The late-night comic had found his perfect straight man. In June 2014, John Oliver sat down with renowned theoretical physicist Stephen W. Hawking for an interview.
“You’ve stated that there could be an infinite number of parallel universes,” the host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” asked Hawking. “Does that mean there’s a universe out there where I am smarter than you?”
“Yes,” Hawking replied from his wheelchair, his lips bending up into a slight smile. “And also a universe where you’re funny.”
Hawking died early Wednesday at his home in England at the age of 76. Throughout his career as one of the world’s most recognizable cosmic thinkers, he regularly threw himself into pop culture’s comedic ring with cameos on programs such as “The Simpsons” and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.”
These appearances aligned with a plucky wit that defined Hawking’s personal life as much as his universe-shaking theoretical work. Humor, however, was not just one side of his personality, but a key to overcoming the degenerative motor neuron disease he struggled against since 1963.
“Keeping an active mind has been vital to my survival, as has maintaining a sense of humor,” Hawking said in a 2013 documentary. “I am probably better known for my appearances on ‘The Simpsons’ and on “The Big Bang Theory” than I am for my scientific discoveries.”
That humor was deployed against a terrible prognosis.
At 21, Hawking was diagnosed with a condition similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. According to the ALS Association, “Half of all people affected with ALS live at least three or more years after diagnosis. Twenty percent live five years or more; up to ten percent will live more than ten years.”
The disease would eventually shut down Hawking’s motor functions, rendering him speechless and unable to move without a wheelchair. Doctors initially said he would be dead in two years. His condition, however, proved to be a rare slow-acting version.
But Hawking fought through his deteriorating physical state, rising to a position as a celebrated professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge and altering the popular conception of physics with his 1988 bestseller, “A Brief History of Time.”
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