John Oliver finds humor in politics, consumers

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NEW YORK --- A summer looms that will bring presidential campaigning to a boil. Meanwhile, the heart-tuggers at NBC are warming us up for the Olympics, where athletic competition routinely takes a back seat to TV melodrama.

Resisting sentimental come-ons will be our challenge in the months ahead. Just as it is any day (come to think of it) for anyone encountering the media.

Fortunately, comedian John Oliver is here to provide his shrewd analysis. What he says is nothing we aren't already aware of. But it can't hurt us to hear it again, especially while we're laughing.

On his standup special, Terrifying Times , he has many observations that befit his regular role as correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart . The lanky, bespectacled Mr. Oliver also happens to be British, which, as he notes early on, means his accent gives anything he says more authority than anything any American could say.

During the hour (premiering 10 tonight on Comedy Central), Mr. Oliver addresses environmental issues. Wind-farming is a bust as an alternative-energy source, he announces: "It turns out that wind has been horrifically overfarmed." By 2040, "there will be no wind whatsoever."

He champions conspicuous consumption -- for example, an inflatable floating barbecue grill that lets you cook while soaking in your pool.

"Is there any greater example of what it is to live in the freest nation on Earth than that?" he marvels with no small dose of irony.

Then midway through the program he turns to a particularly potent topic: the depressing nature of news. A constant diet of bad news can numb its audience to feeling anything, he warns.

At least, it has for him.

"There is only one thing now that will unconditionally reduce me to tears. And it's not human suffering. It's not polar bears standing on tiny pieces of ice." The one thing guaranteed to make him sob? "Slow-motion sequences of sporting triumph and failure set to rock ballads from the 1980s."

He imagines an Olympian sprinter on TV, displayed in slow motion ... running ... winning ... to the sound of I Believe I Can Fly .

"If you are not already weeping at the very thought of that," Mr. Oliver tells his studio audience, "you are dead inside!"

But music can milk the moment just as powerfully at a sub-Olympic level.

Mr. Oliver describes a humble bowling alley, "deserted but for one lonely, middle-aged divorced guy, bowling against himself." So what? "I would cry you a salty river if you set that scene to Starship's Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now ."

Then Mr. Oliver acts it out while the music plays. He mimes in slo-mo releasing the ball, tracking its progress down the lane, then falling to his knees and pumping his arms at the triumph of a strike. The audience cheers for him. Nothing's going to stop them.

But who says this condition is limited to sports?

Mr. Oliver voices alarm at politicians harnessing "the undeniable power that schmaltzy music has."

Then he stages a demonstration of its transformative effects.

He plays a 20-second sound bite from a speech by President Bush. The oratory is flat-footed. The words seem to invite skepticism or scoffing from a listener. Mr. Oliver sneers at the promise of defeating the enemy.

Then he proposes that everyone listen to the snippet again, "but this time, backed by a power ballad."

This time, Mr. Bush's message is supercharged by Bette Midler singing (You Are) The Wind Beneath My Wings. Overcome by emotion, Mr. Oliver wails,

"He's only trying to protect us!" Mission accomplished.

"This power is ferocious," Mr. Oliver sums up. "Let us hope and pray that bin Laden does not set his next video to Foreigner's I Want to Know What Love Is."


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