Welcome to 2010. As if you haven’t been reminded enough, today officially begins a new decade. Which mean it’s time to reflect on the past 10 years and ponder how far we’ve come. Remember answering machines, compact discs, and airplanes without wi-fi? Weird, right? How did the world change so much in what seemed like the blink of an eye? What have we learned about ourselves from surviving the 00s, and how can we use this knowledge to make the next decade a little less sucky? There’s much to contemplate, and quite honestly, we’re a little too hungover from last night’s celebration to tackle such heady questions. So we’ve left the messy business of decennium introspection in the far more capable hands of John Oliver.
Why Oliver? For one thing, he’s poised to have a ridiculously productive 2010. He continues to be a popular correspondent on The Daily Show—a post he’s held since 2006—as well as a co-star on the Joel McHale sitcom Community, one of the few reasons that NBC hasn’t gone out of business yet. And beginning next Friday, January 8 (at 11 p.m./10 p.m. central), he’ll be hosting his very own standup comedy series, called John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show, which runs for six episodes on Comedy Central and features such heavy hitters as Janeane Garofalo, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Brian Posehn, Paul F. Tompkins, Marc Maron, and The Daily Show’s Kristen Schaal.
But most importantly, we asked Oliver to evaluate the decade because he’s British. For some reason, British comics tend to be astute critics of American society. (Ricky Gervais, anyone?) And Oliver in particular seems to understand us as only an English expatriate with mixed emotions about the Land of the Free could. Last month, during a speech at The Economist’s “World in 2010” Conference, Oliver compared his affection for the U.S. with “falling in love with a girl that’s just throwing up all over herself, pulling her hair back and softly whispering to her that everything was going to be alright.” C’mon, admit it, you’ve never heard a better metaphor for America in the new millennium.
Oliver and I exchanged emails during the last days of 2009, just as human civilization was sputtering towards its inevitable end.
Eric Spitznagel: Let’s start with an overview of the last decade. I’ll list a few highlights and you put it in perspective for us. U.S. troops invade Iraq.
John Oliver: Invade Iraq? Please. I think you mean liberate. I think you also mean protect the rest of the world from an evil despot hell bent on blowing up the planet. Don’t you? I’m pretty sure that’s why we sent thousands of brave young men and women there. Right? A historian might convincingly argue that I’m living in a fantasy world, but I would simply argue that I’m happier here skipping with my unicorns than they are with their “facts.”
Enron files for bankruptcy.
Ah, such happy memories. How did such a quaint mom-and-pop organization as Enron get themselves into such a kerfuffle? At least we can be safe in the knowledge that we as a species learnt from that financial fable of overreaching greed, and nothing like that ever happened again. Oh look, here comes another one of my unicorns.
To be completely fair to President Bush, it really wasn’t just black people that he didn’t care about.
Michael Jackson dies at 50.
I think my main memory of this will be of CNN and Larry King desperately trying to revive this story as it seemed to be slipping away from us. They bravely fought to keep it alive night after night, long after even the funeral had taken place. Eventually, exhausted, they just had to let it go. But that story did not die in vain. I will always remember it as the story which meant journalists didn’t have to report extensively on the post-election riots in Iran. I think that’s what Michael Jackson would have wanted.
The Abu Ghraib scandal.
I think Donald Rumsfeld’s eventual defense was that the Geneva Convention never explicitly outlawed slapstick as a tool of war.
Social-networking sites like MySpace and Facebook are introduced.
And at that moment, the concept of privacy died. Good luck to anyone running for office in 40 years. We’ll be able to trawl through all the embarrassing photos and blogs that they themselves uploaded decades before. We’ll have pictures of all their worst Halloween outfits, all the times they threw up at a party, and all the times they mooned the camera with “Happy 2017” painted across their cheeks. If you want to be president in the future, you are going to have to decide by the time you’re eight years old and start acting accordingly.
Bernie Madoff defrauds investors for billions.
I’ll simply say this. When Kevin Bacon hurts … I hurt.
The housing bubble bursts.
Let me also say this. When Nicholas Cage hurts … I hurt.
Time magazine called the 2000s “the worst decade ever.” Are they underestimating what we can do in the 2010s?
No, they are massively underestimating how bad previous centuries were. Try telling people alive during the 14th century that the 2000s were the worst decade ever. They were throwing their own feces out the window and dying of the plague. Let’s try and keep things in perspective.
As a British comedian, are you uniquely qualified to make fun of Americans?
Would you be more specific?
My accent still carries authority here, despite what your history books may argue. Also, Britain has “been there, done that”—if by “there” you mean “ruled the world” and “that” you mean “pissed off a large part of the world’s population.” We know how you feel now. And we’ll be waiting with a shoulder to cry on and a glass of sherry when China becomes the most powerful nation on earth.
