from his early years, it feels that, while the Last Week Tonight writing team is certainly writing in “his voice” — or at least in a voice that works well with his style — his unique brand of observation and language only peeks through some of the time. Based on what we understand of the Last Week Tonight writing process, John Oliver, who has personally won 13 Emmys, is currently a talking head for a team of roughly 10 twenty-, thirty-, and maybe forty-something writers. We haven’t gotten to hear from him, unadulterated and unsullied, since 2014, when he hosted the last of four seasons of John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show: a gig that consisted of him usually opening each episode with a very brief set. (This is of course sans a three-shows-in-three-nights stint at the Kennedy Center in 2016, but no recordings, not even bootlegs — bummer — were released, not giving those who weren’t in the theater much to work with.) 

Ultimately, we only have concrete evidence of his own actual “voice” from his pre-Daily Show work, John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show, and interviews with the press and other late-night hosts. We don’t know much about who John Oliver — the host of the show that has been credited with potentially impacting American legislation, court rulings, and regulation — really “is” now, sans those 15-minute interviews with Stephen Colbert every six months. Given the impact he’s having, it would be really nice to actually meet this guy.

It has of course been quite interesting to see Oliver evolve from his earlier self to his present persona. Interestingly, the comedy in Last Week Tonight is ultimately quite a different product than his stand-up work, with far more structure. Last Week Tonight’s comedy is commentary oriented around news items, constructed as such: news item, commentary, commentary, joke (the “point-point-point-joke” model, a technique Last Week Tonight has used since Season 1, Episode 1 that some friends and I have thus observed, titled, and submitted for a patent).

Stand-up comedy is structurally quite different from this: it doesn’t rely on a model that demands joke-less analysis of multilevel marketing to arrive at a punchline. While there is certainly a formula that comprises a (good) set, there is far less mandated structure for a stand-up set than a pseudo-newscast, monologue-slash-desk bit. So yes, these are two concretely different art forms. 

It is interesting to watch Oliver’s 2014 interview with PBS, in which he is asked, “When did you first decide that you wanted to focus on current events?” and he responds: 

“When you do standup, you are just concerned with trying to leave with some semblance of human dignity at the end of your performance. Once you learn how to make people laugh, then you get to choose how exactly you want to make them laugh. So then you get to make jokes about things you actually care about. So rather than doing anything to make people laugh, you can then select, ah, well, maybe I’m interested in talking about my life, or about politics, or about sports. You can direct your comedy.”

Perhaps this serves as a clue to why he started to go into more political-based news instead. Did he see a market he felt had an opening for him, and left stand-up for said market? Or was he bored by the focus of apolitical stand-up? Did he feel like he’d “graduated” from stand-up and was able to move into using the comedic skills he’d developed to talk about something he cared about, like “politics,” as he described? Has he found a way, in the quiet recesses of his busy, 13-Emmy-winning career, to write and deliver apolitical standup in a way he finds interesting and worthy of performance? Even his pre-Last Week Tonight standup tended to be explicitly or implicitly political, with much of it explicating on his delighted fascination with “that special quality in Americans.”

As he said in one 2012 stand-up set performed in Canada: “Americans are heroes, and I’ll tell you why… They don’t waste time overthinking things. Do you honestly think any other country could have put a man on the moon? Of course not. That is a stupid thing to do. Only America could pull that off. ‘Cause only America would send his friend up a few years later with a set of golf clubs so they could wack a few balls around up there. It makes complete sense if you don’t really think about it.”

Again, to my knowledge, we haven’t really seen John Oliver perform stand-up since those 2014 clips — since before Last Week Tonight premiered. How has writing for his 23-Emmy-winning show changed his style? And given that Oliver’s standup is what got him into this business in the first place in the early-to-mid-2000s, one can only imagine how good he is at it in 2021, now that he’s won the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Talk Series, i.e. the “late-night-show Emmy,” six years in a row, and Vanity Fair writers are now hosting roundtables that all but beg the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences to please give it to someone else for a change.

He’s had two children since 2014. How has fatherhood changed his style? 

Has his primary public-facing “persona” being an on-screen “character,” which is in many ways a parody of a newscaster (after all, Jon Stewart was his mentor, via The Daily Show, a “news parody show”), changed his “natural” stand-up voice?

Did that voice have a tragically short life from 2001 to 2014, with its glorious last stand being some decade-old YouTube clips where he has Beatle-y bangs, a noticeably different accent, a weird beaver-colored button-up, and Levi jeans? 

Or will we finally see Beatle John’s glorious Lazarus-esque resurrection here in DC? Or will he be a… somehow apolitical (??!? error 404) version of the John Oliver that’s won 13 Emmys by yelling about net neutrality, immigration reform, the Sackler family, municipal violations, paid parental leave, corporate consolidation, a certain unsavory president, and lethal injection?

We’ll have to see. What we do know is that it’s going to be funny. If it’s not, in his own words, he will be “spewing off a series of factually inaccurate statements and then pausing for silence.” While he will be funny, he does need an audience to prevent said silence. So if you could get a ticket (I just had a friend tell me there’s just a few dozen left), that would be super. 

I say all this to make the point that if you get laughed out of pubs when you’re fresh out of college, you will subsequently win 13 Emmys. That’s clearly the lesson of causality to take away here.

Running Time: TBD.

John Oliver will perform from December 28, 2021, to January 1, 2022, in the Concert Hall at the Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets ($79.50 – $99.50), call (202) 467-4600 or go online. Recommended for mature audiences.

COVID Safety: The Kennedy Center Vaccination and Mask Policy is here.



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