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Oliver declares eccentricity as America’s legacy

"Snow" pelts John Oliver as he's introduced at the beginning of the lecture. Photo: Joe Cascio

By MARCENE ROBINSON

Published December 4, 2014

“America’s greatest quality, truly as a people and a nation, is defiance. ”
John Oliver
Distinguished Speakers Series

Every nation has a legacy. The Egyptians are remembered for the pyramids, while Italy may be known for its wine and art.

But America, according to political satirist John Oliver, will be remembered for its eccentricity.

“It’s the moments of eccentricity that are the best display of this country’s strength because there are countries around the world that can’t get away with the kind of (expletive) you get away with here,” said Oliver, this year’s Undergraduate Student Choice Speaker in the 28th annual UB Distinguished Speakers Series.

“You are weirder than you think you are and, more importantly, you are weirder than you allow yourself to be presented to the rest of the world.”

Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” and a former correspondent for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” originally was scheduled to appear at UB on Nov. 18. His performance was postponed due to November’s lake-effect snowstorms, or what Oliver prefers to call “thundersnow.”

The comic was met last night with the crackling of thunder and a flurry of artificial snow when he took the stage before a crowd of 6,000 in Alumni Arena.

Oliver made sure to joke about Buffalo’s harsh winter weather and the city’s instant disregard for the rest of the world’s climate struggles.

However, most of Oliver’s performance attempted to pinpoint a defining legacy for America.

He explained that the United States is the only nation where one can watch a pigeon strut confidently though an airport in Newark, N.J., or find a mundane library in Boise, Idaho, with a sign that reads, “Library!” A sign donated by a local pizza restaurant owner.

Oliver’s bizarre observations of America continued with a zombie bar crawl in Minneapolis, Minn., and discovering that Denver, Colo., celebrates “Frozen Dead Guy Day.”

The artifact Oliver believes will define the U.S. is the T-shirt cannon. Not only do Americans embrace a tool that killed two people in the past year, they strive to improve it, the comic said.

“You cannot stop. That is one of your great qualities,” he said.

The Philadelphia 76ers invented a T-shirt Gatling gun named “Big Bertha,” while the Washington Capitals go a step further by parachuting burritos into the stands of its arena, explained Oliver.

And Oliver believes no act is more American than the homerun derby in an inflatable batting cage he witnessed from the deck of an airship. The icing on the cake: The baseballs were caught by people on the water with jet skis.

The sight inspired Oliver to rewrite the U.S. national anthem to begin, “Oh, say can you see, the homerun I just hit, from the deck of this ship, which is filled with explosives…” and finish “Oh, say this is the most American thing that has ever happened. In the land of the free, and the home of jet skis.”

But this eccentricity, Oliver explained, is what allows the U.S. to make history.

He said the characteristic helped U.S. and European scientists and engineers land the Philae probe on a comet for the first time in history, and guided Nick Wallenda’s walk between two skyscrapers in Chicago.

 “There is a power in this kind of craziness,” Oliver said. “America’s greatest quality, truly as a people and a nation, is defiance. You don’t let things push you around. And defiance has always been, to me, the most uplifting human quality.”