Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight ran 15 minutes longer than usual, screwing up the DVR game of many a careful TV show curator. At least John Oliver and his team on the HBO show had a very good reason for extending the program last night: an interview with Edward Snowden.
As Oliver accurately refers to him in the lead-up to the interview, Snowden is “the most famous hero and/or traitor in recent American history.” The man who leaked classified information from the NSA to the media in 2013 is also the most ideal guest imaginable to help navigate this episode’s deep dive into the topic of government surveillance. In advance of a vote on the reauthorization of the Patriot Act on June 1, Oliver informs his audience about some of the darker provisions covered by it, including Section 215, which allows government to ask for “any tangible things.” It’s phrases like this last one, dripping as it is with Orwellian vagueness, that Snowden is singularly qualified to shed light on.
In the episode, Oliver travels to Russia to interview Snowden and worries that he might not show up. We see the host palpably anxious, and mining humor from this anxiety, as Snowden’s understandable tardiness breaches the hour-plus mark. Finally, Snowden does indeed show up, only to field initial questions about whether he misses American mainstays like Hot Pockets, the entire state of Florida, and Truck Nutz. While the interview starts off on a light note, though, it doesn’t stay that way for long.
Not only is John Oliver a hilarious comedian, but he has also become quite a skillful interviewer. He uses both these qualities, sometimes at once, getting crucial information from Snowden in a relatable way, while also grilling him about some of the more questionable aspects of what he did. When Snowden defends his actions by talking about how they lead to more Americans being informed about government surveillance, Oliver plays him a video of people in Times Square not knowing who Snowden is, or worse, confusing him with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
Later, Oliver attempts to upend American apathy by putting the whole issue in a context more people will care about: dick pics. We watch Edward Snowden’s face as he sees some of those same Times Square interviewees truly concerned about surveillance when it comes to private nude photos. Oliver uses this rather silly entry point as a rhetorical device to get Snowden to describe in detail under which provisions the government can gather your private photos. The conversation ends with Snowden explaining why people shouldn’t stop taking dick pics, but instead be outraged about where those photos might end up. “You shouldn’t change your behavior because a government agency somewhere is doing the wrong thing,” he says. “If we sacrifice our values because we’re afraid, we don’t care about those values very much.”
Getting Edward Snowden to say those words on his show–in reference to dick pics!–is perhaps the masterstroke of humor and straight-up journalism that John Oliver has been heading toward since his show began last April. Bravo.