A few months ago, I traveled to New York City for the Eugene Mirman Comedy Fest—a tongue-in-cheek weekend affair that packs as many of Mirman's comic pals into Brooklyn bars as humanly possible. To the surprise of certainly not me, Mirman has impeccable comic taste (John Mulaney, Kumail Nanjiani, Hannibal Buress, John Hodgman, Michael Showalter), so needless to say, I was pumped. But the best set of the weekend came in the form of a surprise guest: John Oliver, who jumped on stage and delivered an incisive, razor-sharp, Daily Show-honed takedown of American culture. It was leagues beyond his just-alright stand-up special Terrifying Times. Holy cow, this guy needed to record his material straight away.
Turns out he was just practicing for this new Comedy Central stand-up series, which debuted last night at that special time reserved for, well, doing just about anything else (or watching Dollhouse). I'm not quite sure why Comedy Central insists on debuting stand-up type stuff on these off nights—Live At Gotham and The Hot List also fell into this—but at least it eases the Saturday hangover.
The show format is straightforward enough. John Oliver comes out at the top, doing a few minutes of material, then introducing the remainder of the line-up. You might even say he's the "host", as they say in the "biz." His material is pretty much what I saw that night in Brooklyn, a welcome mix of faux-arrogance and playing up his "outsider" status as a Brit in the States to make humorous observations; he started the show with a throwaway line about the audience applauding, "You have to do this. It'd be impolite not to" before launching into a bit about how he finally understands what it means to live in America and be subject to taxaction without representation. Later he casually drops some facts to set up a bit—that in Australia, their voter turnout is 100 percent because it's illegal not to vote—then dropping a few made-up ones with the same conviction. It's his Daily Show character with a bigger audience and a microphone, and it's great.
The problem is that it's unclear why Oliver is the host. These types of stand-up shows exist all over the fest circuit, with a "known" comic entity drawing audiences to a line-up of lesser-known stand-ups. That's not what's happening here: Every other comic on the bill is fairly established. Last night's show included Maria Bamford (I should admit before we go any further that I've never really thought she was all that special, but I can understand/appreciate that others do), Nick Kroll as craft services coordinator character Fabrice Fabrice, Greg Fitzsimmons, and Eugene Mirman. They all do a decent job despite uncomfortable editing by Comedy Central—my major pet peeve with the network, that eliminates a lot of the welcome pauses between bits—and managed to showcase an odd variety of bits, from Fitzsimmons' relationship humor to Fabrice Fabrice's surreal take on Renee Zellweger. Then Mirman does about 25 minutes off his latest CD God Is A 12-Year-Old Boy With Aspergers, and I begin to wonder what it even means that Oliver's name is attached to the series.
John Oliver is fantastic, and I want more of him. The other guys are good too, no doubt, but this should be his time to shine. I look forward to the inevitable DVD cobbling together all his opening bits into an extended set. Still, it's nice to have some consistently great stand-up out there, especially to brighten those headachey Saturday mornings.