This Saturday, John Oliver returns to Durham Performing Arts Center. A lot has changed since his last appearance, two years ago. His star has risen considerably since his acclaimed two-month stint guest-hosting Comedy Central's The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.
And his appearance is timely, considering that The Daily Show has been making North Carolina look all kinds of awful recently.
Actually, former Buncombe County precinct chairman Don Yelton bore the blame, not Comedy Central. In a filmed segment on states that have new restrictive voter laws, voter ID advocate Yelton unloaded a slew of bigoted comments when correspondent Aasif Mandvi wondered if Yelton was racist. "Well," Yelton said after a long sigh, "I've been called a bigot before." He then went on to talk about his black best friend, that photo of Obama as a witch doctor he posted on Facebook and how freely black people use the N-word these days. Needless to say, Yelton soon resigned after that.
Although Oliver wasn't the correspondent for that piece, he did slap our state around during his two-month residence hosting the show over the summer.
"North Carolina has, you know, kind of become the meth lab of democracy for America at the moment," he says over the phone from his Daily Show office in New York. "The voting rights stuff is pretty extreme, so yeah, you seem to be out-Arizona-ing Arizona at the moment. There are restrictive voting laws elsewhere, but you are, like, the uncut version of that now. This is the pure stuff—the blue meth of racist voting laws."
In one segment during Oliver's stint, he slammed North Carolina's severe voter ID bill ("It also places all voting booths on buoys that are accessible only by yacht") as well as the state's knack for attaching abortion restrictions to motorcycle safety and anti-Sharia bills. (This led to Oliver saying, "Your move, South Carolina.")
The Birmingham, U.K.-born Oliver, 36, now goes around the country, either on The Daily Show or on stand-up gigs, trying to figure out how this country works. In Austin not too long ago, he asked the audience, "What the fuck is happening here, Texas?"
Oliver says his audience didn't take offense. "They seemed to want an answer as well, though," he says. "I honestly think that Americans are trying to make sense of it as well. I don't think it is just me. I think most people who live in the country cannot believe what is happening with American politics in the moment, regardless of whether they are conservative or liberal."
Satirically skewering the United States has been Oliver's stock-in-trade way before he got the job as "senior British correspondent" on the fake-news show in 2006. Like so many people overseas, he's always had a vested interest in what goes on over here.
"Everyone has a working knowledge of American politics. You have to, because America's politics affects everyone, not just in America," he says. "American people don't need to pay much attention to other people's elections, whereas most of the world watches the American elections because there are direct consequences to everyone's lives from the results therein."
Oliver's chance to guest-host The Daily Show came when Stewart went to the Middle East to direct his first film, Rosewater. "The first couple of days were very terrifying," Oliver recalls, "but it ended up being a huge amount of fun."
Although he did a well-regarded job holding down the fort, the scrutiny by the media (who apparently forgot the show was hosted by Craig Kilborn before Stewart took over in 1999) made Oliver tense. "It definitely felt like a lot of pressure," he says.
"The Daily Show was around before Jon, but it was definitely not the show that it is now then, you know. He has made this iconic show on television. So, seeing someone else in his chair, I think, was always gonna be very weird for people."
So, Oliver is back doing his correspondent thing over at the Daily, which also gives him more time to work on other projects. Fans of Community will be glad to know he'll be back as psychology professor Dr. Ian Duncan for the fifth season, slated to begin airing in January. He'll also be lending his voice to an episode of The Simpsons as a character named Wilkes Booth John—and that's really all he can say about that.
Nevertheless, Oliver will continue merrily mocking this nation—all while making a home here for him and his wife, American-born Iraq War vet Kate Norley.
"The interesting thing of working in satire in America is working in the place that has the most influence," he says. "Because the decisions that get made here have consequences that far overreach just the border of this country. It's the biggest toy box to play with."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rising star of cable comedy."