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Arts & Culture

How John Oliver's 'Last Week Tonight' Is Using Stunts To Tell Stories

It's strange to describe the apparent purchase and forgiveness of nearly $15 million in medical debt as "impish," but bear with me.

On Sunday's Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver spent 20 minutes explaining the debt-buying industry — companies that buy debt at pennies on the dollar and then either resell it even cheaper or try to collect it, sometimes using methods they'd probably be proud to call merciless, like calling a debtor's boss at home. Even if most of it can't be collected, whatever they collect, they can keep.

At the end, he explained that Last Week Tonight wanted to prove that "any idiot" can get into the business of buying and collecting people's old debts. And how better to prove it than being that idiot? Oliver said that the show had incorporated a debt-buying company for $50 on the Internet, and with almost no effort, they'd been offered a portfolio for sale of nearly $15 million in "out-of-statute medical debt," which he explained as debt that still exists and that you can try to collect, but it's so old that you can't take anyone to court over it anymore. The price of that debt? Under $60,000. (With those numbers, you'd make more than 100 percent profit if you collected just 1 percent of what was owed.)

So, he says, they bought it. And, Oliver explained, with the push of a giant red button, they started the process of officially forgiving it with the help of a nonprofit organization that helps get rid of debt without tax implications for the debtor.

Oliver and his team are making a habit out of these kinds of demonstrations, as when they started a church called Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption to prove how easy it is to make yourself a tax-exempt organization. (He did indeed get donations, which he reported were sent along to Doctors Without Borders.) It's similar to how Stephen Colbert set up a real superPAC called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, which wound up being a pretty involved process.

What Oliver is doing feels shaggier, sillier, just as incisive, and ultimately based on a very simple idea: He has money and he has other resources (lawyers, staff and so forth). In addition to acting as a comedian and a TV host, he can act the way a person with those resources can act, to show you what can be done with those things at your disposal. You can start a church. You can buy and sell debt. Look — he just did it.

When Last Week Tonight started, there was a lot of speculation about how it could compete with shows like The Daily Show that were ... well, daily, and how it could seem current when it had to wait until Sunday to air. That's, in fact, the joke of its title.

But as it turns out, they had a plan. Last Week Tonight usually starts with a shorter segment about things from the week's news, then dives into a long report about something specifically distinguished by the fact that it's not in the headlines, meaning they've had time to do the reporting and the research. They've figured out that they can't compete on hot topics alone — but they can dominate not-really-hot topics, with specific emphasis on the exploitation of vulnerable people and regulatory dysfunction. The segments on debt-buying and televangelism, but also on credit scores, 911 funding, and public defenders, aren't necessarily in the news that week; they're the kind of chronic issue that can be the hardest to get people to pay attention to.

For crying out loud, they did a segment on special districts (like fire districts or mosquito control districts), which might be the unsexiest segment I've seen on television this year or any year.

Not every topic lends itself to the kind of spectacle that last night's red-button moment created. But for a show that's clearly dedicated to going beyond "LOL newsmakers LOL media," they're becoming a key part of the formula. They're stunts but not just stunts; they're like experiments in skeptical manipulation. The outcomes are meant to be positive, but the manipulation itself, once demonstrated, is the story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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