13 Messed Up Things About The USA (as told by John Oliver)

Most Monday mornings, I start my day on YouTube to see the new video posted on the channel LastWeekTonight. The videos, excerpts from John Oliver’s HBO show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, run about 20 minutes long and are always a perfect blend of hilarious and informative content, occasionally shocking to see. John Oliver is a British comedian who previously wrote for and occasionally appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a satirical show on Comedy Central. Each of the videos in the list have expanded my awareness of the United States and issues in government, culture, and media. Watch one and you’ll be hooked and might be tempted to binge-watch Oliver’s channel.

1. Civil Forfeiture

Civil forfeiture is a lesser-known institutionalized issue with police that goes beyond excessive force. It sounds dull, but trust me, you’ll finish the video wondering how police can get away with it to the extent they do.

Favorite quote: “In Massachusetts, one police department used forfeiture money to buy a zamboni … If you are robbing a bank and the police pull up in a zamboni, you’re gonna give yourself up just out of sheer curiosity.”

2. Drones

The video came out a year and a half ago and remains as relevant, if not more so, as it was then. If you previously had some faith in how the government is using drones, prepare to kiss that faith goodbye.

Favorite quote: “If it’s assumed you’re with the terrorists if you’re in the same vicinity and around the same age as them, then as a British man in my thirties, whenever I go home to Britain I’m a member of Coldplay.”

3. Marketing to Doctors

Of all the issues John Oliver has covered, this was likely the one I knew least about before watching. Oliver helps de-mystify some of the long-running, deep-rooted issues in health care world, beginning with Big Pharma.

Favorite quote: “Here’s the thing: you can’t just give people potentially dangerous drugs and see what happens; you’re a Fortune 500 company, not a white guy with dreadlocks at Burning Man.”

4. Nuclear Weapons

This, for once, is something that seems fixable. At the same time, however, it is terrifying how something so seemingly simple has been neglected and out of the public eye for so long.

Favorite quote: “You’re probably thinking, ‘Okay, all right, we nearly blew up one of the Carolinas, but that’s why we have two.’”

5. Sex Education

I realized after coming to Mount Holyoke that the sex education in my hometown’s school district could have been a lot worse. Oliver’s video touches on a lot of issues I and probably a lot of other students are familiar with, but at times profoundly funny; the last bit features celebrities including Laverne Cox and Nick Offerman.

Favorite quote: “Here’s something that’s never said: ‘How are you so good at sex?’ ‘I was homeschooled.’”

6. Ferguson, MO and Police Militarization

Following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, John Oliver aired a segment on the militarization of local United States police departments. As always, he manages to bring humor to a very serious topic.

Favorite quote: “[Police militarization] has happened on such a large scale that it has enabled small towns such as Keene, New Hampshire, to apply for a Bearcat, a military-grade armoured personnel truck, which they needed because, as their application argued, ‘The terrorism threat is far reaching and often unforeseen.’ And cited as a possible target: their annual Pumpkin Festival.”

7. Torture

One of the most important segments John Oliver has created, “Torture” describes the atrocities that the United States has committed in Guantanamo, among the worst crimes against humanity the United States is responsible for in recent years.

Favorite quote: “How have you not read it [the torture report]? You’re [expletive] in it! 81 times! Spoiler alert, sorry, spoiler alert. And if you can’t find the time to sit down and read it, don’t worry, we’ve made an audio book version with Academy award-winning actress Helen Mirren reading the report for you.”

8. Government Surveillance

If you only have time to watch one John Oliver segment, watch this one. Oliver interviews Edward Snowden, “the most famous hero and/or traitor” in recent United States history. A must-watch for anyone aware of the Patriot Act and NSA’s surveillance but confused on who Snowden is and the implications of the released documents.

Favorite quote: “The most obvious person to talk to about this is Edward Snowden, but he currently lives in Russia, meaning, if you wanted to ask him about any of these issues, you’d have to fly all the way out there to do it, and it is not a pleasant flight. [dramatic pause] And the reason I know that, is that last week, I went to Russia to speak with Edward Snowden. And this is what happened.”

9. Prison

Overpopulated, reliant on institutionalized racism and classism, and corrupted by capitalism: the problems with United States’ prison system are well known. But Oliver organizes the segment in a way that connects the problems while incorporating his signature comedic spin.

Favorite quote: “I think we all know that when the state of Florida gives you an award, that award is basically sarcastic.”

10. Texas Republicans

Get ready to be horrified; there are politicians in the US who are worse than Donald Drumpf, though without the amount of power, thankfully.

Favorite quote: “Texas: the Lone Star state, in that a lone star is what most people would give Texas on Yelp.”

11. Televangelists

Another issue that will likely be unheard of to a lot of readers, but falls under the controversy over the idea of “freedom of religion” and where the assertion of the right can harm people.

Favorite quote: “‘A little vague?’ Oh, they are underselling that. Because the films of Christopher Nolan are ‘a little vague.’ A text from your mom saying ‘Please call. Not emergency but please call. Very important. Don’t worry’ is ‘a little vague.’”

12. Penalty

Much like his video on torture, John Oliver neatly debunks thoughts that the death penalty may serve a purpose in society.

Favorite quote: “The death penalty is one of those things that is natural to want but not necessary to have. The death penalty is like the McRib: when you can’t have it, it’s so tantalizing, but as soon as they bring it back, you think, ‘This is ethically wrong. Should this be allowed in a civilized society?’”

13. Whole Foods

After all of the serious videos on this list, John Oliver’s brief coverage of the Asparagus Water controversy last August shows what the shorter clips of his show have to offer.

Favorite quote: “Whole Foods: gentrification in edible form.”


I can no longer say “To be fair...” without fondly thinking of John Oliver. More seriously, he has changed the way I view journalism and comedy, filling the Jon Stewart-sized hole in my heart. Subscribe to LastWeekTonight on YouTube to be notified when he posts new videos or watch his show on HBO at 11PM on Sundays.


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