Skeptics leery of why John Oliver has landed a one-hour Comedy Central special — arguably the current holy grail of a comic’s resume — hear this: long before he was The Daily Show’s go-to correspondent, Oliver was an insightful, well-spoken and very funny stand-up comedian.
After watching Terrifying Times — premiering April 20 at 10 pm EST — it not only becomes clear why the comic landed his full-time Comedy Central gig in the first place but also that the great talent he has for presenting what Daily Show staffers have written for him is infinitesimal compared to what he accomplishes himself on a stand-up stage.
The 30-year-old Brit, largely unknown to U.S. audiences before his 2006 debut on the four-times-a-week satirical news program, commands his audience as if this were yet another career-defining special for him – just another one to add to The Best of John Oliver box set collection — and not his first.
He runs the large theater stage as if it were a normal night of work for him. Though Oliver does well on the road — headlining the country’s more-respected comedy clubs — a sold-out theater is not his typical performance scenario. But you’d never know it.
At the start of the show, Oliver quips about his accent. He tells the crowd, “Do be prepared for the words you hear to come with a little more authority than you’re used to.” By the end of the show, you’ll realize whether he was half-joking or not, he’s right, though it’s doubtful the reason for the level of apparent authority he wields lies in his accent. It has more to do, rather, with his charisma, conviction and his commitment to the ideas behind his material.
While he does briefly dip into his personal life — why he became a comedian, why he’s not a professional athlete — funning socio-political style and dissecting our “self-styled 43rd president” are Oliver’s strengths.
To prove that America is not only the greatest economic power but also at its peak of patriotism, he presents an exhibit: the Oreo dessert pizza.
“That is the single most patriotic item I have ever seen in my life,” Oliver says. “Have that fluttering in the moonlight at Yankees Stadium as a single tear spills down Derek Jeter’s cheek. Because that is the biggest imaginable ‘fuck you’ you could possibly issue to terrorists. By hoisting the Oreo pizza up a flagpole, what you’re essentially saying is, “There is nothing you can do to us we are not already doing to ourselves.”
Not content with simply standing up and telling jokes, Oliver utilizes a constantly changing digital backdrop of images to supplement what’s being said onstage. At times the interaction between Oliver, the screen and the audience feels more PowerPoint-y than jokey; and most of the images fail to add any substance to what is, on its own, incredibly written material.
In addition to his visuals, Oliver brings out his long-time writing partner Andy Zaltzman — “Professor Andy to you and me — who helps the comedian understand the complexities of American life, like why the U.S. is so hesitant to remedy the world’s ecological problems.
It’s a novel, effective way to play with the tone and pacing of the show. But even without Zaltzman and the giant images and the audio from Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” — that’s right! — Oliver is a compelling performer.