John Oliver made waves in the U.S. recently when he announced that he was leaving his long-standing position on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Showto launch his own show on HBO. This has followed a lengthy and successful stint as a guest host of The Daily Show while Stewart was taking time off. Oliver is a British comedian who can likely attribute much of his success to some rather self-deprecating humor about his own Britishness. You know the sort: endless references to tea, crumpets, and being rather polite. It might be a bit unfair to call this his gimmick, but it’s something of the sort. It’s likely a major part of why he’s had such success in the States, as he obviously stands out a bit because of it.
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What’s interesting is that it seems incredibly unlikely that he could have ever had anywhere near as much success in the U.K. His career began in the U.K, from being a member of the Footlights, the University of Cambridge comedy society, to taking a stand-up routine to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a bit of a rite of passage for aspiring British comedians. He began to see mainstream success when he appeared on the first two seasons of the topical news-based panel show Mock the Week, which is presumably what led to his position on The Daily Show. His British career was thus cut rather short, as he had the chance to ‘break America’ earlier on than most. The side effect of this, however? No one in Britain really knows who he is. The Daily Show has a small fan base among comedy enthusiasts, and his recurring role on Community has certainly attracted some attention, but beyond that, he’s almost entirely unknown. For one of the most successful British comedians on American TV, he’s an absolute non-entity in his home country.
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So he’s not a success in Britain at the moment, but could he ever have been? To be honest, it’s pretty bloody unlikely — almost certainly not on the scale he’s seen in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, being British doesn’t really get you that far in the British comedy scene — it isn’t much of a gimmick. His appearances on Mock the Week could have been the start of something big, and the show is popular and long-running, but it’s largely populated by comedians who still make most of their income from small stand-up gigs, with occasional appearances from the really big guys. Not that there’s anything wrong with being primarily focussed on stand-up , but there’s no obvious route from a few successful appearances on a panel show to hosting your own show on a network equivalent to HBO. Even the biggest names in British comedy struggle to host their own shows.
Don’t get me wrong, Oliver is a funny guy — but the one thing that makes him so unique in the States is, rather obviously, pretty commonplace in the U.K. Recommended reading for his break between his old job and the new one: You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe.
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