The highlights that I cited in the previous installment of my essay just only scratch the surface. There are a whole lot of greater bits and more important topics that John has tackled very effectively, with some actually wielding real-life results. I would also include the Miss America piece that I featured in the very first part of my essay as among those that I deem part of John Oliver’s greatest moments. Here are more of my favorites and his greatest:
Washington D.C. Being a big geography buff since childhood, I found Washington D.C.’s status intriguing–it is separate from all 50 states, this I know from all the years watching the Miss U.S.A. pageant (that is why there is almost always 51 delegates for that pageant since 1960). But as I discover thanks to this piece, the capital city of the nation may pay federal taxes have a larger population than two of the states and contribute larger GDP than 16 of them, but they have no actual voting representation in the House of Representatives (only a token representative), and have limited say in their own affairs (they are under direct control of Congress). It’s very anomalous as other countries don’t practice this way. Like for instance, in these shores the National Capital Region is amply represented and yes, voting rights and their own say in the way the cities and the region is run. Similar things could also be said for the likes of Australia, Brazil, South Korea, among several others. John ended this piece by featuring a modification of a famous children’s song naming all the states. Earlier he discussed representation for U.S. territories as they are also in a similar situation with Washington D.C. I noticed that these days, most experts and edutainment video channels like Geography Now, CGP Grey, and Wonder Why tend to equate “country” with a sovereign nation. Me, I tend to consider dependent territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, Aruba, etc. as countries, and separate from an independent nation–a nation is a country in my reckoning, but not all countries are nations.
Student Debt. My cable TV subscription includes CNBC, and before its cancellation, one of my favorite shows was the Suze Orman Show, and one of the frequent, common topics that I noticed being discussed there was about student loans. John Oliver pointed out how US student debt has risen exponentially over the past several years and one of the key causes of this was the rise of for-profit colleges, who preyed upon vulnerable students who were goaded into enrolling in their institutions with high tuition fees but with less opportunity to have a meaningful career unlike as advertised. The ugly part is that these for-profits have a powerful lobby that prevents any bill to regulate their abuses from being passed. Also check out John’s piece on predatory lending.
Net Neutrality. This, the fourth episode ever of Last Week Tonight, was the one that first displayed the influence and power that John Oliver can wield. The brilliance of this episode was how he made the concept of net neutrality clear for common folk to understand and what is at stake when we allow cable and telecommunications companies to have their way with their proposals to have a “faster” lane on top of a so-called “fast” lane. He also memorably described the head of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, as a dingo because prior to his appointment he was lobbying in behalf of said companies, so putting him in this position is akin to a parent entrusting a ravenous dingo to babysit their child (think Meryl Streep’s movie, A Cry in the Dark, for the origin of the metaphor). Journalists took note of that and directly asked Tom Wheeler for his reaction, which of course featured the requisite denial. But with the FCC website flooded with the public uproar, to the point of crashing, the FCC eventually relented and released rules ensuring net neutrality. Interestingly in my country, we are unfortunately an example of how telecom giants had their way to everyone’s detriment, as we are notorious for having one of the slowest internet connections in the world and being charged a significantly high amount in comparison with most countries.
Tobacco. Sure in larger Western nations like the U.S., tobacco consumption is declining, but the industry still thrives. Why? Because they took advantage of countries that have not yet enforced strong anti-smoking laws like in the U.S. and marketed their brands there, and consumption in those countries (like Indonesia, China, and, yes, the Philippines) is very high. But as John Oliver pointed, when these countries like Australia, Togo, and Uruguay, began clamping down on smoking, tobacco companies like Philip Morris have swamped them with lawsuits citing trademark infringement, behaving like a schoolyard bully. John offered a solution to address Philip Morris’s branding concerns–a new mascot to represent them, Jeff the Diseased Lung in a Cowboy Hat. As a follow-up clip revealed, Jeff got a great global reception.
Fashion. In many featurettes on morning shows, there are promotions for low-priced clothing. How do brands manage to keep their prices low and remain thriving? Outsourcing, of course. Despite the flak received by the likes of Kathie Lee Gifford for allowing sweatshops and child labor to make her merchandise, unfortunately sweatshops and child labor are still around. What happened was that even if the big companies like H&M and the Gap profess that they vet and license their subcontractors, the key loophole is that these subcontractors then subcontract their orders without vetting. To reinforce his point, John sent over cheap food that he outsourced from un-vetted vendors to the heads of those clothing companies, and he entertainingly presented it as a fashion show.
