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This award first appeared in the end of year issue of VultureHound Magazine, which is free to read at VHmag.com

When it comes to comedy, us brits have always considered ourselves intellectually loftier to those crude, brutish Americans. Our contribution to the comedic landscape has included such intricate, inventive and innovative legends like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Spike Milligan, The Cambridge Footlights and Private Eye. Meanwhile, The Americas have given us Family Guy and Jackass.

This is crap of course. You only have to be familiar with the work of Richard Prior and Matt Groening to know that, or the fact that Charlie Chaplin only hit it big when he went to America. But that doesn’t stop us from flaunting this commonly held, yet easily debunked, belief around to help us feel smugly superior.


But one of this myth’s biggest discrepancies has made his voice heard loud and clear on HBO this year and should hopefully bury this fallacy once and for all. Like Charlie Chaplin, John Oliver couldn’t get arrested in the UK. Now, he’s one of America’s greatest satirists.

He began his career in current events comedy by lampooning 21st Century journalism at the Edinburgh Fringe as part of The Comedy Hour. It’s the subject matter he feels most comfortable in and the place where his expertise shines through. He can simultaneously make you both laugh and terribly embarrassed at your own lack of political knowledge.

His middle English accent and irreverent, progressive message has often put me in mind of an anarchist with a burning torch in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. It’s a style he’s taken to every one of his satirical outputs, including The New York Stand Up Show, The Decline of the American Empire, and The Bugle podcast which he hosts with long-time partner Andy Zaltzman.

In the UK, television audiences didn’t take to his style of rhetoric. If you look at his appearances on Mock the Week you can see why. While his intellect is unquestionable, his method of delivery is stiff, self-conscious and unnatural. It’s overly pronounced, betraying its rehearsed nature in a world where spontaneity and wit are more highly valued by the audience.

Things clicked however when he went to work for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2006. He was recommended to the show by Ricky Gervais, who didn’t know Oliver personally, but was familiar with his work. His style fit with their sketch routines, his big, enunciated theatrics were perfect for a show that exposed the world to such larger than life talents as Stephen Colbert, Rob Corddry and Steve Carell.


Such was his success on the show that when Jon (with no “h”) went off to film his directorial debut in the summer of 2013, it was John (the one with the “h” in) that took up the helm. His run as host was lauded by critics and embraced by viewers. Something about that accent really makes people sit up and pay attention. Some were even talking of Mr. Stewart backing away to pursue other projects while Mr. Oliver took the host gig full time.

But Jon wasn’t backing away from his baby any time soon and Oliver wasn’t destined to stay in another man’s shadow. He was headed for bigger and better things. HBO, the mecca of prestige TV, came knocking on his door.

It’s easy to think of Last Week Tonight as a sparser version of The Daily Show. A well-dressed host talking to the camera, taking shots at big business and politicians, expressing a progressive viewpoint and making everyone laugh at the most depressing of world developments. But it is its own show. Where the Daily Show informs, Last Week Tonight is a constant call to action. In the past weeks, Oliver has encouraged his sizable audience to write to their representatives, make their voices heard on social media and film YouTube videos of Supreme Court cases with cute little animals in place of the Judges.

The fact that it is incredibly funny is paramount. Because, even though this is one of the most important programs of the decade so far, it is nothing if it cannot be funny. Like every great satirist, John Oliver knows that humour disarms and if you want people to take on your world view you need to do it when their defences are down. And because of John Oliver’s pioneering work as a great satirist in this show, he is our Television Personality of the Year.