Only at Cornell will you find a crowd equally receptive to a dorky (but irresistible) rendition of R. Kelly’s “Ignition” and a joke about the Expressionist painter Edvard Munch. John Oliver, the unmistakably British veteran correspondent from The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, knew exactly who his audience was and won over the sold-out crowd at Bailey Hall with his kinetic, literary and utterly shameless brand of comedic delivery Saturday night.
Oliver’s homeless — err, I mean homeless-looking friend, Mike Lawrence, opened the Cornell University Program Board-sponsored show. Lawrence’s disheveled appearance and little-known history made every story worryingly believable. There were few lines he did not cross; his dark spectrum of jokes covered Alzheimer’s, homophobia, domestic violence, AIDS (or “GLAIDS,” the Glee version) and the KKK (“Nothing says master race like minimum wage!”). He drew the expected “ooo’s” for the most offensive material (his Adele miscarriage joke dropped jaws), but he won far more laughs with his shock-and-awe style. His take on a conservative Batman displeased with Obamacare ("I'm going to give Gotham the health care it deserves...") brought down the house. He found an instant fan in me with his gag about groveling for money in the subway in order to buy The Criterion Collection Blu-ray of The Royal Tenenbaums — the specificity of that joke expresses the range of pop culture trivia he chose to probe.
A very rich ovation welcomed Oliver, though he noted once the applause quieted that nothing could top returning from work to get pissed on by his new puppy. Fresh off the presidential campaign trail (he finished covering the DNC less than 24 hours prior), Oliver wove his love and hate — but mostly love — for politics and America into a nearly 90-minute set that touched upon myriad cultural observations. He reflected upon his “out-of-body experience” while witnessing firsthand Clint Eastwood’s stool speech two weeks ago (Lawrence also deigned to pluck this fresh comedic fruit). However, the majority of his material barely connected with his Daily Show experience, which was a wise and risky choice.
Many of Oliver’s jokes were inspired by his outsider’s perspective on American quirks. His three-question survey on the status of our country — “Have they stopped caring about how they look?” “Do they have poor eating habits?” “Have they run out of money?” — drew laughs when he made an analogy comparing the KFC Double Down to “legally-attempted suicide.” He also teased the audience when a loud “Woo!” greeted his sobering declaration that the U.S. is $15 trillion in debt. When he repeated the statistic near the end of his show, a catcall greeted its return; both the crowd and Oliver commended the other jokester in the room.
Ever the seasoned comedian, Oliver practiced the satisfying technique of referring to an element of an earlier joke within a later, seemingly unrelated joke. The alarmingly confident pigeon capable of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict made a well-received return, as did Oliver’s concession that he may have read some Paul Ryan “slash fiction” after being humiliated in its Daily Show variants. Despite some platitudinous observations, it was how Oliver progressed from the initial set-up that sealed the deal. He jabbed at Mitt Romney’s oft-mentioned elitism by running and jumping across the stage, mimicking a Dickensian villain whacking poor children. One of the night’s best jokes: Oliver noted that Romney’s go-to phrase when entering diners — “What’s going on here, then?” — is a genuine question.
But throughout the night, Oliver’s main narrative was one of optimism. His mocking of Americana clearly comes from a warm heart. He recalled his confusion when an American traveler complained about a hurricane delaying his flight, asking, “Why can’t we just fly through it?” “We’d love to but they won’t let us!” replied the airline attendant. Oliver’s confusion melted into admiration. Championing our country as “built on overconfidence,” he broke into an impassioned version of the national anthem, finishing with the line, “And the home of jet skis!” amid tumultuous applause. “Everything’s going to be fine,” he often repeated. With you around, John Oliver, I think you’re right.