On The Daily Show, “Senior British Correspondent” John Oliver is willing to play the babe in the woods, the indignant world citizen, and the self-effacing buffoon. He’s willing to insult his British homeland in clips presenting it as a perpetual Dickensian hell-hole, break his nose making an ass of himself at a Civil War reenactment, and trade laughs with Jon Stewart over the stupidity of something Dick Cheney said.
But in his stand-up special Terrifying Times, Oliver’s general mood is less light-hearted than his work on The Daily Show: he has the air of someone who is fed up with where the world is headed, and wants everyone to shake off the cobwebs of complacency and get real. Whether or not that makes for classic comedy is debatable.
Terrifying Times was shot at Symphony Space in Manhattan, and was aired in April on Comedy Central. The DVD includes the whole stand-up performance, a few clips from The Daily Show, and some random clips featuring Oliver and his frequent collaborator, Andy Zaltzman. But the funniest feature is Oliver’s self-deprecating and self-doubting routine during the DVD’s menu. “There’s no reason for you still to be watching this,” Oliver says around three minutes in, before yelling for people who are sleeping to wake up. It’s a special and funny way to handle what could be a mundane part of the DVD, and is arguably the best part of the DVD.
Oliver starts his performance with a word of warning: “This stand-up performance will be delivered with a British accent, so be prepared for the words to be delivered with more authority than you’re used to.” He then riffs on how Americans could have talked like him, if only they hadn’t thrown their “fucking tea in Boston Harbor.” The British Empire weighs heavily on Oliver’s material—he says that people would love to have British imperialism back since at least the British were polite, and says British people can’t have guns because the last time they did they conquered two-thirds of the world’s landmass—since as he says, it makes him feel guilty when he goes to museums as a British person because everything bad there was caused by his country.
Oliver isn’t just an Anglophile; he touches on how Americans can’t be beat in terms of conspicuous consumption, and how bad President Bush’s public speaking skills are. But the best joke is a drawing of a “non fair trade” sticker that depicts a fat, white man peeing on a poor African boy. It’s both informative and to the point. Why should we reward companies for basic human “politeness” (that is, fair trade)?
The problem with Terrifying Times is that Oliver comes off less as a comedian than a pissed off Poli-Sci professor who is incensed at his student’s propensity for watching Shot of Love instead of presidential debates. A lot of the punchlines aren’t so much as jokes as they are statements of opinion, that cut a lot of B.S., but don’t make for the barrels of laughs that accompany guys who like to do the same jokes about oral sex and fast food in every routine (ahem, Dane Cook).
Oliver, to a fault, doesn’t let the lack of laughter derail him, and just keeps plodding on with lessons on religion (it, too, is messed up), terrorism (our reaction to it is out of control). He has his friend, comedian/ “Professor of Fact” Zaltzman join him for a few lighthearted discussions about being and looking Jewish and how the only “fact” left about the War on Terror is that Great Britain and the US, the two countries most invested in the war, have the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the Western world. These segments start out promising, but are ultimately wind up being more of the same.
Terrifying Times isn’t likely to end up as anyone’s favorite stand-up film of all time, but it offers a smart take on some of the major topics facing the civilized world in the 21st Century. It’s the kind of stand-up special you watch to forget the world’s problems; it’s the kind of special you watch when you’re sick of watching MSNBC.