Not so long ago, really–within the lifetime of many an American adult–no national broadcast mattered more than the evening news. The audiences were wide, thanks to free over-the-air TV, rapt and loyal to the serious American man (and it was always a man) recounting the happenings and issues of the day before dinnertime.
But that was the TV-news landscape 50 years back, and this is now, when the informed get their news from their phones and turn to TV for Teen Mom. So HBO has flipped the script, adding to its lineup a live half-hour newscast, set to premiere April 27, hosted by a goofy Brit who, by the way, deplores the state of news and American politics. It will air once a week. Sunday nights. At 11. Welcome to 2014, Cronkite.
Sitting behind the desk of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver will be, well, John Oliver, a 36-year-old actor, writer and stand-up comic most familiar to audiences from his recurring role on NBC’s Community as hapless psych professor Ian Duncan and from his seven-year stint on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, which he guest-hosted in summer 2013. His memorable bits there included visits to Australia to report on gun control and to Gabon to cover a humanitarian-aid crisis; throughout each he remained droll yet withering, cheeky yet full of latent outrage. Within The Daily Show’s deep all-time roster, this comportment is Oliver’s hallmark.
It’s a good time to be part of that comedy tree. While Jon Stewart and his band of correspondents plug away as usual on the flagship program, its alumni have landed plenty of high-profile gigs, none bigger than Stephen Colbert’s call-up from his 11:30 p.m. Comedy Central show to David Letterman’s on CBS, starting in 2015.
Yet while Colbert and Stewart continue to make hay by mocking the way news gets reported, Oliver goes another way, reporting the news with all the bemused incredulousness it deserves. In a recent interview at HBO’s New York City offices, Oliver offered a commentary on General Motors’ embattled new CEO Mary Barra, its first female leader, under whose guidance GM recalled 2.6 million cars with defective ignition switches linked to 13 deaths. “This is a huge moment: Mary Barra, a female CEO, has delivered an apology exactly as sh-tty as a male CEO. She hasn’t just broken the glass ceiling, she’s been ejected through the glass windshield.”
It aids Oliver’s humor that he cannot really help but seem flummoxed by the world around him. Tall and thin, with glasses and shaggy hair, often dressed in the most modest of coats and ties, he indeed looks the part of a community-college instructor. (So what if he graduated from Cambridge?) And an Englishman at large in the U.S., trying to cover its politics at the moment of an ascendent, frenzied far right and calamitous congressional gridlock? You’re laughing already.
Then there is his accent. When he’s performing and worked up just a bit, everything he says just sounds funny. His voice sits somewhere between regal and froglike, as though the princess quit in the middle of the kiss. Oliver explains it as a slurry of British tongues with dollops of Birmingham, where he was born, Bedford (a town an hour north of London), where he grew up, and Liverpool, where his parents come from.
Oliver did not make it to the U.S. until 2006–his first visit came at Stewart’s behest. At Cambridge, he had studied English and served as vice president of the Footlights, the student theatrical club that before him had produced Douglas Adams, Emma Thompson and half of Monty Python. After college he kicked around the English stand-up scene. A recommendation to The Daily Show from Ricky Gervais helped Oliver land an audition.
Tim Carvell, the executive producer of Last Week Tonight, who was then a writer for The Daily Show, remembers that day well. “He wasn’t doing what most prospective correspondents would do, which was imitate another correspondent. He just started kind of riffing with Jon, not following the script. And I thought, Oh, well, this isn’t going to work. Obviously, I was very happy to be wrong about that.” Carvell and Oliver soon became office mates, and when Stewart asked Oliver to guest-host over the summer while he directed a movie in Jordan, Carvell happened to be the head writer. The two found a rhythm together, hence Oliver’s decision to hire Carvell when he left The Daily Show. “Or I just happened to be within his line of sight when he got the job,” Carvell says. “A path-of-least-resistance thing.”
Oliver says he took the guest-hosting job from Stewart last summer wanting nothing to change. “Jon had said before he left, ‘We should talk when I get back about what you want to do next.’ And I said, ‘No, no. I want everything to go back to how it is, every chair in the same place.’ And he said, ‘We’ll have to talk about it, because I don’t know if that’ll be possible anymore.’ ”
Stewart was right: Oliver broke out, earning raves from critics and fans. He says something within him had shifted too, and he knew after the summer that he wanted to try his own show with his own sensibility. HBO was one of a few suitors that came calling. (HBO is a unit of Time Warner, the parent company of TIME.)
Soon Oliver put out a call for production staff (from comedy and news backgrounds) and hired eight writers by way of a blind reading–The Voice for political satire. Carvell and Oliver wanted a variety of styles: one writer came from Vanity Fair’s website, another from a speechwriting gig at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Since mid-March, Oliver has been putting on test shows on the vacant talk-show set of former Real Housewife Bethenny Frankel. “We’re trying to build the machine that will one day make fun of stories which haven’t happened yet. Its most important task is to take something really depressing in one end and spit jokes out on the other, in about a hundred different ways.” To keep informed, he has cable news on in the background all day, reads the New York Times and Washington Post and pokes around on Politico. (“None of this is good,” he says. “Degrees of poison.”)
What’s his method? “You want to find a comic take on something incredibly serious.” Oliver is currently working up material on the Indian elections–“Oh, we’ve heard all the jokes about it. What new satirical take are you going to bring?” he deadpans–and taped pieces on other issues of importance to him, including immigration reform and the gap between America’s rich and poor.
Oliver did not earn permanent U.S. resident status until 2009; he has firsthand knowledge of the arbitrary and confusing American immigration system. And for the son of two schoolteachers, meager estate taxes hit close to home: “You’re basically creating the very same landed gentry as a country that you were so rightly anxious to move away from a few hundred years ago.”
Listen to him long enough and Oliver’s jokes begin to sound–in spite of that croaky voice, the laugh lines and a curse word here and there–like something familiar and a little unexpected: the news.
This appears in the April 28, 2014 issue of TIME.