Photo by Steve Jennings, CC BY 2.0
As a liberal Millennial living in San Francisco, I am obligated by Federal law to love Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
However, I noticed something weird in the April 3, 2016 broadcast of the show. Specially, John Oliver & Co. appear to have just flagrantly ripped off This American Life.
In the feature portion of the April 3 episode, Oliver discusses the oddities of congressional fundraising.
Yet through the course of his piece, virtually every beat hits the same points raised in the first act of the NPR show’s “Take the Money and Run for Office” episode from March 30, 2012.
Oliver introduces his piece beginning at 9:15 minutes into the episode, playing various clips from congressmen complaining about fundraising. Generally, none of the clips or quotes from congressmen overlapped, nor did Oliver interview the same people as NPR. However, the remainder of the pieces are nearly identical.
At 12:19, after his introduction, Oliver begins discussing fundraisers by stating they are “usually shitty parties at D.C. bars, restaurants, or townhouses” and that “fundraisers are such an integral part of D.C.’s economy that some restaurants derive a decent chunk of their income from hosting them.” This American Life also began with fundraisers, reporting that they take place“in very specific places in D.C.,” including “townhouses” and “dozens of restaurants [that] do a booming business catering small parties in private rooms."
Oliver then says that given the sheer volume of fundraisers “you could conceivably construct a whole day” around them, displaying a day’s schedule from former Representative Bruce Braley - published by the Sunlight Foundation - showing a breakfast fundraiser at restaurant Johnny’s Half Shell, a lunch fundraiser at DLA: Piper, and an “Evening Reception.” From the TAL segment: “A Congressional watchdog group called the Sunlight Foundation collects [fundraiser] invitations and puts them online. Sifting through them, the same venues come up again and again. Lunch at the Capitol Grill, dinner at Bullfeathers, cocktails at the Monacle, breakfast at Johnny’s Half Shell.”
Oliver gets a lot of mileage from Johnny’s Half Shell, a seafood restaurant close to the Capitol, playing one of the restaurant’s commercials and mocking its owner; he spends minutes 13:28 to 15:00 discussing the venue. This American Life also called out Johnny’s Half Shell several times in their segment, including at around 5:20 and 11:00 minutes. At the end of his segment, at 25:00, Oliver interviews former representative Steve Israel, poking fun at a fundraiser invitation of his that showed a Johnny’s Half Shell fundraiser at 8:30 in the morning. Oliver jokes, “No one goes to a seafood restaurant at 8:30 in the morning without expecting something in return.” This American Life drew from the same well, looking at former representative Tim Bishop'sinvitation for a 8:30 a.m. fundraiser at Johnny’s Half Shell, with Ira Glass quipping at 4:50, “Breakfast. See? Not glamorous.”
At 15:00, Oliver moves on from Johnny’s Half Shell, saying that in their “most pathetic bid” for contributions, “many members of congress will even stage fundraisers at pop concerts,” cutting to an MSNBC report about fundraisers at a Taylor Swift concert. Surprise - TAL covers the same ground, at 5:26 noting that fundraisers “do get fancy," including live events; “[f]or example, this last week, for a thousand bucks, you could join South Dakota Senator John Thune at a Van Halen concert.”
Oliver then spends a few minutes, 15:43 to 17:50, playing quotes of congressmen.
Next, from 17:50 to 18:53, Oliver discusses the depressing call centers that the major parties have set up near the Capitol for congressmen to use for fundraising calls, as the law prohibits campaigning from government buildings. This American Life also moved on to these call centers after discussing fundraisers, covering them from 8:10 to 10:51. Both segments give the same take, noting the depressing environment, the fact that they could not get footage or a first-hand look inside, interviewing a representative who talks about the binder of past donors, and playing clips of representatives complaining about it.
At 18:53, Oliver moves on by observing that all congressmen have to fundraise, even those in safe seats, because the national parties create fundraising targets for each specific member in Congress. To illustrate, Oliver plays a voicemail left with a lobbyist by representative Eleanor Holmes Norton requesting a fundraiser or donation. Yup, TAL began its segment with that same voicemail, and went back to the voicemail at 22:28 to illustrate the point that all members are expected to reach specific fundraising targets based on their seniority and committee memberships.
Oliver next, from 21:18 to 23:50, covers virtually the only original content in the segment, briefly discussing several pieces of proposed legislation and name-checking Buckley v. Valeo.
The segment concludes with an interview with Steve Israel. Even here, though, Last Week Tonight manages to hit the same beat as NPR, playing a clip of Israel proudly reporting that the Democrats “outraised the NRCC by $16.2 million; that’s never happened before!” Well, This American Life interviewed Nancy Pelosi and played a clip of her saying she was “very proud of the fact that this year we have broken all records,” which “enabled us to out-raise the Republicans this year."
Sure, maybe Last Week Tonight and This American Life decided to report on the same subject and happened to find the same aspects interesting. Two outlets could reasonably look at the same facts and be shocked at the same things. But the sheer number of similarities makes it hard not to believe that the writers on Last Week Tonight just listened to an old NPR show and decided that nobody would notice if they lifted it's central beats point-for-point. I just hope this isn't a sign that Last Week Tonight is getting lazy.