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John Oliver filibusters the filibuster on Last Week Tonight

John Oliver
Screenshot: Last Week Tonight

Last Week Tonight finally came back from mini-hiatus on Sunday, blessedly relieving a nation’s backed-up outrage with a freeing torrent of ingeniously rapid-fire comic catharsis from John Oliver. This week’s main topic was the filibuster, that Senate tactic from Mr. Smith Goes To Washington where a lone Senator heroically talks himself into brain-melting exhaustion until the rest of that body finally comes to its senses and does the right thing. Or, as Oliver lays out, Ted Cruz tries to prevent millions of Americans from getting healthcare by ruining Dr. Seuss forever, Rand Paul attempts to block one of President Obama’s nominees by sloppily eating fun-size candy bars like a sleepy toddler, and, back in the day, world champion racist Strom Thurmond fights the Civil Rights Act by pissing in a bucket. You know, democracy.

Oliver explained that such Fear Factor-esque stunts aren’t even part of the filibuster’s appeal any more, since the Senate did away with the need to hold the floor in order to scuttle any bill without 60 votes, leaving self-described “grim reaper” Mitch McConnell (R-KY) free to turn the country’s highest legislative body into a good idea graveyard. As is his way, Oliver took the opportunity to advise the ghoulish McConnell that comparing himself to the malign specter of doom really isn’t necessary, an act akin to Donald Trump asking people to think of him as “a bunch of trash bags from a Cracker Barrel dumpster brought to life by an ancient curse when a clown fucked a car alarm.” Solid burn, but Oliver’s real point is that the filibuster—touted by one long-ago Senator as a way to protect “minorities”—only means that when “minorities” means lawmakers from a minority of states who’d like their fringe, reactionary bigotry to gum up actual progress.

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Still, as Oliver noted, the growing call to abolish this 60-vote threshold (which, despite said fringe’s go-to Constitutional argument) is not anywhere in the Constitution, isn’t without risk. One red flag—Donald Trump supports it, a sobering reminder that, as Oliver sums it up, “there is just nothing that can make you question one of your beliefs quite like Donald Trump unexpectedly sharing it.” He also noted that abolishing the filibuster in judicial nominations is how Republicans were able to cram Justice “Sourpuss J. Boofsalot” onto the Supreme Court. Still, as Oliver went on to dissect, it’s still time for this minority-(not that one)-coddling relic to go, what with it currently being used by McConnell and the GOP to turn the Senate’s theoretical informed and vigorous debate into a sick joke where Mitch McConnell can just stuff any bill he doesn’t like (gun control, paycheck fairness, the Obamacare public option, probably something about not torturing kittens for profit) deep into the sweaty pockets of his grim reaper robe. Taking the stage (on his stage) of a mocked-up Senate floor to fast-forward through all the greatest hits of a really good old-school filibuster, Oliver ultimately made his case to end the practice by gradually unraveling into a disheveled-yet-persuasive wreck, his bucket-peeing appeal finally collapsing with him, the anguished words “incredibly fucking stupid” still ringing throughout the land.

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Dennis Perkins

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