Halfway through his routine at NYCB Theatre at Westbury last Friday, British-born political satirist John Oliver whipped out his smart phone and searched “Long Island Big Duck.”
The search result prompted him to instantly fall to his knee and become consumed by laughter.
Oliver apparently makes it his mission to uncover strange facts about each American town he visits. For example, seeing a sign for a library in Boise, Idaho, prompted him to wonder why it’s punctuated with an exclamation point—he learned it was paid for by a charitable donation. Here he wondered out loud why any region would need a giant duck. Long Island’s response: why not?
The famed Big Duck wasn’t the only weird fact that Oliver uncovered: a more extensive search noted another popular, err, destination.
“What’s the Commack Motor Inn?” Oliver asked the crowd, which erupted in the kind of laughter you get when nearly everyone is on the joke except for the naïve few.
“Hourly rates!” yelled a man in the audience. Oliver let that one sink in for a few seconds.
He appeared to take as much joy from the back-and-forth with the appreciative crowd as those who paid to see the popular comedian in a very different format than they’re used to.
Oliver just completed the first season of his new HBO show “Last Week Tonight,” which ended with rave reviews. In that provocative program, Oliver sits behind a desk and does the news, though he does not accept the title of journalist. For years, he worked as a “correspondent” on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” and then took over for Stewart while he was away producing his film “Rosewater.” Oliver’s unofficial late-night audition impressed HBO bosses, who later offered him his own show on Sunday evenings, considered prime-time real estate on the subscription-based network.
On “Last Week Tonight,” Oliver predominantly focuses on politics, sometimes for the laughs and other times to raise awareness, like when he discussed how the US government fails to welcome into this country Afghan interpreters who were crucial to the military’s effort against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Sometimes the comedian spurs people into action. Take, for example, when he encouraged the masses to deluge the Federal Communications Commission with letters supporting Net Neutrality. The day after the show aired, the FCC Tweeted that its comment system was experiencing “technical difficulties” due to “heavy traffic.”
Since cable consumers have to pay a separate charge to watch HBO, the network’s shows are not judged by TV ratings so it’s hard to analyze how well their exclusive productions are performing. But Oliver’s success can be judged by the Internet’s reaction to his show in the days and weeks after it airs: His segments spawn dozens, if not hundreds, of articles from news organizations and his YouTube clips can hit upwards of 7 million views for a single video.
In short time, he has become just as effective, or even more so, than Stewart, his mentor, and fellow satirist Stephen Colbert, whose Comedy Central show will come to an end this week.
Oliver rarely holds back during “Last Week Tonight,” often discussing topics that irk him—America’s drone war, police militarization, student loan debt—and feverishly pounds away at them. But he was less audacious during his stand-up routine in Westbury, briefly mentioning recent news events like last week’s Senate torture report. He gave his two cents and then moved on.
Oliver seemed content with discussing rather more innocuous topics: how a pigeon wandering around Newark Liberty National Airport reinvigorated seemingly lifeless travelers, how a “Frozen Dead Guy Day” in Colorado came to be, and recalling a letter to the editor that a local Boise newspaper received from a reader aghast at his bewilderment over the unusual “Library!” sign.
Taken together, this was Oliver’s portrait of America: a spectacularly diverse country with idiosyncratic communities that we understand but regrettably take for granted. Oliver, however, seems to prefer the US to his home country, which he admonishes for pillaging other lands in its failed quest for world domination. To be fair, he has problems with US policy as well, but he finds America’s peculiarities—the Big Duck, for example—unbelievably charming.
The strategy seemed to sit well with the nearly sold out crowd. He drew huge laughs when he discovered the history of the Big Duck and took jabs at LI for its omnipresent traffic. When he asked the crowd for examples about what made Westbury unique, he was amused when a woman muttered: “There’s no Eastbury.” When he admitted to his youthful futility on the soccer field, the crowd seemed to let out a giggle all at once, prompting Oliver to shout: “Fuck you, Long Island!”
Some Oliver fans may have been eager to hear him dissect politics and touch upon a range of issues affecting the country. But Oliver does that on Sunday nights.
The Englishman often mentioned how much he adores this country and how grateful he is for the opportunities he’s been afforded since coming here. His retelling of his experience across America was his way of giving back.
Thank you, John, for reminding us all just how wonderfully weird this place we call home truly is.