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Photo: ‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’/HBO
One of the most impressive things about ‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’ was how quickly it found its footing. Where most shows go through some understandable growing pains to figure out what worked and what didn’t, ‘Last Week Tonight’ pretty much nailed down its structure: short segments at the start that cover recent news, the “And now” video compilations, then followed up by the main segment that tackles a social and political issue at length and in greater depth. Time permitting, they’d allow a brief segment at the end to cover some lighter fare.
One hallmark of the show that helps it stand out from the crowd is its elaborate stunts, whether it’s gathering cameos from Hollywood stars to starting his own church. Taking advantage of creative freedom and HBO’s deep pockets, what John Oliver does is he brilliantly leverages his resources and uses these stunts to draw attention to a particular story, or maybe just to get a good laugh; and these stunts do make headlines by the next day.
So in honor of the show’s recent return, here’s a sampling of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’s best and most memorable stunts:
The Salmon Cannon (Season One, 2014)
In the final minutes of the show’s first season, Oliver covered the “salmon cannon”, an impressive (and hilarious) piece of technology that helps migrating fish over dams via tubes. So impressed was Oliver that he built his own cannon and started shooting fake salmon. It’s one thing when they hit fellow late-night hosts Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, and Seth Meyers; it’s another when they interrupt Tom Hanks, Anderson Cooper, Wanda Sykes, Dwight Howard, Rachael Ray, and J.J. Abrams (with R2-D2). Not even ‘The Young and the Restless’, ‘Modern Family’, ‘Grey’s Anatomy’, and ‘The Simpsons’ were safe; and all this is set to classical music. The result is four minutes of crossover comedy gold.
It’s quite upsetting how faith can easily be manipulated and taken advantage of by charlatans. And Oliver discussed the issue twice with biting humor and insight.
First, in Season Two, he tackled the issue of megachurches and the obscenely wealthy televangelists who profit from them. As he points out, these megachurches are tax-exempt and thus the owners are free to use the money from their congregations however they like: in this case enriching themselves. And to demonstrate how frighteningly easy it is to set up a tax-exempt religious organization, he did just that. The result is the Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption Church, with Oliver and his TV wife Wanda Jo (Rachel Dratch) urging viewers to send “seeds” (read: money) to sow. Eventually, after the church was closed, Oliver forwarded all the donated money to Doctors Without Borders.
Oliver would revive the stunt in Season Five to tackle crisis pregnancy centers, which are essentially just pro-life facilities that trick women by posing as clinics that also offer abortions. He goes on to highlight the misleading, predatory, and manipulative tactics these centers employ. And similar to megachurches, they’re easy to establish. Thus Oliver brings back Wanda Jo to introduce the Our Lady of Choosing Choice, a (tax-exempt) crisis pregnancy center operating out of a van. And as Oliver points out, there’s nothing stopping them from parking outside an abortion clinic to harass and trick women. It’s funny and horrifying.
That Time He Forgave $15 Million of Debt (Season Three, 2016)
In its third season, the show did an episode concerning the world of debt collection. Specifically, Oliver highlighted predatory collectors in the business who specialize in buying debts from banks for pennies on the dollar, and who then attempt to collect the debt through harassment, lawsuits, and threats. In some cases, debtors are even left on the hook for either debt they don’t recognize or old debts because the collectors don’t verify the information. In a bid to raise awareness of the issue, and after admitting how disturbingly easy it was, Oliver and his team started their own debt-buying company for only $50 and called it CARP (Central Asset Recovery Professionals) “after the bottom-feeding fish”. For less than $60,000 they bought up almost $15 million in medical debt. And after receiving the debts and all the debtors’ personal info, the show partnered with charity group RIP Medical Debt and took the bold step of forgiving every single cent. Now that’s impressive.
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The “Eat Shit, Bob!” Saga (Season Four and Six, 2017 and 2019)
In 2017 as Oliver examined the coal industry (their stubborn belief in the viability of coal and penny-pinching ways), he gradually turned his attention to one of the industry’s loudest voices: now-deceased Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray. There’s his utter disregard for miners’ health and safety, his botched handling of a 2007 coal mine collapse, and even a story of how a talking squirrel factored into his company’s origin. Oliver even compared him to a “geriatric Dr. Evil”. The petulant Murray is also shown to be very litigious against any criticism against him, with the show receiving a cease and desist. But that didn’t stop Oliver, culminating in him introducing a giant squirrel mascot named Mr. Nutterbutter and (in a reference to how miners returned meager bonus checks to Murray, voiding it and writing “Eat shit, Bob”) offering a check made out to, you guessed it, “Eat shit, Bob”.
This story got an update as Murray filed a years-long lawsuit against the show seeking monetary damages and gag order against the segment. It got to the point that the ACLU was eventually involved. The case was dismissed, though Oliver felt that Murray never intended to win and was just hoping to wear him and HBO down through SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) suits, which are used to silence dissent. Regardless the show closed the book on the Murray saga the only way it can: with an epic musical number all but daring Murray to try to sue them again…by making claims so outlandish they fall under protected speech. It’s seriously one of the best things Oliver has ever done.
