From setting up his own church to purchasing Russell Crowe's jockstrap to publishing a children's book about Vice President Mike Pence's pet rabbit, Marlon Bundo, the HBO host is never afraid to get creative to prove his point.
John Oliver only has half an hour on his Sunday show, Last Week Tonight, but he makes it count. With five seasons under his belt, Oliver has become known for his over-the-top stunts as he performs intensive examinations of social and political issues.
Whether filming a video featuring cameos from Hollywood stars or secretly creating his own church (Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption), children's book or Trump-inspired hat, the comedian’s gags always set out to prove a point. And they often make headlines long after the credits roll.
Recently, he purchased Russell Crowe’s jockstrap from the film Cinderella Man for $7,000 in a (futile) bid to save one of the last Blockbusters from closing. Now that the store is going under, it's unknown what will become of the infamous item of clothing.
Oliver has won the best variety talk series Emmy for the past two years and he has a chance to continue his streak this year with Last Week Tonight up for both that award and eight other prizes.
Ahead of this year's Emmys, take a look back at some of Oliver's memorable stunts over the past five years.
After discovering that one of the few remaining Blockbusters in the U.S., in Anchorage, Alaska, was on the verge of closing, Oliver decided the store needed a gimmick to attract customers. Just a few weeks before, Oliver had brought Russell Crowe’s auction, “The Art of Divorce,” to his viewers’ attention, focusing in particular on one lot: a jockstrap worth “$500 to $600” according to Crowe, worn in the film Cinderella Man. It would be ridiculous to spend any amount of money on the jockstrap, let alone $600. So, John Oliver did not pay that much for it. He paid $7,000.
He also bought two director's chairs, one belonging to Crowe and the other to Denzel Washington from the film American Gangster, the vest Crowe wore in Les Miserables, the hood he wore in Robin Hood and a satin robe and shorts from Cinderella Man.
“I’ve never even seen Cinderella Man,” admitted Oliver, but he certainly wouldn’t be purchasing it from Amazon. If only there was a DVD rental place, he could borrow it from. In order to give the Alaskan Blockbuster a tourist attraction, Oliver offered all of these items to the manager, they just had to give him a call.
Kevin Daymude, the general manager, contacted HBO and told The Hollywood Reporter “We would be very honored to showcase that collection.” And indeed they displayed the Crowe memorabilia in a bid to attract customers.
Not one to be outdone, Russell Crowe came up with a way to use the money John Oliver spent at his auction.
“I’ve had a eureka moment on how to use @iamjohnoliver from @LastWeekTonight auction money,” Crowe tweeted on April 17. “His random act of kindness is going to be honoured in such a cool way. Yes, no surprise, it will involve wildlife.”
On May 6, Oliver announced on the show that Crowe donated the money to the Australia Zoo, where the Irwin family is looking for vaccines for koala Chlamydia. To commemorate the donation, they've named the clinic the John Oliver Koala Chlamydia Ward. Oliver determined he couldn't top that and ended the episode by tearing down his set and announcing that that would be the end of Last Week Tonight. But, don't worry, it was just a joke and the show will go on: It's renewed through 2020.
Unfortunately, the Crowe memorabilia wasn't enough to keep the Anchorage Blockbuster from going under, with the store announcing in July that it would be closing, leaving just one Blockbuster open in the U.S. The fate of the Crowe items remains unclear, but it's possible the franchise owner will get the memorabilia.
Before this episode, John Oliver had already tackled United States abortion laws. Instead, he focused on the laws supporting anti-abortion groups. Crisis pregnancy centers or CPCs are often more prevalent in states than places where women can receive abortions. They use misinformation to mislead and sway expecting mothers and leave little support for them after the child is born. At the same time, many don’t support birth control, going so far as to denounce condoms’ effectiveness. Oliver declared, after all of this, that maybe the CPCs aren’t anti-abortion, they’re anti-women.
