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Monday, July 22nd, 2013

A Look Back At John Oliver's Pre-'Daily Show' Work

John Oliver has been killing it as the guest host of The Daily Show this summer. He’s tackled major intelligence scandals, game-changing legal decisions, and untimely power outages so perfectly that it’s hard to believe this isn’t his full time job (…yet). Undoubtedly, part of the reason he’s such a natural is his length of time with the show – he joined the cast of The Daily Show in July 2006, and the writing staff the following year. He’s now beloved in the US, hosting his own Comedy Central standup show, recurring on Community, and co-hosting the excellent satirical podcast The Bugle. But when he crossed the pond seven years ago, the British standup was almost unknown in the States.

In many ways, all of Oliver’s career seemed to be setting him up perfectly for a turn at The Daily Show. At a 2001 show at the Edinburgh Fringe, he played the part of an “oleaginous journalist,” a character he has since inhabited frequently as a Daily Show correspondent. Along with his Bugle co-host Andy Zaltzman and The Thick Of It’s Chris Addison, Oliver was often cited as part of the resurrection of political comedy in the UK in the early to mid 2000s. He and Zaltzman performed live as a double act, with elaborately-titled shows like 2004’s “Erm… It's About The World… I Think You'd Better Sit Down”, and 2005’s “John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman Issue a List of Demands and Await Your Response with Interest," titles not too far off from the classic run-on names for Daily Show segments.

Following on the success of those live shows, Oliver, Zaltzman, and Addison went on to record three seasons of radio satire The Department, about a shadowy organization tasked with fixing all of society’s problems. Most of the series can be found here; in the first episode, the trio try to sort out education.

The show was an absurdist, Upright Citizens Brigade-meets-1984 look at the running of the British government, with Oliver playing a clueless, self-interested lawyer unencumbered by logic or morality. The series, and his character, could easily exist in the same delusional world of many Daily Show field pieces.

Zaltzman and Oliver also produced a standup show, “Political Animal,” in which the duo hosted other standups doing their best political and social material.  A 2005 reviewer said the show as ideal “if you want to hear some thoughtful topical comedy and don't mind occasionally being preached at late at night,” which could certainly double as review of The Daily Show.

Around this time, Oliver was beginning his TV career, appearing on the first episode of the still-popular BBC Two panel show Mock the Week in June of 2005. He was a regular panelist on the show for its first two seasons.

MTW was a good showcase for Oliver's topical material (though the highlight of this episode is his completely apolitical and delightfully absurdist rant about owls), but what’s most striking in those old episodes is Oliver’s lack of material about Americans. Easy jokes at the expense of the US were standards for most political UK comics during the Bush years, but they're not found in Oliver's repertoire. His seeming uneasiness with Anglocentric jokes is made even clearer when he calls out an anti-French joke and shames the audience for their Francophobia. Whether he had international ambitions at the time or was simply uninterested in jokes with a nationalistic flavor, he was one of the few British comedians who could honestly step into an American institution like The Daily Show without a history of lazy anti-American jabs.

Unlike many comedians, who attempt to break the US after dominating in the UK, Oliver was still a rising comic in Britain in 2006. Despite being lovingly described by his best friend as "a mediocre comedian with delusions of originality" in a 2001 piece in The Guardian, Oliver was generally recognized as a promising young talent. He was described as "a comedian who’s cerebral and uncompromising material confronts the most surprising subjects, from politics to penguins, in his own achingly original style that proves it is possible to be hilarious and thought provoking in equal measure" by the BBC in 2005. "I like people that are a bit weird, and John Oliver fits the bill," wrote British political comic Jeremy Hardy in the same year. "Sometimes his audience is hooked, and sometimes they're confused, but I think he's something special [...] There is no great correlation between talent and success, but John deserves to be successful."

And successful he's been; the following year, he was hired mid-summer as The Daily Show's "UK correspondent." The August 1 hire was so abrupt, he had to move to the States immediately rather than appear at that year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival. But it appears to have been worth it. Oliver is the first Daily Show guest host in seven years, and former go-to guest host Stephen Colbert has done alright for himself. Given how well he's done this summer, Oliver is likely to be at the top of many people's lists when the next network late night show is up for grabs. Once again, he'll have all the qualifications for the job

Looking for more early Oliver? Here are his six other appearances on Mock the Week:

Elise Czajkowski is a Contributing Editor at Splitsider. She'll jump at any opportunity to watch panel shows on YouTube.