Russell Crowe’s Jockstrap (Season Five, 2018)
As mentioned, having your show be on HBO meant a bigger budget. And Oliver’s definitely not afraid to spend HBO money on some truly weird stuff. Case in point: the story of one of the few remaining Blockbuster Videos in Alaska. As Oliver pointed out, with internet coverage improving and streaming becoming more accessible the store would need a gimmick to stay open. He then brings up how Russell Crowe was auctioning off props and memorabilia from his movies. And to no one’s surprise, Oliver gradually reveals how he’d bought a bunch of the items—most notably Crowe’s leather jockstrap from 2005’s ‘Cinderella Man’ for a whopping $7000. And Oliver proceeded to send it to the Blockbuster in Alaska (on a bittersweet note, the Alaska stores eventually closed).
It gets better. Inspired by Oliver’s generosity, Crowe donated the auction proceeds to the Australia Zoo and teamed up with the Irwin family to name a clinic caring for chlamydia-stricken koalas in his honor. The result? “The John Oliver Koala Chlamydia Ward”.
‘A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo’ (Season Five, 2018)
Oliver dedicated one Season Five episode to explore then-Vice President Mike Pence’s history and various political stances, particularly his controversial anti-LGBTQ views such as opposing same-sex marriage and supporting conversion therapy and his ties to the homophobic Focus on the Family organization. He does manage to find one good thing about Pence: his pet rabbit brilliantly named Marlon Bundo, who’s the subject of a children’s book written by Pence’s wife and daughter. Oliver and his team countered this with their own actual children’s book titled ‘A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo’ in which (in a bit of trolling against Pence) the rabbit is gay. Even better: Oliver’s book was an instant bestseller with all proceeds going to The Trevor Project and AIDS United. There’s even an audiobook version with voices from the likes of Jim Parsons, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, John Lithgow, and RuPaul.
The World’s Largest Marble Cake (Season Six, 2019)
Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow is the president of Turkmenistan. He’s also a tyrannical autocrat and the center of a cult of personality. As such it’s crucial that his image be carefully controlled, so naturally, Oliver tears his whole aura to pieces by highlighting his weird obsessions. Among those obsessions: a fixation on horses (especially Turkmenistan’s national horse the Akhal-Teke), amassing Guinness World Records (and calling them out for their willingness to work with brutal dictatorships), and white marble. So Oliver and his team sought to make the world’s largest marble cake featuring an embarrassing picture of Berdimuhamedow falling off a horse. Guinness refused to send a validator to confirm it, but of course, Oliver and his team went ahead and made the cake anyway. And it is glorious.
Meet “Chiijohn” (Season Six, 2019)
A recurring element of Oliver’s show is the use of mascots. Whether it’s the unofficial mascots for various U.S government agencies (with a blind iguana standing in for the Department of Justice) or their most notable one Jeff the Diseased Lung in a Cowboy Hat; mascots can help enliven stories and help the bleaker ones go down easier. But this one’s a much lighter story. The setup is that the Japanese town of Susaki received complaints about wild videos and social media posts featuring their popular yet unofficial otter mascot Chiitan. The town cut ties with Chiitan, leaving the town’s official mascot Shinjo-kun all alone. You can pretty much see where this is going: Oliver then introduces and actually sends his own mascot “Chiijohn” to Japan and to befriend Shinjo-kun. Where it gets wild is that Oliver ends the segment with the reveal that the town of Susaki formally adopted “Chiijohn”.
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Thirsting Over Adam Driver, and Saying “Fuck You” to 2020 (Season Seven, 2020)
The most recent season of ‘Last Week Tonight’ felt a little different. Understandably the pandemic eventually forced Oliver to tape his show alone in a white void room of sorts. What this meant was that despite maintaining its irreverent humor, with no studio audience to play off of and the show’s trademark elaborate stunts were less viable, there was a slight change in tenor: it forces you to realize how serious a topic is, whether it’s the coronavirus or police brutality.
There was a bright spot though. While not in every Season Seven episode, we did get a hilarious running gag of Oliver getting disturbingly thirsty for Adam Driver every chance he gets. “Collapse on my chest, you impenetrable barrier”, “Crush my larynx, you unwieldy boulder”, “Break my fingers, you brooding mountain”: these are just a few of the things said. It all builds to a hilarious confrontation in the season finale as a disgusted Driver video calls Oliver and scolds him for the jokes.
And this segues into the last moment of the season. Inspired by Driver’s words, Oliver leaves the white void he’s spent most of the year in while listing off all the terrible things that happened. As he steps out of a giant model of the number 2020, he speaks of his hope that 2021 will be better. And then he blows up that giant model in glorious slo-mo. And Oliver speaks for all of us as the year 2020 came to an end: “Let tomorrow be about solutions. Today is about vengeance. Fuck you, 2020. Get fucked”. Truer words were never spoken.
By Mario Yuwono
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