To prove how easy it is to form a crisis pregnancy center, Oliver did just that. He (and his wife Wanda Jo Oliver, Rachel Dratch, reprising her role from when Oliver opened his own church) opened a new church and a pregnancy center in a van. It’s called Our Lady of Choosing Choice. Theoretically, Oliver and Wanda Jo can park outside an abortion clinic and harass women. It’d be totally legal.
Oliver spent the majority of one episode discussing Vice President Mike Pence’s history and support of conversion therapy and those that support it. One organization, Focus on the Family, invests in campaigns against LGBTQ equality. Pence has recently denied supporting conversion therapy, but Oliver isn’t convinced and can’t find a single good thing about Pence until he sees Pence’s rabbit, Marlon Bundo.
Marlon Bundo, an objectively fantastic name for a rabbit, belongs to the Pence family. He is also the star of A Day in the Life of the Vice President, a children’s book written by Charlotte and Karen Pence, the vp’s daughter and wife. After the book was released on March 19, 2018, the two women went on a book tour. One of the stops just happens to be at Focus on the Family in Colorado.
“Congratulations, Pence, you've even managed to ruin Marlon Bundo," the host yelled. "Now, none of us can enjoy a book about your rabbit.”
In response, Oliver and his team, including author Jill Twiss (a writer on Last Week Tonight) and artist EG Keller (pseudonym of Gerald Kelley) wrote their own children’s book starring Marlon Bundo himself. The plot of 'A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo' follows the rabbit as he falls in love with another male bunny, Wesley. They are forbidden from getting married by a stinkbug and have to devise a plan to get married anyway. The book was released a day before Pence’s book and hit No. 1 on Amazon for children’s books that day. Those interested could also visit one of two websites they created: betterbundobook.com and focusonthefurmily.com. All of the proceeds went directly to The Trevor Project and AIDS in America. There was also an audiobook version featuring Jim Parsons and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Marlon and Wesley. Other voice actors in the audiobook include RuPaul, Ellie Kemper, Jeff Garland and John Lithgow.
Throughout the 2016 presidential election, coal mining became a hot topic for then-candidate Donald Trump. Oliver used his show to break down Trump’s support for the coal industry. One big name in the coal industry is Bob Murray. Union minors allege Murray told them that he started Murray Energy after a squirrel came up to him and told him he needs his "very own mine." The original plan was to touch on Bob Murray and keep the segment focused on Trump, but when Oliver's team reached out to Murray for comment, Last Week Tonight received a cease and desist.
Well, that’s not what Oliver and his team did. It turns out this was the first cease and desist letter the show had ever received, and they weren’t going to handle it lightly. Oliver dedicated much of the segment to Murray and some of the debatable things he’s said. At one point, Murray’s miners were receiving "bonus" checks for amounts like $11 and $3. They were told to either keep it or return it. A few workers sent their checks back with vulgar messages. Other topics included black lung and a 2007 coal mine collapse. In order to cut him some slack, Oliver admits that he doesn’t think a squirrel really spoke to Murray. Until this episode aired.
A giant squirrel mascot (named Mr. Nutterbutter) came out and made a check to "Eat shit, Bob" for three acorns and 18 cents, adding the memo “Kiss my ass.”
Shortly after the segment aired, Oliver and Last Week Tonight got hit with a lawsuit from Murray. But the judge ultimately dismissed the case.
Last Week Tonight dedicated an episode in its third season to debt buyers and collectors who harass those who owe money. In an attempt to bring awareness to the issue and do some good, the host and his Last Week Tonight team started their own debt buying company. All it took was $50 and a WiFi connection.
“We called it Central Asset Recovery Professionals or 'CARP,' after the bottom-feeding fish,” he announced. ”I became chairman of the board and CARP set up this bland website and dipped our toes into the debt market.”
The Last Week Tonight team soon bought $15 million worth of medical debt for less than $60,000. As soon as CARP purchased that debt, Oliver was sent the personal information of all the debtors, including names, addresses and social security numbers. Instead of harassing them for more money to pull off stunts like this, John Oliver forgave every single penny. In doing so, he claims he broke the record for the largest one-time giveaway in television history.