Income Inequality. John pointed out how America’s income inequality is rising to toxic levels. But the U.S. government is slow to address this issue. One of the reasons is that when one has raised this issue, opponents would then declare what they’re proposing is class warfare. The other is Americans misplaced optimism that they will be able to buck the system and rise in station, but it as John pointed out, the system is making it increasingly impossible for that to happen, and he demonstrates it with a lotto for the rich, and a lotto for the rest. Also check out his piece on the wage gap between men and women, and the lottery.
Sugar. Aired around the time of Halloween, John observed how the food manufacturers repeatedly tried to circumvent or lobby to prevent the FDA from imposing stricter rules in how they disclose their nutritional information. For instance, how for every independent study finding the direct effects of sugar consumption to obesity, the food companies would come up with their own studies contradicting those findings. As the FDA was proposing an added label to disclose the amount of “added sugar” that the food companies put in their products, food manufacturers wanted to circumvent that by asking that they will disclose it in terms of “grams”, which most Americans do not get since they continue to resist using the metric system, unlike, say, teaspoons. But John is offering a new, accessible measure–the amount of circus peanuts, as each piece is equivalent to five grams of sugar. and he exhorts the audience to tweet the food companies with the hastag #showusyourpeanuts (which is a nice, naughty pun).
Prisons. This piece is very wide-ranging as there were lots to cover–like the rapid increase in prison population, the fact that there seems to be racial profiling involved as a disproportionate amount of people of color are the ones who are sent to jail in contrast to white folks who relatively go scot-free, and the deteriorating conditions in those prisons as services to those prisons are sub-contracted to private companies. It’s such a depressing state of affairs that John had to feature muppets to help bring a bit of levity–the funniest bit for me is the crocodile, who joined in the sympathy party but John pointed out zoos are different from prisons, and the final punchline where John mistook the crocodile for an alligator. John dealt with more related topics to this, like when he discussed bail and mandatory minimums, which I’ll also include below, along with municipal violations. In terms of bails and mandatory minimums, his pieces actually yielded effects as some places like New York decided to relax these requirements. Also, check out his pieces on municipal violations and civil forfeiture.
FIFA. In time for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, John Oliver presented an exposé on how divided he is about the World Cup as he’s a huge soccer/football fan, how he’s looking forward to watching it but troubled about the workings of the organization running it–about how corrupt it is, how it imposes rules that are often detrimental to the public and host nation–like because of Budweiser’s sponsorship, they coerced Brazil to lift their alcohol ban in stadiums and the cost of building stadiums in remote places like Manaus which will have no practical use for it after the World Cup is over. He also pointed out the unsuitability of Qatar as host for the 2022 World Cup, considering how in summer temperatures there reach over an intolerable 110°F. Of course when a year later, the FBI started arresting key FIFA officials for corruption, John did a follow-up piece and clamored for Blatter’s resignation with a bet that he will consume the sponsors’ products on-camera. And when FIFA president Sepp Blatter announced his resignation, John Oliver lived up to his bet and did what he declared, as shown in the video below. Also check out his paid advertisement on Trinidad TV to former FIFA vice-president Jack Warner, which Jack Warner responded and John then volleyed back in epic fashion. Another sports-related piece that I highly recommend is his piece on the NCAA, particularly about how athletes are exploited in the name of “amateurism” even as universities earn huge revenue from sponsorships (a concept that even the Olympics have largely dismissed).
Government Surveillance (Edward Snowden). For me, the most quintessential John Oliver piece is his extended segment on government surveillance, featuring an interview with fugitive from the U.S. Edward Snowden. The beauty of this piece was how he was able to make all the complicated controversial provisions of the Patriot Act understandable to the public. The key–something naughty that is one of John’s typical fixation. His view of Edward Snowden is very balanced in my opinion–though Edward’s exposé helped reveal the dangerously extensive scope of the surveillance program that is against the interest of American citizens, there is also the danger that his disclosure have under less responsible hands, just like the leak on a top-secret program that could’ve protected the Iraqi city of Mosul from the hands of ISIS and Al-Qaeda. John may consider himself only a comedian, but this piece is a masterpiece of bonafide journalism, a quality that seems to have been in short supply even by major media outlets as of late. On a related note, also check out his piece on online harrassment.
John often has this tendency to downplay the impact he has made thus far, and how his pieces are what true journalism should be, even if it’s packaged in the form of satire. That unassuming quality just only made me admire and respect him even more. Looking forward to watch his videos for many seasons to come. I wonder if and when HBO will be airing his show on our shores. And again, when will we see John Oliver and Ted Allen together on the same screen? If that happens, expect me to holler like the way my friend Lex Librea and his friends did in their famous viral video.