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DVD Review: John Oliver – Terrifying Times

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Perhaps the best reason to buy John Oliver: Terrifying Times on DVD comes before you even press a button. Featuring a hilarious, innovative twist on the standard DVD menu, we get John Oliver rambling like a neurotic mess about what options you can select and why you could possibly be watching him talk for so long in a message that goes on… and on… and on… and on. The details of what gets said are too hilarious to repeat, and the thrill of the joke may get lost on repeated views anyway. But you’re less likely to find a better DVD menu on any other disc, or one that makes the purchase worth it even if you’ve seen the special on Comedy Central already.

In fact, if you’ve seen the special, you may realize that the DVD menu could actually be better than the content it precedes. The prospect of John Oliver doing stand-up does not seem natural in theory, and in practice, Oliver is a comic who harps on cliché phrasings too often for comfort. His political ramblings often trend toward the obvious, and while some of his takes are inspired and stark, he simply doesn’t have the same ability to invert a concept comedically as do contemporaries such as Lewis Black, Eddie Izzard, and Albert Brooks. Oliver’s brand of classic irony, such as mentioning that England conquers continents when they get enthusiastic about anything and wondering how cable news would have worked in the 19th century, may have seemed fresh 10 or 20 years ago. Today, however, The Daily Show has long made the sarcastic use of Rove-isms commonplace.

Oliver does much better when he focuses on his own patheticness, an easier subject for comedians, true, but one that speaks to the very nature of comedy. Real human pain can be as funny as comedy gets, and there isn’t a funnier moment in the set than when Oliver presents his preteen self choosing between winning a race and covering up his gradually protruding penis from his torn gym shorts. In Oliver’s words, this moment showed him he was not cut out for athletics, but perhaps had a future in comedy. In terms of stories of when the comic inspiration first took hold, I can think of few others that hit just as, um, hard.

Perhaps Oliver’s lack of confidence in his stand-up routine got the best of him, as a DVD bonus clip of him testing out some raw material shows a lot of hilarious lost gems that Oliver deemed not ready for the stage. Including probably the only Wynton Marsalis joke you’ll ever see on television, along with shots at the British press and further jabs at his own self-confidence, the bonus stand-up material shows a comic who, while hit or miss, can frequently imagine some hilarious scenarios. He relies on old BBC4 chum Andy Zaltzman a bit too much for one’s liking in his own stand-up, and another DVD extra shows a radio discussion between the two that is much more self-congratulatory than the actual humor merited. Could it be that in between the insecurity and success is more than a little ego?

In terms of DVD extras, we are rounded out with some of the classic Oliver clips on The Daily Show, and in terms of all-around comedy, these clips are the strongest moments on the DVD. It seems that when he has a bastion of writers who can play to his strengths as a bit performer, Oliver is at his most comfortable. Oliver may eventually develop into a more complete stand-up, but for now, his correspondent status on the Daily Show seems to be his peak.

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About Ethan Stanislawski