John Oliver: From Conan to the basement

One thing comedians always love to mention about the New York City scene is the ability to book multiple gigs any night of the week. They don’t often mention that all of these gigs are not equal. Take Tuesday night, for example, when Daily Show correspondent John Oliver taped a performance in the late afternoon for Late Night with Conan O’Brien and a nationwide TV audience, then ventured over to the basement of Comix to perform mostly new material for a few dozen people at the free Drink at Work showcase. Two wildly different experiences, with two wildly different results.

The Conan appearance itself even provided a mixed bag, as his set didn’t hit with the studio audience with quite the same punch and reaction that he normally gets live or on Comedy Central (perhaps he was too clever for the room?), but then, during his "panel" set with Conan, Oliver easily knocked all of Conan’s set-up pitches out of the ballpark (so to speak). You can watch it all here, via Hulu. It begins at the 33-minute mark, which I’ve hopefully just led you to here:

Meanwhile, Oliver told the Drink at Work crowd upfront that he was testing out new bits. And, as I’ve seen him do this before, the unpredictability works in his favor. He’s so witty and self-aware, in the moment able to react to the audience’s reactions and create jokes about his jokes. "Good," he noted after one joke, then instantly poked fun at himself for commenting aloud on his performance. "Telling jokes is so arrogant," he said after another bit. "Sometimes a moment of silence is nice." Another bit that I’ve seen him perform earlier this spring continues to impress, as he workshops a routine that begins simply with nostalgia about an odd family dinner ritual, then spirals into something else completely that allows Oliver to go anywhere and everywhere, for as long as he and the audience are willing to enjoy the ride. The bit appears in a completely different form on his new Comedy Central special that airs April 20. For my insider report on that special, take a trip back with me to the taping.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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