Nine out of 10 Cockney bootblacks agree: Judge Erich Asperschlager's fake British accent is Pony and Trap.
"Warning: This stand up performance will be delivered with a British accent, so be prepared for the words to come with more authority than you're used to."
Bespectacled British comedian John Oliver is probably best known to American audiences—if he's known at all—as a regular correspondent on the nation's most trusted news program, The Daily Show. His first Comedy Central special, John Oliver: Terrifying Times, trades the green screens of Jon Stewart's studio for the spot-lit stage of New York's Symphony Space, but his trademark wit is the same. Slightly longer and with more naughty words than its original televised incarnation, this hour-long special showcases Oliver's uniquely literate and legitimately funny take on just about every problem facing the world today.
Political humor (sorry, "humour") is tricky business. At best, it sheds light on the inherent ridiculousness of things people take way too seriously. At worst, it relies on stale partisan observations designed to trigger a positive response from a like-minded audience. Terrifying Times does a little of both, though Oliver is clever enough to avoid any major comedic pitfalls. Even his worst critiques of America are made palatable by his outside observer status and hypnotic British accent.
Terrifying Times casts a wide net over current affairs. Oliver hits all the hot button issues—the economy, the war, voting, religion, the environment—and filters them through the been-there-done-that perspective of a now defunct world empire. He eases fears about American imperialism and our falling global reputation. Britain went through it all before and came out all right. We can, too. America's only real mistake, he argues, is that we're doing what we're doing in the era of 24-hour cable news.
Terrifying Times stumbles a bit when Oliver walks the well-trampled ground of right-wing, Bush, and Fox News jokes. There are some clever ideas—that we'll eventually find out Bush's presidency was an eight-year conceptual art installation on what it would be like if someone like him was ever actually elected president, for example—but a lot of it feels old. It's fine to make fun, but there has to be more to modern political comedy than showing a photo of the president making a goofy face.
Some of the best material isn't strictly political. In one of the show's best bits, Oliver laments the fact that he's so desensitized to war and violence, the only thing left that can make him cry is "slow motion sequences of sporting triumph and failure set to rock ballads from the 1980s." Oliver also delves back into his childhood, telling stories about his first act of public disobedience, and why he decided to become a comedian at age 11—a story that involves both a 400m race and his exposed penis.
Terrifying Times breaks the "guy with a microphone" mold of most stand-up specials. Instead of a curtain or brick wall, Oliver is backed up by a giant slideshow. This allows for some nifty visual jokes—like a series of world deity pictures that includes a photo of Mohammed that's just silhouette in a box that reads "image not available;" and the idea for a sticker he'd like to see put on all unfairly traded products—a drawing of an international businessman urinating on an African child. The show also features a couple of guest appearances by "Professor of Fact" Andy Zaltzman—Oliver's friend and fellow comic—who gets wheeled out behind a desk to discuss such topics as the war on terror and the environment.
If you're worried about shelling out full price for a 56-minute special, don't be. The bonus material adds up to nearly another hour on top of the feature. For fans of The Daily Show, there are four classic Oliver bits from that show: a Willmore & Oliver investigation of a New York councilman trying to enact a voluntary ban on the "N" word, a verbally impressive back-and-forth with Daily Show host Jon Stewart about torture terminology, an appearance as a "Political Theater Critic" reviewing an all-night senate debate, and a piece in which a soot-blackened Cockney Oliver, live from 19th century London, voices his support for the president's veto of a bill that would have given healthcare to poor, sick children.
But John Oliver's career extends well beyond Comedy Central. Back in his native England, Oliver is involved in several ongoing radio shows, including Radio 4's Political Animal, and a weekly podcast ("The Bugle") co-hosted by Andy Zaltzman. The extra "John & Andy On…" captures the duo's easy rapport on such subjects as "Democracy," "Sincerity," and "The Queen's Face." The longest bonus feature is nearly half an hour of additional stand-up, performed onstage at the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre for an episode of Political Animal.
Even if you watched Terrifying Times for free on Comedy Central, it's worth picking it up on DVD. There's about 10 minutes of additional material, meaty extras, a crisp widescreen picture, and a 5.1 surround mix that'll make you feel like you're watching from the second row. John Oliver isn't one of the best known comics to come out of The Daily Show, but he deserves to be. The times may be terrifying, but they're also hilarious.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Comedy Central
• Some of John's Appearances on The Daily Show With John Stewart
Review content copyright © 2008 Erich Asperschlager; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.