Do you have any constructive criticism for our country?
It’s not so much criticism as helpful advice; for goodness sake, make sure you fill your museums before your empire falls. We did, and now they’re magnificent—the British museum is basically an active crime scene. Believe me, losing an empire stings a lot less when you have some free shiny trinkets to look at.
A Russian academic named Igor Panarin predicted that the U.S. will crumble in 2010. Assuming he’s correct, how will it happen?
He certainly sounds unnervingly confident for a man saying something so batshit crazy. If the U.S. does indeed cease to exist in 2010, I can only assume that a mad professor called Igor Panarin will have fired a nuclear warhead at the U.S. just to prove his ludicrous theory.
When the U.S. finally collapses, is there room in your home country for all of us?
Of course there is. And you’ll be happy, as long as you like over-boiled vegetables and soccer.
There’s been a lot of analysis of Obama’s first year, but nothing from a comedy perspective. After his election last year, some warned that Obama’s presidency would be the death of political satire. How would you rate his performance so far?
He was never going to be the death of satire. His elevated hopes in the face of the circumstances he was about to accept the job in were inherently comic. His ambitions were the ultimate set-up to the punch line of inevitable disappointment.
So is it time to bring the “Mission Accomplished” banner out of retirement?
I guess he could have a “Disappointment Accomplished” banner, but he must be careful not to take it out too early. It would be embarrassing for him if he stood on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln with this crushing message of defeat, only for him to turn out years later to be an incredible president.
Obama recently gave himself a “B-plus.” Is he grading himself on the curve?
The very fact that he engaged in that kind of media game should immediately turn that B-plus into a B-minus. The fact is, he’s president of the United States, not a sixth grader needing to know how good his potato-art project was.
After years of looking, do you think we’re serious about finding bin Laden? Or are we just afraid that it’ll be anticlimactic to lose our favorite bad guy, like the end of Return of the Jedi when Darth Vader is finally killed and all we’re left with is an Ewok party?
I certainly hope we’re not basing our foreign policy on the plot of the worst of the first three Star Wars films. I don’t think there are many people who wouldn’t be glad to both see bin Laden dead and be surrounded by dancing Ewoks. Especially because I can only assume that bin Laden sees Ewoks as decadent symbols of Hollywood and Western culture, so it would be fittingly ironic if he was eventually captured by a tiny marine dressed as Wicket.
2009 was a big year for celebrity deaths. Who were you surprised didn’t die?
Fidel Castro is certainly hanging in there longer than anyone expected. Although it’s not a great sign when anytime someone takes a picture of you, they make you hold up a copy of the day’s newspaper.
Any bold predictions for 2010?
I think we can all expect Comandante Obama to continue to execute his vision for socializing America. By this time next year, we will see tanks rolling through the Midwest, and huge portraits of him in every city. I’m not sure why I feel this way, or whether it has anything to do with me melting down Glenn Beck’s latest audio book this morning and injecting it straight into my leg. I think we can also confidently anticipate the New York Mets finding new and more imaginative ways of breaking their fans hearts.
The last decade gave us Blackberries, iPods, and the Kindle. What technology will we all be taking for granted in 2020?
Please let it be the rocket boot. Please let it be the rocket boot. Please let it be the rocket boot.
There’s been speculation that the world will end in 2012. Is there any chance we could finish the job early, like in 2010 or 2011?
I think the ball is in Kim Jong Ill’s court.
In the Armageddon showdown between religious heavyweights—the Rumble in the Jungle, if you will—who’s your money on to win, Jesus or Muhammad?
Do you really think Vanity Fair is the place for this depth of theological discussion?
Okay, let me rephrase. Jesus, Muhammad, or Robert Pattinson. Who’s hotter?
Oh, please. Just listen to the average teenage girl’s response if you showed them pictures of all three topless. That will give you your answer. Just a word of advice, though—showing any kind of picture of the second one could well result in you getting in a lot of trouble with the Islamic world.
As long as we’re talking odds, the Boston Red Sox beat the Curse of the Bambino in the ’00s. Will the next decade bring a long-awaited World Series victory for the Chicago Cubs?
Let me just say yes—to cruelly get their hopes up.
Last but not least, do you have any personal resolutions for 2010?
I think if I tell you, they don’t come true. Isn’t that how it works?
Despite the recession, you’ve remained gainfully employed in your field of choice. You’ve got regular gigs on The Daily Show and Community, and now you’re hosting your own stand-up series for Comedy Central. Are you a workhorse, or is comedy just that low-paying?
It’s not so much that comedy is low paying as the fact that the Queen still demands tithe of 82 percent from British comedians. Apparently it goes back to the early court-jester contracts. I’m not entirely sure how it works. I just know that she can play croquet with your head if you’re caught trying to cheat the system.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com