Pity Leon Panetta.
When the former CIA director speaks at this season’s Drew Forum, he must follow in the footsteps of a foreigner who knows the United States better than he does.
John Oliver, the British star of HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, kicked off the annual Drew University lecture series on Tuesday with wickedly funny observations about the USA, honed during seven years as a regular on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Sure, Egypt has pyramids. But America, Oliver reminded a big crowd at Morristown’s Mayo Performing Arts Center, has given the world t-shirt cannons, burrito parachutes at hockey games and jet skiers in hurricanes.
And New Jersey has contributed a governor “who is going to fight Ebola by preventing health care workers from re-entering this country,” at an airport that is “arguably the worst place on God’s earth.
“If Ebola gets off a flight at Newark Airport, you do not need to worry about Newark Airport getting Ebola. You need to worry about Ebola getting Newark Airport,” Oliver riffed.
Describing Oliver’s satire as “biting, humorous and provocative,” Drew President MaryAnn Baenninger said the comedian was joining illustrious company:
Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the late broadcasting legend Walter Cronkite are among those who have addressed the Drew Forum since its inception 20 years ago.
The series is underwritten by the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation.
Nobody was more amused — and bemused — by Oliver’s inclusion in this elite club than the comic himself, who predicted his next career step may be “off a cliff.”
The audience included students bused to the show from Drew’s Madison campus, a place “more Hogwarts-y than Hogwarts,” according to the Cambridge University graduate.
He likened Drew’s rivalry with neighboring Fairleigh Dickinson University to “the private school version of the Gaza Strip.”
Oliver saved some zingers for his ancestral homeland, questioning England’s wisdom of punishing criminals by exiling them to paradise in Australia. He also noted his country’s penchant for pinching items from its colonial subjects.
“The British Museum basically is a crime scene,” he quipped.
But modern America’s absurdities and eccentricities intrigue him most. Where else would government agencies issue statements denying the existence of mermaids and “aquatic humanoids” in response to a mock documentary?
Americans, Oliver added, exemplify defiance — “in the face of a threat or a fact.”
Defying a recession that has forced Europeans to tighten their belts, U.S. citizens spent $310 million last year on Halloween costumes — for their pets, he said.
The evening’s few serious moments came during a question-and-answer session after the hour-long standup act.
Oliver, 37, said he has no interest in moderating NBC’s Meet the Press — but he may continue appearing in Community, an NBC series that is moving to Yahoo.
At the Daily Show, the Emmy-winning writer learned the necessity of grasping the storyline first, and then grafting on the jokes.
“You can always re-write the jokes,” Oliver explained. “But you can’t rewrite the story.”
Nor can you answer every question posed by fans. One student quizzed Oliver about opportunities for female comics; he did his best to reply, concluding mischievously:
“Please, please, come and ask that exact same question to Leon Panetta!”
The Drew Forum continues at Drew on Nov. 20, 2014, with a lecture by former New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Stephanie Cutter, President Obama’s 2012 deputy campaign chair, speaks on campus on March 3, 2015. Leon Panetta concludes the series at Drew on April 3. To buy tickets, contact the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey box office at 973-408-3917.