John Oliver

Last month, John Oliver, the British host of Last Week Tonight did it again:

He bought off almost $15 million in medical debt from about 9,000 Americans. And promptly forgave it on the show. While this, the biggest giveaway in TV history, might be Oliver’s best shot at activism yet, GQ investigates four other occasions on which he did more than just throw a punchline:

John Oliver’s best moments


Net neutrality

What he did: Made the incredibly dull subject of American net neutrality – which would see tech companies pay for faster connections – fascinating, and saw the skit go viral. He called on his viewers to comment on the Federal Communications Commission site: “Turn on caps lock and fly my pretties. Fly!”

What good it did: Crashed the FCC site; in total, it received more than 3.7 million comments, and an open meeting began with a mention of the show. The FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, was even forced to defend himself against Oliver’s comments. The FCC caved; and the internet remains a democratic place for a while longer.


What he did: At the end of a skit about how much sugar American companies manage to cram into even the most unlikely products, Oliver demanded companies display their added sugar in the form of candy “circus peanuts”, and asked viewers to tweet at the companies under #showusyourpeanuts.

What good it did: Tens of thousands did just that, calling out everyone from Coca-Cola to natural beverage company Runa. Only the likes of the latter responded, however, who boasted: “Naturally sweet with no peanuts or sugar.” The Twitterati was not impressed. “Let’s not turn #showusyourpeanuts into an ad campaign for “sugar free” stuff, OK?” Harsh. But fair.

Miss America

What he did: Setting out to dispute Miss America’s dubious claim that they are the “world’s largest provider of scholarships to women” with $45 million made available annually, a trawl through the tax forms found they were counting every potential scholarship. Yet they also found that, even at the actual figure of $500,000, they remained correct: They were still the largest funder of female-only scholarships, so Oliver called on viewers to donate to the alternatives.

What good it did: At first, it looked like it had backfired. The Miss America Organization saw the rant as affirmation that they were correct, commentating, “John Oliver reaffirmed that the MAO is the largest scholarship organization for women.” Which is true. But one of the alternative groups Oliver championed – the Society of Women Engineers – experienced a “John Oliver bounce”, receiving $25,000 in donations in two days, a whopping 15 per cent of its typical annual total.

Scottish independence

What he did: Begged. He ate haggis (“There are literally sheep lungs in my mouth!”), drank Scotch (“It tastes like a delicious house fire!”), presented bagpipe players and even, um, brought on their national animal (a unicorn, naturally).

What good it did: Well, they stayed, didn’t they? Are we really suggesting the two are directly connected? Yes. Yes, we are.

Words: Ben Travis