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

John Oliver enlists Wanda Sykes and Larry David to kvetch about medical bias

Larry David, Wanda Sykes, John Oliver
Larry David, Wanda Sykes, John Oliver
Screenshot: Last Week Tonight

Sunday’s Last Week Tonight took on racial and gender bias in medicine, something host John Oliver noted he, a a white male, was pretty unlikely to experience. For one thing, Oliver is, as he put it, the human equivalent of a cider donut, in that he is “pale, filled with cake, and found at every farmer’s market in the Northeast.” For another, as a white dude, he is far less prone to having a doctor’s personal or institutional biases to contend with should he go to the hospital. You know, because he’s actually having a serious medical issue, unlike, as his main story examined, women and/or people of color, whose treatment is woefully, provably, and preventably suspect, thanks to generations of misconceptions, prejudices, and outright nutball myths.

Whipping out a nursing textbook that warned future nurses about racial disparities in how patients view pain (Native Americans might choose a magic number instead of indicating how much actual pain they’re in is just one example), Oliver noted relievedly that the widely used text was finally pulled—three years ago. Medical school polls show that a distressingly large number of future doctors think things like “black people have thicker skin, less sensitive nerve endings, and their blood coagulates faster.” Medical research has long treated male bodies as the default, since women have those “pesky hormones” that muddy the results—even in studies on uterine cancer. And an interview with the widower of a black woman who died in childbirth (something that happens some 3-4 times more often in America than it does for white women), wrenchingly shows how he’s left wondering if making a scene about his wife’s deteriorating condition would have saved her life, of if he, too, would have been dismissed (or worse) as just an “angry black man.” Responding to the question of whether or not his fears were founded, the grieving man stated, “The simple fact that you have to ask that question is a problem.”


Damn straight. But, as Oliver noted, what can people do about it? Well, luckily, he’s got some HBO-level friends on the case. After earlier playing a clip of Wanda Sykes complaining in her recent standup special that she was sent home from a double mastectomy with “ibu-fuckin’-profen” (since, as Oliver noted, black people are more likely to be viewed as drug-seeking fakers by doctors), Oliver welcomed Sykes to his seat. (He had to be shooed out of it first.) Introducing her version of Last Week Tonight (retitled Last Sad Tonight With Spectacles McDorky), Sykes ran down that and many other issues from her position as a black woman who was given “ibu-fuckin’-profen” after cancer surgery.

And while Sykes said that long-term solutions like bias training, diversity in actual hospitals (and not just ones created by Shonda Rhimes), and not being afraid to advocate for yourself are the ways forward, she also acknowledged that that’s not going to help women and people of color today. Bringing out her secret, fourth tactic, “Bring a white man” to do your complaining for you, Skyes introduced her friend, co-star, and complaining-est white man in the world, Larry David. Being Last Sad Tonight, there’s also a website (http://whatslarrysproblem.com/) where patients can play clips of David demanding care for everything from his ass to his uterus in inimitable Larry David style. And since even that might not be enough to bust through the wall of bias and ignorance standing between you and adequate medical care, there’s also a clip of David deploying what Sykes called “The white person’s seven-word mating call,” “I’d like to speak to your supervisor.”

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

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