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Clever, hilarious Brit John Oliver heads to HBO

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PASADENA, Calif. -- If there was any lingering doubt about his ability to carry his own weekly TV show, John Oliver has surely laid it to rest.

Yes, his successful stint as a summer fill-in host on The Daily Show put his comedic talents front and centre and, probably, played a big part in his landing a show of his own on HBO. But outside the sheltered silliness of Jon Stewart's fake-news empire, and without The Daily Show's experienced writing staff providing material, would Oliver have what it takes to be a TV star in his own right?

Oliver made an appearance here during HBO's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles, facing a room full of TV-focused journalists to discuss his as-yet-untitled show, which is scheduled to debut in a Sunday-night slot later this year.

No script. No TelePrompTer. No pre-written jokes. No props or green-screen gimmicks. Just Oliver and his wits, alone onstage in front of one of the least laugh-inclined audiences he'll ever encounter.

And Oliver killed it. He was, in a word, hilarious.

For the entirety of the 45-minute press conference session, Oliver had the room giggling.

He got off to a strong start after one critic asked him if was going to be staying overnight at the press tour's host hotel -- a query he initially dismissed as slightly creepy, until the questioner informed him that former vice-presidential candidate and omnipresent right-wing commentator Sarah Palin was hosting a breakfast the next morning in support of her new outdoorsy-America-themed show on the little-known Sportsman Network.

"What? You are kidding!" Oliver exploded. "Well, now I'm checking in.

"Well, that's very exciting. Believe me, there is a significant voice in my head now saying, 'Check in. Go to breakfast.' I'm sure she puts on a heavy breakfast, that woman -- a lot of moose-based bagels... This is incredible news. Sarah Palin at a breakfast bar -- I think my life could just be over at that point, watching her spoon little corn flakes into a bowl. Oh, Sarah..."

Once the Palin-prompted panic had subsided, Oliver did get slightly serious for a few moments as he reflected on what The Daily Show and Jon Stewart have done for his career and his life on American soil, and how his summer fill-in gig while Stewart was off directing a movie set the table for this big move to HBO.

"I think it was probably the main reason why I'm here now (at HBO)," he said. "So yeah, (hosting The Daily Show) was a bizarre, exciting and terrifying experience. And yeah, I guess, that is probably the key reason why I'm here right now.

"It's still on the air, the show. I set myself the achievable goal of just not destroying that particular franchise, so the fact that it's still there and Jon is still doing it, that I took that as a W in the "win" column. I guess it went well. Comedy is subjective; I'm sure some people thought, 'Get that British imposter off my favourite TV show.'"

Oliver also reflected on his final appearance on The Daily Show, during which Stewart surprised him with a montage of clips and a heartfelt tribute that literally left the Brit in tears.

"Yeah, well, for those who don't know, I'm British, so I'm not in touch with anything regarding human emotion," he said, "but my last day of the show was an emotional day. I'd written and produced a whole Act 1... It was going to be, I think, broadly, about the Queen being annoyed that people were stealing nuts from her bowl in Buckingham Palace, which, look, clearly is not important to you. But that was a big story in the U.K. And so we wrote and produced a whole Act 1, rehearsed it, rewrote it, and then Jon bailed out of it about 30 seconds in. And instead, they ran a montage, and he said, you know, some nice things, and I burst into tears. So, yeah. Again, I'm British. We're emotional volcanoes. I'm probably next due to erupt into tears in about 45 years."

Looking to the future, Oliver expressed confidence that he'll find plenty to talk about on his new weekly show at his new network home in his new adopted homeland.

"America has been very generous in what it has offered up as joke subjects over the years," he said. "And American politics, in particular, is a circus of crazy that is unparalleled around the world.

"You can take that as both a compliment and an insult."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 16, 2014 C6

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Updated on Thursday, January 16, 2014 at 8:35 AM CST: Changes headline, replaces photo

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