If you didn’t already have an intellectual crush on John Oliver, the goofy Brit with the biting wit, Sunday’s episode of “Last Week Tonight” might have left you no choice.
In what he called “the largest one-time giveaway in television show history,” he forgave some $15 million in medical debt for some 9,000 Texans. The stunt came at the end of his brilliantly scathing 20-minute takedown of the debt-buying industry.
Self-ironically, Oliver compared himself to Oprah Winfrey, who gave an estimated $8 million in cars to her entire audience in 2004. “[Expletive] you, Oprah,” he yelled as paper money fell around him, “It’s done! It is done! I am the new queen of daytime talk!”
The studio audience went nuts.
Here’s what Oliver did.
For $50, he set up a debt-buying company and named it Central Asset Recovery Professionals, or CARP, “after a bottom-feeding fish,” he explained. Then he made himself the chairman of the board, and bought a portfolio of nearly $15 million in debt for $60,000. Rather than ruthlessly harass the people who owed the money — “I could legally have CARP take possession of that debt and have employees start calling people, turning their lives upside down over medical debt” — he said he was forgiving it all.
The reporting on debt-buying that preceded Oliver’s giveaway was, as always, filled with his sharp humor and some ace pop culture references, including nods to Nicolas Cage and the band Evanescence. But the facts he laid out about corruption and sleaziness in the under-regulated industry were disturbing and grim. At one point, he had footage of a Debt Buyers Association conference that featured panelists sneering at how the “unsophisticated consumer” doesn’t generally understand his or her legal rights.
“Now, clearly, this is only going to help the 9,000 people whose medical debt we bought,” he said in conclusion. “The large issue is, we need much clearer rules and tougher oversight to protect consumers from potentially predatory companies like the one we set up.”