‘Last Week Tonight’ motions to dismiss Supreme Court credibility

March 8, 2024, 12:31 a.m.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

“What are they gonna do, sue?” is the question that John Oliver posed when teasing the Season 11 premiere for “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” He advertised himself with Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie, engaging in all kinds of profanities just weeks after the Disney icon entered the public domain. If I wasn’t already eager to see the premiere, I certainly am now.

Being the fan of “Last Week Tonight” that I am — admiring its one of a kind combination of satire, wacky graphics and over-the-top humor — I went into its Season 11 premiere with high expectations. The delay in the episode’s YouTube release, due to HBO’s shameless cash grab of a move to force viewers to use Max, only served to strengthen my excitement. 

Oliver certainly did not pull any punches throughout his scrutinization of Supreme Court ethics concerns, describing the public’s lack of trust in the nation’s highest court in a way that only he could pull off. When he compared the “50-year low” in confidence in the Court to the level of trust that airline passengers have in “the window seats in Boeing planes,” I thought to myself: John Oliver is back. 

Later in the episode, Oliver wasted no time in turning his attention to who he called “unquestionably” the most egregious actor in the Supreme Court’s decline: Justice Clarence Thomas. Oliver’s delivery flawlessly captured just how cartoonishly despicable Justice Thomas’s lavish lifestyle is, as well as the shadiness of his inner circle. This included a painting featuring a current member of the Hoover Institution Board of Overseers, Harlon Crow, and Thomas, with Oliver referring to the Native American statue illustrated in the painting as if it was “praying for lighting to strike this exact spot.” Not even the highest figures in the legal world are immune from the infamous “Last Week Tonight” treatment. 

I particularly love the way that Oliver talks about topics that are often overlooked — and what some of the powers that be want to keep under wraps. Audience members’ shock resonated through the screen after Oliver revealed how Crow, a close friend of Justice Thomas, has a vast art collection that includes Nazi iconography. Oliver bluntly summarized the collection as, “a bit of a red flag, specifically this red flag” — referring to a graphic of the Nazi flag he displayed as plain as day for viewers to see.

This visual punchline carried the tradition of one of the most quintessential aspects of the “Last Week Tonight” experience: the use of out of pocket graphics to describe serious societal issues. During a segment in which Oliver mocked Justice Thomas’s framing of his career as an “us against the elites” journey, he displayed a graphic of Justice Thomas adorned in French Revolution attire. The image of Thomas boldly gripping a sword in one hand and waving a battle-tattered French flag in the other certainly made me laugh.

While some people might want criticisms of the Supreme Court to be tempered for the sake of decorum and respect, Oliver tears this narrative to shreds. When Justice Thomas laments about “the meanness you see in Washington” in a soundbite played during the episode, Oliver goes for the jugular. “People in Washington can be so mean, can’t they? I’ve heard some even make decisions in landmark court cases that loosen gun regulations, limited affirmative action and stripped women of their constitutional right to an abortion,” said Oliver. The use of satire to take down powerful figures is a trademark of Oliver’s humor that I love. 

Oliver strikes an iconic balance between the mustache-twirling levels of financial gain that Justice Thomas finds himself with and the American tendency to put Supreme Court justices on a pedestal and distance the justices from even the possibility of having corrupt incentives. Oliver aptly likens treating justices as being beyond the political or financial fray as “the polite fictions” of “men who could somehow hold in their heads that all men were created equal at the exact same time as they were drawing up the Three-Fifths Compromise.” 

Oliver has comical delivery of the news in spades, with serious political commentary often leaning into epic punchlines and vice versa. Oliver’s serious critiques of the deification of the Supreme Court justices could not have been made any more clearly or comically when he suggested that “if it were up to me, they’d also be dressed not in robes but as Walmart greeters to emphasize they’re not magic.” 

While Oliver spent a substantial amount of time discussing what other people reported on, he made his own contribution to the discourse with an unorthodox, yet completely on-brand, offer made to Justice Thomas: millions of dollars in exchange for stepping down from the Court. Oliver puts on full display his own unique mastery of simultaneous goofiness and boldness by literally pulling out a contract for viewers to see. This premiere maintains “Last Week Tonight’s” unique charm and style of speaking truth to power, which certainly has me locked in for the rest of Season 11.

Sebastian Strawser ‘26 is an Opinions contributor. He also writes for Humor and The Grind. His interests include political philosophy, capybaras and Filipino food. Contact Sebastian at sstrawser 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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