John Oliver's Greatest Takedowns
John Oliver first proved his comedic-newsman mettle during his seven-year stint as The Daily Show‘s Senior British Correspondent (including that time he successfully took over hosting duties from Jon Stewart for two months). But once Oliver got his own late-night show with Last Week Tonight, he was able to unleash the full force of his comedic rage at the news cycle’s various villains. Oliver now combines the blistering put-downs Stewart perfected with his own unique mix of investigative journalism and performance art. He knows how to hit his enemies where it hurts, and does so in creative ways that often extend into the world beyond his desk, sometimes achieving real goals or at least changing the narrative on a subject. Here are eight of our favorite Oliver takedowns since the beginning of Last Week Tonight.
When the 2016 presidential election started, John Oliver initially refused to talk about Donald Trump. As he told EW in February, he wanted to focus Last Week Tonight‘s election coverage more on the political process rather than the personalities involved. But eventually Trump’s candidacy got so big that Oliver joined in, comparing Trump to America’s back mole – “it may have seemed harmless a year ago, but now that it’s gotten frighteningly bigger, it is no longer wise to ignore it.” Oliver’s team uncovered that Trump’s family name used to be “Drumpf,” and used this as a metaphor for the way Trump’s iconic name allows him to power through his various gaffes and controversial remarks. Oliver turned both Trump’s name and his famous slogan on its head with “Make Donald Drumpf Again.”
Best line: “If you are thinking of voting for Donald Trump, the charismatic guy promising to ‘Make America Great Again,’ stop and take a moment to imagine how you’d feel if you just met a guy named Donald Drumpf, a litigious serial liar with a string of broken business ventures and the support of a former Klan leader who he can’t decide whether or not to condemn. Would you think he would make a good president, or is the spell somewhat broken?”
Practical application: Oliver even got HBO to sell “Make Donald Drumpf Again” hats in order to spread the word. This helped the hashtag go viral for a few days. It failed to significantly dent Trump’s candidacy, but the hats did get so popular that even Jay Z wanted one.
Some of Oliver’s topics are right at the forefront of the news cycle, but others fly under the radar. So it is with televangelists, whom many choose to ignore as they flip through the channels. But there is a significant number of people who donate their money to televangelists, and it was in defense of them that Oliver set out to expose the fraud of those preaching the “prosperity gospel.”
Best line: “It’s pretty clear that woman cannot hear the word of God, because if she could, I’m pretty sure he’d be shouting ‘f–k you, Gloria!!’ right in her ear.”
Practical application: Oliver pulled off two different practical stunts in his televangelist takedown. First, he maintained a consistent correspondence with televangelist Robert Tilton, and demonstrated that all this so-called preacher ever did was ask for more donations. Then, to prove how easy it is to make your own church (and thus avoid taxes), Oliver started his own: Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption. This church was a real entity people could donate money to (dial-in number: 1-800-THIS-IS-LEGAL), though Oliver eventually shut it down after someone kept sending sperm in the mail.
The Ferguson Police/Government
Oliver’s in-depth look at the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo. firmly established him as a real rival to those at his old home on The Daily Show, and not just because Jon Stewart was on vacation that week. While Stewart eventually focused his coverage on mocking Fox News, Oliver went in-depth on the institutional frustrations that led so many Ferguson protestors to take to the streets after the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. For instance, even though Ferguson’s population was more than two-thirds African-American, only a handful of black cops were employed by the city. This disparity only heightened tension over controversial police killings, arrests, and fines in Ferguson, and Oliver went after it mercilessly.
Best line: On Mayor James Knowles’ discussion of the demographics of the police force: “‘Look, it doesn’t stop there, guys, we’ve got a couple of white guys who occasionally listen to hip-hop music. Macklemore, sure, but still. Also, we have six Norwegian-Americans who really enjoyed The Lion King on Broadway, so it’s more diverse than it seems,'” Oliver said, mocking Knowles. “But despite the presence of both the Pacific Islanders and, of course, ‘the Hispanic’ – let’s not forget him – the Ferguson police do seem to target minorities.”
Practical application: n/a
Last Week Tonight had a very successful first season, which apparently gave Oliver and his team the confidence to come out swinging with season 2. One of their first episodes tackled the tobacco industry. Big Tobacco has lost some of its staying power in American culture since the whistleblower scandals of the late ’90s, so some of the big companies have set sights abroad. Many of them still disguise their product in idealistic packaging like that of the “Marlboro Man,” and some tobacco companies have gone so far as to sue countries that tried to restrict cigarettes.
Best line: “That’s right, Philip Morris International is currently suing Uruguay, a country that you think about so little you didn’t even notice *that’s* not Uruguay, *this* is Uruguay.”
