John Oliver's Summer Audition

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

What did we learn from John Oliver's debut week hosting The Daily Show? We learned that Jon Stewart is nobody's fool. Stewart may be restless enough with his long-standing gig to take the summer off playing movie director, but that doesn't mean he wants a dauphin getting funny ideas.

Oliver is an ideal placeholder—skillful, amusing, adding just enough novelty that he doesn't come off as a direct imitation. But he's plainly not a guy to go rogue and seize the opportunity to make us not miss our Jon. Supposing Obama were temporarily incapacitated, could we rely on Joe Biden to resist the same siren song?

Remember, the politics of showbiz aren't always that different than the real thing. That's especially true of a franchise like The Daily Show. Not only Comedy Central's flagship property, it's also the, ahem, power base Stewart has to protect until he successfully translates himself to another realm. If movies don't do it—and I'm betting they won't—he's in the running to take over The Late Show just in case cranky old David Letterman takes it into his head to retire in 2014. Which happens to be when Stewart's Comedy Central contract is up.

In other words, everything's copacetic if the timing works out—the calculus familiar to every politico eyeing higher office. So it's not quite in Stewart's interest to anoint a successor just yet. Let alone to unleash a field of them, the way Johnny Carson did back when damn near every guest host on The Tonight Show was jockeying to show what he or she could bring to the party once Johnny abdicated. It really was the Game of Thrones of its day, and throat-cut heir apparent Joan Rivers may identify with Catelyn Stark at the Red Wedding more than she'll admit even now.

One difference, of course, is that viewers had gotten mighty used to seeing somebody else occupy Carson's seat when he was on vacation. Not so with The Daily Show, long so dependent on Stewart's presence that few people even remember he wasn't the original host (Craig Kilborn was). He's had occasional substitutes—all, to protect the brand, from within The Daily Show's own stable—but never for this protracted a period. Anytime one of the lessers showed up, it was like the way Obama leaves it to Jay Carney to do the due diligence on slow news days.

The thing about Oliver is that he's capable enough to keep the home fires burning without turning arsonist. He won't lose viewers that Stewart will then have to win back, most likely Comedy Central's major anxiety. But if you can't see how cagy the choice was, just imagine The Daily Show with veteran third-or-is-it-fourth banana—she outranks Oliver by miles in longevity—Samantha Bee hosting all summer instead.

Understand, it's not like I imagine the show's token Canadian gal harboring some sort of Lady Macbeth agenda deep within herself, though hearing Bee say "Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him, eh?" would be fun. But just because she's female—and The Daily Show, just like every other effing thing on TV not produced by Shonda Rhimes, is a bit of a boys' club, however "enlightened" otherwise—she'd have changed the show's character whether she planned to or not. And the one thing Stewart probably wants even less than a hireling who loses viewers is one who gains a new audience he's got to contend with. Just ask Keith Olbermann how he really feels about Rachel Maddow, you know? 

Once all this is taken into account, you see how smart a pick Oliver is. (Don't get me wrong—I like him a lot.) The only way he undercuts Stewart is by being blatantly thrilled to have the job. That retrospectively confirms how bored the man himself reportedly is with hauling his tuchus into the chair one more time to snicker, bray, hunker down, look incredulous and get bleeped. Still, one proof—as if you need one—that Stewart is smarter than Bobby Jindal is that he plainly ain't gonna be a lame duck until he's good and ready to move on.

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