As you may have seen, Last Week Tonight is the new, hit show on HBO that features John Oliver (previously of The Daily Show). Among other segments, it covers a primary topic each week which the infotainment-style show discusses at length. Oliver discussed the topic of government surveillance this week, and before you continue reading this article, it would be best if you watch that segment in its entirety.

Edward Snowden speaks about the NSA at a conference in Moscow

Edward Snowden speaks about the NSA at a conference in Moscow

The segment begins by featuring some criticism of the nature of U.S. surveillance in typical style of what viewers have seen before. Oliver informs his audience that the upcoming renewal date of the Patriot Act is June 1 and mentions a number of National Security Agency programs such as PRISM and MUSCULAR. He then mentions Edward Snowden — the man responsible for leaking NSA documents that led to the reveal of those programs and to his subsequent flee to Hong Kong and Russia from U.S. authorities. Oliver then said he traveled to Russia to meet Snowden and played an edited tape of their interview.

In past episodes of the show, the Last Week Tonight team has tackled some important issues such as municipal violations, the aging American infrastructure, and global tobacco industry regulations. Oliver and company have, above the show’s multiple cracks at public officials and references to pop culture for the sake of humor, attempted to bring awareness to these topics which at times could be described as dismal or horrifying.

One particularly troubling issue, for instance, was brought to light in the tobacco industry regulation segment where Oliver spoke about the attempts by tobacco companies to keep their sales high by targeting countries with lawsuits. Philip Morris International, the segment noted, was in the process of taking action against Uruguay and had also threatened with litigation the small African country of Togo.

In retaliation, Last Week Tonight created Jeff, the Diseased Lung in a Cowboy Hat character which it offered to Philip Morris International for use on its cigarette packages. The show even erected several billboards in Uruguay and shipped several Jeff-branded shirts to Togo.

It is action like that which makes it appear as if Last Week Tonight is taking real action against some of the issues on which it reports. This is not the only example where it has gone beyond comedy to bring important issues to light and spread awareness of the ills of the world. This is why I had hoped for more from the latest episode with Snowden who is arguably the show’s most high-profile guest to date. There was a lot of potential for Oliver to capture the real threats to privacy contained in the Patriot Act that face all American citizens. Following the initial line of jokes and into the interview with Snowden, however, there was little content to be found beyond, literally, a bunch of jokes about penises.

Oliver continually interrupted Snowden by telling him that Americans are apathetic about the details of NSA programs. “No one cares,” he repeated. Oliver also made light of serious details of NSA actions such as its ability to intercept communications one U.S. citizen may have with another through an email service such as Gmail.

Instead of focusing on bringing awareness to the issues as plain topics, Oliver dressed them in a conversation dedicated to something that Americans said they did care about: pictures of penises. Last Week Tonight interviewed a number of people and asked them how angry they would be if the NSA had pictures of their own or their significant others’ genitals. The resounding response was that they would be angry to know that had happened.

In fact, Snowden responded, it is a reality that the NSA can capture all manner of information sent between individuals. If friends communicate through their mobile phones or the Internet, it is altogether possible that the information they share with each other can end up in an NSA database.

It would have been excellent for Last Week Tonight to do more with its trip to Russia. A meeting with someone like Snowden is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and it felt like Oliver either blew the interview or the show’s editors wanted to concentrate on jokes more than on the issues. Although there is certainly room for humor the show, there is often room for action that can spur people to make their situations better. In this case, the American people can urge their representatives in the government to deal properly with the Patriot Act and reign in the liberties awarded to the NSA.

The episode about tobacco has nearly five million views on the show’s YouTube channel. There is clearly room for the latest episode to do even half that well and spread the word about something which affects us all. I can only hope for more the next time around and provide some useful links here for readers to inform themselves.

First, it may be helpful to take a look at the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s extensive review of what parts of the Patriot Act are up for reauthorization. After that, you can find your representatives (House and Congress) with this simple-to-use portal and let them know how you feel about the upcoming vote.

Image courtesy of TheWikiLeaksChannel via Wikimedia Commons