Practical application: In order to get past the misleading packaging of cigarettes, Oliver proposed his own new mascot for the product: Jeff the Diseased Lung. The Last Week Tonight team bought bus station ads in Uruguay featuring Jeff, and sent T-shirts to the people of Togo. Oliver urged his viewers to use the hashtag #JeffWeCan and get Jeff to the top of Marlboro’s Google image search. He even brought a life-sized Jeff on stage with him to further mock the classic “Marlboro Man” ads.
John Oliver cares so much about soccer that he actually dedicated two separate monologues to the corruption of FIFA. The first one aired in June 2014, ahead of the World Cup in Brazil, and detailed the world soccer organization’s many corruptions to American audiences. The sequel came a year later, just after American law enforcement arrested several high-ranking FIFA members for corruption. Oliver was overjoyed, but insisted that no real change could take place until FIFA President Sepp Blatter resigned.
Best line: “It took the country that cares the least about football to bring down the people who have been ruining it. That’s like learning that Kesha arrested a group of bankers involved in commodities fraud. Wow, Kesha, I actually did not think this was an interest of yours, but you’ve been undeniably effective. Tenacious prosecution, K!”
Practical application: Oliver was simultaneously so hopeful for Blatter’s resignation and so confident it would never happen that he made a three-pronged bet with FIFA’s sponsors. Knowing they were the only ones with the power to force Blatter out, Oliver promised that in the event of Blatter’s resignation, he would wear an Adidas shoe, take a bite out of every McDonald’s dollar menu item, and even drink a Bud Light Lime. When Blatter did leave within the next week, Oliver valiantly fulfilled his vow.
College basketball’s annual “March Madness” tournament is one of the highlights of the sports calendar. Leave it to Oliver, who so often zigs where his American colleagues zag, to go after this semi-sacred tradition. Oliver dressed down the NCAA for its treatment of student athletes, dissecting the organization’s hypocrisy about refusing to pay its players while making billions of dollars off their athletic prowess.
Best line: “Paying top college athletes with an education is sort of like telling a full-time nurse ‘there’s no salary for this job, we’re just gonna be giving you free trumpet lessons which you’ll be too busy to do. But if you don’t learn to play the trumpet, you’re fired.'”
Practical application: After learning that former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon made nothing for the use of his likeness on the cover of NCAA Basketball 09, Oliver proposed his own “authentic” NCAA video game. This fake game aimed to depict the real college basketball experience: Players get yelled at by their rich coaches while making nothing and living in fear of losing their scholarship. There’s even a school administrator mode, “where your only job is figuring out how to somehow remain a nonprofit.”
Climate Change Deniers
The climate change debate has been raging on televised news for decades now. But even as new temperature records are set, most news shows only ever pit one climate change scientist versus one denier, in order to show “balance.” Oliver finally stood up and fixed that misleading visualization.
Best line: “You don’t need people’s opinions on a fact. You might as well have a poll asking ‘Which number is bigger, 15 or 5?’ or ‘Do owls exist?’ or ‘Are there hats?'”
Practical application: In order to better represent the actual scientific consensus on climate change, Oliver recruited three climate change deniers, habitual climate explainer Bill Nye the Science Guy … and 96 other scientists to explain human-made global warming. This striking visual tableau better illustrates the fact that 97 percent of scientists believe that humans have caused global warming. It’s nothing like the 50/50 debate so often provided by cable news shows.
BONUS: Coldplay's Super Bowl Halftime Show
Okay, yes, it wasn’t technically Last Week Tonight. But when Oliver dropped by Seth Meyers’ late-night desk in February to tease the return of his own show, he couldn’t resist digging at Coldplay, particularly singer Chris Martin, for the band’s Super Bowl performance. Oliver loves the Super Bowl itself for its pure spectacle (“it’s the greatest thing to happen to a TV all year”) but mocked how easily Coldplay was overshadowed by guest performers Beyonce and Bruno Mars (“No one’s gonna remember that they played. It’s just gonna be ‘Oh yeah that time Beyonce sang twice. She was amazing, she did two Super Bowls.'”). Proof that even without the detailed reporting of a Last Week Tonight monologue, Oliver can still be hilarious and scathing.
Best line: “And then Chris Martin wedges his way between them, dad-dancing his way between them like ‘Yeah, me too, don’t believe me just watch, I like it, I’m funky, I get down with the funk as well.’ He tried to take the power position but when you’re between Beyonce and Bruno Mars you just look like the guy in the backseat trying to be like ‘Me too, we’re having fun as a three, aren’t we?'”
Practical application: n/a