John Oliver's new late night show, Last Week Tonight, premiered yesterday on HBO. It’s obviously a big step for the British expat, formerly of The Daily Show, but in practice, it might not be as big of a challenge for Oliver than you might think. That’s because, on top of being a correspondent for The Daily Show, he’s already been doing a weekly satirical news roundup for nearly seven years now on his podcast, The Bugle.
The Bugle is one of the longest-running and most consistently hilarious podcasts on the internet. Launched in 2007 under the auspices of Rupert Murdoch’s London newspaper The Times, it’s a delightfully cheery review of the week’s news, co-hosted across the Atlantic by Oliver and his British counterpart and longtime comedy partner, Andy Zaltzman.
Each week, the podcast, dubbed “an audio newspaper for a visual world” (in the same self-deprecating vein as the title of Oliver’s new show), skewers world events and the people behind them with alternating onslaughts of audacious silliness and biting sarcasm.
The format is simple: co-hosts Oliver and Zaltzman present several news stories per episode and trade off, each elaborating details about the story, along with their take on it. And though most of the show’s material is written, their spontaneous interactions pack enough wit to make the difference between the prepared and the riffed material indiscernible at times. Each episode often winds down with a “Sport” section (the English don’t pluralize that word, but they do with “maths”?) and sometimes a section featuring listener emails, sent in from fans called “Buglers,” who are — judging by the co-hosts’ selections — an incredibly sharp bunch, themselves. There’s also, in each episode, a demonstrably high probability of a section where the co-hosts erupt in a snickering cascade of sophomoric jokes about buildings or other things that look like a penis, just for good measure.
While not unlike The Daily Show in its liberal editorial bent, The Bugle’s purview is generally more international and, naturally, more British in scope than anything you’ll find on American television: If it’s true that most millennials only get their political news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, The Bugle would be their BBC World.
Though more people will be familiar with Oliver’s career from The Daily Show (and from playing “Vanity Smurf” in The Smurfs 1 & 2, something Oliver’s longstanding partner will never let him forget), the peculiar genius of Zaltzman is just as essential to The Bugle.
While Oliver is more animated in his delivery, Zaltzman brings a slightly more subdued, cerebral quality to the show’s back-and-forth. But don’t get the misapprehension that Zaltzman’s comedic style isn’t batshit. The fast-talking Brit has a classics degree and knows how to use it: for hilarious bullshitting. He’s also a polymath who seems well-versed in more than a couple of languages (or at least skillfully fakes it), knows a plethora of esoteric cricket tidbits, and possesses a PhD-level capacity for creating convoluted puns and inventing historical “facts” to provide an outrageously specious context for any current event.
His facility with absurd uses of language is virtually unmatched. Or as he might describe himself (in the style that he introduces Oliver at the beginning of each Bugle), Zaltzman is a virtuoso of verbosity, the potentate of pun-tification, the Cassius Clay of repartee, a leading maestro of alliterative maladaptation, the Hieronymus Bosch of historical bullshitting, a master of morphological mayhem, and the prince of patois. And that’s not even close to doing him justice.
Oliver, for his part, compliments Zaltzman’s frenetic creativity with a style that’s much different but equally accomplished. His longer satirical monologues tend to be just as fast, but with a more fluid rhythm; the ironic intensity building up to a crescendo of sarcasm so dry that it could almost be abrasive, if he didn’t also charmingly sound so delighted to be dropping his devastating point on the listeners – often in the form of a simile, metaphor, or neologism that’s equally clever and/or as absurd as Zaltzman’s inventions.
One of the best examples of this is when The Bugle flays corrupt world figures like Silvio Berlusconi or Muammar Gaddafi, who they treat as crazy cartoon characters in a massive world comedy. Also, the segment “Fuckeulogies”, which is exactly what it sounds like, delivered when a dictator or otherwise terrible person dies. Hopefully, this infrequent bit will make it to Oliver’s HBO show.
If you saw Oliver in his guest-hosting stint on The Daily Show, you’ll remember how he comfortably made Stewart’s solo editorial segments his own. That’s because he’s essentially been training his long-form satirical writing and delivery skills with his sparring partner for the better part of a decade. Monologues won’t be a challenge for Oliver in his new show.
Demonstrating authenticity and nerve probably won’t be difficult either because one of the remarkable things about The Bugle is that it still exists. In 2011, four years into the podcast’s run, the “News of the World” phone hacking scandal broke in Britain. It quickly engulfed The Bugle’s publisher’s parent company News Corp, and brought scandal to their boss’s boss’s (etc.) boss, Rupert Murdoch, which would seemingly place that particular story off their agenda, or at least give the duo pause.
But without delay, Zaltzman and Oliver gleefully plunged ahead, spending the next weeks savaging their own corporate owners with no reserve and little concern for the possible consequences of their mockery. During those heady summer weeks, Zaltzman and Oliver played off their decision to go no-holds-barred on Murdoch and his associates as an almost uncontrollable impulse to make fun of a funny situation, wondering out loud every episode just when and how they’d eventually be shitcanned by their employers.
But a less unassuming take on The Bugle’s editorial decision at the time might call it bold, or even courageous. That sounds strange when talking about comedy, but The Bugle’s News Corp. moment is comparable to Colbert-as-court-jester lampooning President George W. Bush to his face at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in the midst of wartime. Except that The Bugle’s fearless satire had direct (but never officially attributed) consequences: They actually were cut loose by the end of the year.
With the nonexistent funding and the future of the podcast genuinely in peril, the Buglers proved their loyalty by keeping it alive through The Bugle’s “Save The Bugle” campaign, which persists today through “voluntary subscriptions” and donations.
Since then, The Bugle — as Zaltzman and Oliver might put it — has been blanketing the world with bullshit without a hitch, and on a fairly regular basis considering Oliver’s increasingly busy schedule. And though sadly Zaltzman isn’t working on Last Week Tonight, precluding the possibility of unreasonably long, complicated pun runs on that show, it appears The Bugle will carry on into the foreseeable future.
As one of the longest-running podcasts, there’s simply too many hilarious aspects of The Bugle to explain to the uninitiated: Florence Nightingale and the Hotties from History, things that look like a penis, Oliver’s penchant for singing, Ask the American, Zaltzman’s lapsed Judaism, Oliver’s lapsed Britishness, the Buglers’ ironic (?) hatred of the podcast’s unassuming producer Chris ("Fuck you, Chris!") Skinner, and on and on. If you’ve never heard of it, take a listen to the last few years of history, as explained from the most demented, brilliant, and nonsense-filled perspective available in podcast form.
Robert Schoon lives in Brooklyn and writes about tech, media, comedy and culture.