Oliver did one of his first deep dives into the man who would be president in an extended segment about then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. In the piece, Oliver takes on Trump's Twitter feuds, campaign lies, lawsuits, failing businesses and his last name. “Trump,” to Oliver, immediately gives off a connotation of wealth and success (partly because the real estate mogul has orchestrated that, according to the host). But in doing a little research, Oliver realized that the Trump family may not have always held that name.
Seizing upon a biographer's claim that the family's ancestral name was really "Drumpf," Oliver insisted that everyone call him Donald Drumpf. The show created a browser extension that changes every “Trump” to “Drumpf.” They also started a hashtag #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain and created "Make Donald Drumpf Again" hats in the style of Trump's "Make America Great Again" red caps. The show sold the hats at cost, meaning HBO made no profit off of them, but they became such a sensation that, according to Oliver, even Jay-Z wanted one.
In August 2015, Oliver tackled megachurches and the billionaires that run them. Churches receive tax exemptions, meaning there are little to no checks on how the owners use the money. While many churches use their money for philanthropy, others use the funds to enrich their owners. To prove how arbitrary and unregulated the tax cuts for churches are, Oliver started his own. Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption promised to sow the seeds of its followers, so long as the seeds the followers gave up were actually cold hard cash.
“We ain’t interested in your seeds!” Oliver's TV wife, Wanda Jo (played by Rachel Dratch), yelled at viewers.
Over time, Oliver gave viewers updates as to how the church was doing. People sent money but they were also sending real seeds, beef jerky, foreign currency, checks for insane amounts of money (to which Oliver countered “We’re fucking cashing it!”) and a giant penis sculpture. After three weeks and tens of thousands of dollars, Oliver and Co. shut down the church. But not because it’s unfair to promise miracles in exchange for money. They shut it down because a few people took the request for “seeds” way too literally and sent semen. All of the money was re-routed to Doctors Without Borders and the website, ourladyofperpetualexemption.com, is still up with a farewell letter on the homepage.
Earlier in his second season, Oliver got passionate about the sex education kids are getting in school. Across the country, different states have different laws about what they can teach and how they teach it. He goes into the various ways sex education is taught and how that affects young people.
Oliver even made his own awareness video and called up a few friends to help. Jack McBrayer, Kristen Schaal, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Laverne Cox, Kumail Nanjiani, Aisha Coleman and Jonathan Banks all appear in a pre-taped video, offering straight-forward, factual advice without judgment and with jokes.
In 2013, Edward Snowden’s release of NSA documents came to a head. He fled to Moscow, where he remains to this day. But after Snowden ignited a national conversation about security, Oliver wasn’t satisfied with the results. On April 5, 2015, Oliver dedicated an episode of Last Week Tonight, entitled “Government Surveillance,” to discussing the issue and the reasons why people aren’t concerned. Then, to really hammer down the point, he goes to the one man who risked it all to raise awareness to government surveillance: Snowden.
But Snowden is currently living in asylum in Russia. So, John Oliver and a few members of his team went to Moscow to interview Snowden. The host forces the NSA leaker to boil down the material and discuss how this affects Americans in their everyday life.
“Can they see my dick?” Oliver bluntly asked.
In short, yes. There are a few different ways the government can see private conversations, many of which Snowden touches on. After the interview, Oliver came back to the United States and let HBO in on what he did. Last Week Tonight is one of the few interviews Snowden has done since fleeing the country.
In his first season, Oliver took on Dr. Oz and the controversy around whether the doctor falsely advertised weight loss supplements, touting them as “magical” or “miraculous,” on his eponymous TV show. As part of his examination into nutritional supplements and what could prompt someone to make exaggerated health claims about them, Oliver aired a clip of Oz talking about the need to entertain his audience.
He then proceeded to show how a host could provide entertainment by pandering without making misleading health claims. As part of his rapid-fire act, he called George R.R. Martin via Skype, brought out a tap-dancing Steve Buscemi and a puppy and shot t-shirts at the audience.