Jon Stewart left "The Daily Show" in good hands.
It took summer fill-in host John Oliver about 90 seconds to find his stride Monday, in his first outing as host of the show since Stewart left to direct a film for a few months. Oliver started out by acknowledging the awkwardness of his filling Stewart's chair, and smiled his toothy smile a lot. We wondered: What if he's too nice for this?
Then he dove into the fact that Stewart had left him the show just as a huge news story broke: The government is monitoring the phone and internet use of millions of Americans. Oliver noted that a new government facility will hold "five zetabytes" of information — and delivered his first great joke of the night.
Huge laughs. Oliver mock-punched the air, but he'd nailed a joke that was pure "Daily Show": Silly, smart, a little risque, perfect. (Even if Douglas's rep has denied a story suggesting the actor had blamed his cancer on oral sex.)
"Hey! He left you," Oliver said defensively. "Jon left you. I'm here."
But no one had objected. And Oliver's jokes only got more blistering as he moved on to a legitimate target of mockery, the federal government. He addressed the spying in a new segment called "Good News! You're Not Paranoid," in which he ticked off a series of intrusions.
"We now know that the government has been actively collecting an unprecented amount of information on that small, select group of us who either make phone calls or use the internet," he said. "I've got to say: I'll bet the Amish are feeling pretty f—ing smug right now. Or they would be feeling that way if they had any idea that this story was happening."
Oliver benefitted from the nervous tension over how he'd do, but his delivery didn't need help. His Britishness, which we Americans oddly interpret as politeness, allows him to get away with being more aggressive than Stewart.
The show turned its incisive wit on itself in a segment in which all the show's other correspondents got their licks in at Oliver for getting the hosting gig instead of them.
Samantha Bee adopted a cockney accent for his benefit, until he told her she didn't need to.
"Oh don't I?" she asked. "Ten years I've been here, talking American, only to be leapfrogged by a godforsaken foreigner."
Jessica Williams, the show's only African-American woman, reported audio trouble. "I'm sorry," she told Oliver. "I'm having trouble hearing you over this glass ceiling. … It's unbreakable and all I see up there are a bunch of white penises."
Oliver noted that he had never interviewed guests before — but he did fine, adopting a bluntly honest approach.
"I cannot tell you how relieved I was to find this movie as funny as I did," he told Seth Rogen, who was visiting to promote his film "This is the End."
"You don't have to lie to your first guest," Rogen said.
Lots of "Daily Show" fans tuned in hoping the show would hold up under Oliver. They don't need to lie, either.