Everyone remembers that iconic afternoon in 2004. There was a crowd, the audience, already overjoyed to be basking in Oprah Winfrey’s presence already at the height of her popularity. Then came those famous words.
“You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a new car!” There was a cacophony like no one had ever known; this was the biggest giveaway on television in history, and continued on to be so for another twelve years without a contender. That all changed at almost 11:30pm on the 5th of June, 2016.
John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight on HBO, snapped Oprah’s giveaway record by forgiving nearly $15 million in debt. Standing on a blue-lit stage before two giant golden ‘$’ statues, under a shower of fluttering dollar bills, the late-night talk show anchor saved the financial lives of 9,000 people in rural Texas by buying up their debt and then promptly offering to take on the loans himself.
By doing this, Oliver completely shot Oprah’s car-giveaway stunt out of the water, as the former daytime host’s “You Get a Car!” segment was only valued at $7 million, according to the New York Times.
But what purpose did erasing $15 million in auto debt, medical bills, student loans, and on serve? The fantastical, history-writing spectacle was Oliver’s surefire way of making certain everyone would remember the onslaught of accounting information he just provided for twenty minutes prior.
Like many of his other main stories, including his now-famous Donald Trump segment from earlier this year, Oliver presents a shipload of information at once; for his story last night titled “Debt,” the HBO host packed everything anyone needs to know about the slimy business of debt collecting for the public to consume. Essentially, Oliver showed, anything from overspending on a credit card to accidentally getting sick can ruin someone’s life forever, thanks to the ravenous debt collector.
The anchor showed how banks will sell off their indebted’s loans along with their personal information to unknown debt companies for a fraction of a penny on the dollar, who will then sell it again and again until most of the country’s most intimate financial details are in the hands of complete strangers who just made a profit of their hardships.
To prove how easy it was, Oliver pulled a stunt he’s done before in the past–place himself and his show right in the fray of the grimy market. He created his own debt collecting agency, called CARP after the bottom-feeder fish, for $50. He then proceeded to buy about $60,000-worth of debt from a shadowy collecting agency, which is actually about where his personal spending ended.
Last Week Tonight partnered with RIP Medical Debt, a charity foundation that has been fighting collecting agencies for years, and opted to forgive the $15 million in debt he now owned (remember, debt collectors would buy this debt away from banks for fractions of pennies on the dollar), which had belonged to 9,000 Texans who might have had no hope otherwise.
“We bought it, which is absolutely terrifying because it means if I wanted to, I could legally have Carp take possession of that list and have employees start calling people, turning their lives upside down over medical debt,” said Oliver. But, of course, he didn’t.
You can watch the whole segment below:
Getting down to brass tax, Oliver didn’t technically out-do Oprah with the amount of money he gave away. Every single car Oprah gave to her audience was bought with Winfrey’s personal funds whereas only about $60,050 was Oliver’s, but still–it’s unlikely that anyone on TV will make a monetary gift that big again live.
One question does remain: how much exactly does John Oliver make that he can afford to purchase $60,000 worth of information and then make $15 million disappear?