Last Week Tonight host buys and forgives $20m in medical debt

John Oliver giving away the debt in his show, Last Week Tonight.
John Oliver giving away the debt in his show, Last Week Tonight.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK • Would you rather spend 20 minutes reading about the hazards of predatory debt collection or would you rather spend 20 minutes watching someone forgive millions of dollars in debt, complete with a giveaway that professed to put Oprah Winfrey's famous "You Get a Car!" gimmick to shame?

If you chose Option B, congratulations. You are precisely the target audience for John Oliver's Last Week Tonight, a show that understands that the best way to convey vital information in an age marked by attention deficit is to wrap it up in spectacle.

For his latest trick, the comedian, who is the host of the HBO show, formed a company called Central Asset Recovery Professionals or Carp, named after the bottom- feeding fish and bought US$14.9 million (S$20.2 million) worth of medical debt for just under US$60,000.

He said it had cost US$50 to create his company, after which he received the portfolio offering the names, current addresses and social security numbers of about 9,000 people.

Oliver then gave away the debt, bragging that his giveaway was bigger than Winfrey's - her 2004 car giveaway was estimated at US$7 million - and completed the show by pressing a giant red button that triggered a rain shower of dollar bills.

Like spinach concealed in the brownie mix, the deliciously entertaining scene masquerades as TV dessert, but it has real nutritional, or in this case, informational, value.

Oliver wanted to illustrate how easy it is for companies to buy debt and try to collect from consumers, whether those consumers are still legally liable for the debt or not.

The segment also showed footage of panellists at a debt-buying trade conference saying most consumers did not understand disclaimers on their debt notices, which affords them some legal rights.

News as entertainment is a continuing theme on the show.

Whether Oliver is explaining the history of Donald Trump's family by leading a campaign to change Mr Trump's surname to Drumpf or starting his own house of worship to better explain how tax-exempt megachurches work, Last Week Tonight is continuing to perfect the art of explaining by doing.

On the latest episode, he said buying the debt was "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 they no longer had to pay".

"There would be absolutely nothing wrong with that except for the fact that absolutely everything is wrong with that," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 08, 2016, with the headline 'Last Week Tonight host buys and forgives $20m in medical debt'. Print Edition | Subscribe