Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

John Oliver batters Guinness World Records' cozy relationship with stunt-happy dictators

John Oliver
John Oliver
Screenshot: Last Week Tonight

“I promise you, in 20 minutes you’re not so much going to be wondering why we talked to much about Turkmenistan, as why we’d ever talk about anything else ever again.” Bold words from Last Week Tonight host and deadpan assassin John Oliver, but, well, he was talking about one Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, Turkmenistan’s President since 2007, and, as Oliver began by seriously underselling the reality, a “truly, deeply, and compellingly odd” dude.

Is it because he runs an authoritarian government which routinely “disappears” activists, bans the free press, and claims to win 98 percent of every vote? Hell, that’s pretty much the resumé of every world leader on Donald Trump’s buddy list. Or that Berdimuhamedow makes deeply terrible patriotic raps with his grandson and tried to combat recent rumors about his death by driving very slowly around a giant pit of fire? Or is it because—like authoritarian strongmen and sad, half-formed little manboys everywhere—Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow has a “manly obsession,” in this case being into horses. Like really into horses. Like, as Oliver put it, “Like, the incorrect amount”? Well, that is pretty odd, what with the fetishistic statuary, and the “fuck sonnet about a horse” he read on state TV, and the law he passed making it a crime to change the name of one of that country’s national horses, the majestic Akhal-Teke?

Pretty weird, but hardly the stuff of a 20-minute Last Week Tonight main story, even if Oliver made merry sport of repeatedly showing the incompletely confiscated footage of Berdimuhamedow ignominiously face-planting during a horse race atop one of his beloved steeds. Even the one extant, English-translated Amazon copy of one of Berdimuhamedow’s glowingly worshipful books about the Akhal-Teke (which Oliver bought, natch’) doesn’t explain why Turkmenistan’s leader was getting Oliver’s shade. (Despite featuring the direct quote: “Witnesses never wearied of being astonished by the steed and human intercourse brought to full perfection.”) Guy just really, really likes horses, okay?

Nope, it’s due to Berdimuhamedow’s ongoing and frankly bananas obsession with setting seemingly every Guinness World Record that really made this the stuff of Last Week Tonight’s comedy wheelhouse. Taking the piss out of an authoritarian strongman whose self-deluded egomania is even madder than Archer’s depiction of same? Check. Looping in a sunny-on-the-outside corporation’s deeply suspect ties to attention-seeking dictators around the globe? Check again. A stunt where Oliver uses HBO’s money to outdo his subjects’ shady partnership on every level? Oh, that’s a big check. Therefore, Oliver presents to you, the biggest marble cake ever made, decorated with a loving portrait of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow humiliating himself during a horse-related, ego-fluffing PR stunt!


And even if the Guinness people (who routinely charge lots of cash to happily certify the specious, attention-grabbing records of the world’s most oppressive leaders) refused to grant its imprimatur to Oliver’s 600-square-foot cake because its “brand is aligned with kids and families” (and dictators with deep pockets), Oliver was undeterred. Asking just two questions, “One—are you ready to make history?,” and “Two—who wants some fucking cake?,” Oliver delivered what he had promised—one big, goddamned cake. Showing that, when it comes to getting under the skin of the world most farcically brutal assholes, it’s the little things. Or the really, really big things covered in embarrassing frosting.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.

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