How HBO's New Late-Night Host John Oliver Made It Big — in 5 Easy Steps

John Oliver with members of The Footlights
John Oliver with members of The Footlights
 

A version of this story first appeared in the May 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Debut performance: Oliver made his first television appearance at the age of 8 in the 1985 BBC miniseries adaptation of Charles Dickens' Bleak House starring Diana Rigg. Casting directors came to his school to audition children to play the orphans. “They were just looking for children with black hair and brown eyes,” he says. "I remember so little about it, all I remember is Diana Rigg used to give us anisette balls."

Formative years: After attending a rough high school in the London exurb of Bedford, Oliver gained entrance to Cambridge, where he joined the university's famed Footlights theatrical club, which also counts comics Peter Cook, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Stephen Fry among its alums. He honed his stand-up skills at venues like the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and on radio programs. He worked frequently with fellow comedians Andy Zaltzman and Chris Addison including on satirical radio programs Mock the Week and The Department.

THR COVER: John Oliver on HBO 'Freedom,' Hating Being a Boss and His Complicated Relationship With NYC

Satirical hogwash: In 2007, Oliver launched the weekly podcast The Bugle with frequent collaborator Zaltzman, which comically examines stories in the news including the recent uprising in Crimea and the environmental crisis. “When you're doing a story that's quite serious and depressing and tragic, sometimes you need to leaven it with something that's a bit more ridiculous,” explains Zaltzman. “We always try to get a balance in The Bugle with proper satire about major political and news stories and the stuff that's a bit ridiculous.”

Community-minded: Oliver plays sardonic professor Ian Duncan on Dan Harmon's comedy series Community on NBC. "He has a comedy writer's sense of when the material could use a little goose at the end, when it's important to stay completely on book and land the joke as written and when a joke is driven by a moment of awkwardness that maybe could use a more organic ad-lib," says Harmon. "If you do 10 takes, he'll button each line with a completely different ad-lib … and then you have your choice of 10 perfect takes."

Stealing the show: "It's my show now!" declared Oliver on June 6, Jon Stewart's final show before his summer hiatus, stealing Stewart's final Moment of Zen before a 12-week break that would lay the groundwork for Oliver's exit from The Daily Show. But Oliver's onscreen antics masked plenty of self-doubt. "I was really worried about not living up to his expectations," he says, referring to Stewart. "The thing I got very worried about before he left was if anything happened where people were looking to him specifically to guide him through it. And it did end up happening. The worst day over the summer was having to do a show after the Trayvon Martin verdict. I really felt his absence that day."

Email: Marisa.Guthrie@THR.com
Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie

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