Very few comedians are able to educate their audience solely “in service of a joke” as well as John Oliver and the team at Last Week Tonight. Fewer still are able to actually make an actual difference. The show has been on the air for less than 2 years, and has already made a notable impact on our society. Here are just a few of the more noteworthy examples.
One of the most popular segments discussed proposed laws relating to Net-neutrality which originally aired June 1, 2014. This episode is often highlighted as one of the best examples of Oliver taking a complex subject and making it accessible and easy to understand through a unique combination of humour, anger, and clever analogies. It’s also one of the earliest examples of the show’s ability to make a cultural impact. While wrapping up the segment, Oliver urged viewers to contact the Federal Communication Commission to tell them exactly what they thought about the potential changes to Net neutrality legislation. Government servers received so many messages that they crashed. Even FCC officials found the segment hilarious – internal emails show that many were watching the episode as it aired.
Watch the segment here:https://youtu.be/fpbOEoRrHyU&h=500
FIFA has been the subject of a number of Last Week Tonight segments. The first aired on June 8, 2014. Oliver compared the corrupt organization to organized religion and highlighted FIFA’s horrible treatment of migrant workers. He discussed the corrupt organization’s lengthy history of money laundering, fraud, and bribery.
Watch the segment here:https://youtu.be/DlJEt2KU33I&h=500
More recently, in May of this year, the show aired another segment calling for the resignation of president Sepp Blatter and discussing the arrests of high-ranking officials. Blatter resigned shortly thereafter.
Watch the second FIFA segment here:https://youtu.be/qr6ar3xJL_Q&h=500
Another subject Last Week Tonight investigated was the claim that the Miss America pageant is the largest scholarship provider for young women in the world. While the show ultimately found that the claim is indeed true, the organization spends far less than the claimed amount of $45 million. Oliver implored his viewers to donate to other, more worthy, scholarship funds, such as the Society of Women Engineers. The Society subsequently received $25,000 in donations in just 2 days – that’s 15 percent of their yearly average. The Society credited Oliver and the power of what they deemed “the John Oliver bounce” for the huge rise in donations, and interest in their organization.
Watch the segment, which originally aired on September 21, 2014 here:https://youtu.be/oDPCmmZifE8&h=500
A few weeks later, Last Week Tonight discussed civil asset forfeiture, a law that basically allows police to confiscate money and property from people who haven’t been charged with a crime. Oliver pointed out that the departments usually keep all of the cash they obtain, and there are basically no limitations on what that money can be used for. Earlier this year, US Attorney General Eric Holder announced that state and local police could no longer seize private property, including cash, cars and real estate, without evidence that a crime had indeed occurred.
Watch the segment, which originally aired on October 5, 2014, here:https://youtu.be/3kEpZWGgJks&h=500
In January of this year, state Senator Cyrus Habib introduced a bill that would allow state residents to officially submit their comments on pending legislature over the internet. Currently, residents would be required to show up in person in Olympia, the state’s capital, a process Habib felt discouraged people from participating in the legislative process. He credited the show’s humourus and engaging approach to what would normally be boring topics as the inspiration behind the bill.
Voting rights in the U.S. territories, such as Guam and American Somolia, were the subject of Last Week Tonight’s main segment on March 8, 2015. Restrictive voting laws were put into place in the early 20th century, based on decisions that the territories were populated by “alien races” who weren’t intelligent enough to understand American law.
Oliver pointed out that the decision to deny citizens of the territories the right to vote was “written by a racist” and that it “was always supposed to be temporary”. That segment was cited in a recent Ninth Circuit court decision. Judge Marsha S. Berzon was the presiding judge in Paeste v. Guam – a class action lawsuit brought by residents of Guam against the territory over a tax refund program. Judge Berzon mentioned the show when discussing the so-called “Insular Cases”. These cases include the ruling Oliver discussed above, and established that U.S. constitutional rights do not apply to residents of U.S. territories. She wrote that those cases have “been the subject of extensive judicial, academic, and popular criticism” and cited the show’s segment on the topic.
Watch the segment here:https://youtu.be/CesHr99ezWE&h=500
The main segment of the show that aired on June 7, 2015 discussed the unfair use of bail in the United States. Bail is disproportionately imposed on individuals who are poor, and often unable to pay. Those individuals are then left with two equally devastating options: stay in jail until trial and hope you’re found not guilty, or plead guilty to (hopefully) avoid jail time. Just one month after the segment aired, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to change bail requirements for some non-violent offenders. The mayor released a statement about the new rules that seemed to echo Oliver’s earlier comments, saying that “as the system currently operates in New York, some people are being detained based on the size of their bank account, not the risk they pose”.
Watch the segment on bail here:https://youtu.be/IS5mwymTIJU&h=500
More recently, the show aired a segment on televangelists and the so-called “prosperity gospel”, where personalities call themselves church leaders and take advantage of the faith of others. People are encouraged to donate their money to already wealthy church leaders as a sign of good faith. Followers are told that by giving donations and “seeding” their money, God will reward them with wealth.
In actuality, the people receiving the donations are rewarded with enough tax-free income to purchase million dollar homes and jets, and those donating their money are just asked to donate more. Oliver proved just how “disgustingly easy” setting up a tax-free church can be by creating Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, and illustrating that it’s possible to meet most of the IRS criteria for religious exemption without even trying. After the segment aired, CBS DC reported that there is an increased pressure on the IRS to investigate televangelists.
Watch the segment, which aired on August 16, 2015, here:https://youtu.be/7y1xJAVZxXg&h=500
There is no denying that Last Week Tonight is making a cultural impact. One reason for this is the way Oliver is able to explain a complex issue in easy-to-understand terms, often using a brilliant combination of pop culture references, wit, and anger. Another reason is that Oliver offers hope along with a course of action. He doesn’t just explain the issue, but gives viewers a way to make it somehow less awful, whether it be finding new ways to bring attention to an issue or crashing government servers with legislative concerns. This is where the show’s real charm lies (aside from Oliver’s accent, of course). Things aren’t great, but things can change - and you and I can play a role.