John Oliver returned from a mini-hiatus with an extra-long Last Week Tonight on Sunday. After an abbreviated roundup of several weeks’ backlog of Donald Trump’s toilet tweets, the host launched into his main story about workplace sexual harassment, touched off by the fact that CBS President Les Moonves was just outed in yet another scathing, meticulously sourced exposé by New Yorker journalist and guy who knows a lot about powerful, famous men acting creepy, Ronan Farrow.
On the whole, Oliver’s piece was a fine example of the host’s Emmy-winning blend of pop-eyed, fact-based comic hyperbole and sobering example. (Apparently the U.S. Forest Service is a bro-infested slime pit of sexual misconduct, as a pair of wrenching interviews with female rangers illustrated.) And Oliver’s liberal use of clips from one of those oft-parodied 1980s sexual harassment corporate training videos (unfortunately titled “The Power Pinch”) at least gave viewers the sight of former White Shadow and head of Kabletown Ken Howard introducing vignettes of dudes in power ties swapping unsavory innuendoes in the men’s room. (And not washing their hands—c’mon, creeps.) The most effective strategy of Oliver’s argument for necessary changes in workplace culture was the host’s heartfelt, reasonable plea for a series of corporate and societal changes surrounding sexual harassment—which he reveals were cribbed verbatim from Howard’s concluding spiel in 1981.
But the reason Last Week Tonight ran long was revealed right after that, as Oliver aired an extended interview with current Brandeis professor and woman who knows more than anyone else in the world about sexual harassment in the 1980s, Anita Hill. Playing excerpts from Hill’s grueling testimony about the harassment she steadfastly maintains she got from then-nominee to the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas from “a panel of world-class assholes” (including current GOP Senator Orrin Hatch), Oliver asked Hill for her unique insight into the current state of harassment culture. And he got that, as the ever-dignified and resolute Hill meticulously took apart the all-too-familiar arguments that women coming forward about harassment are in it for fame and money. With the restraint that marked her response to badgering from old white lawmakers casting aspersions on her character 27 years ago, Hill explained that any aspirations she’d had toward both of those goals “would not have involved the hurt and harm that was done, not only to [herself], but to [her] friends and family.”
She also rebutted the sneering, whining “where’s the line?” defense from those male media figures expressing how unfair it is that men have to worry about this sort of thing. After conceding that, as with any crime, there are inevitably a tiny number of false accusations of sexual misconduct, Hill told Oliver, “We don’t need to make rules around the things that rarely happen until we finish up making the rules around the rules that are happening regularly.” Hill also responded to Oliver’s rhetorical flourish about fragile men terrified about their reputations. “There are men that are afraid that, if they’re accused, they’re just going wind up being dragged in front of some kind of tribunal,” began Oliver, describing said men being smeared, their private lives scrutinized, and their testimony being utterly disregarded, before deadpanning, “Can you, Anita Hill, imagine what that might feel like?” (She can.)
As for how the current debate about sexual harassment and misconduct might offer some hope for actual change, Hill said, “I’m certainly more optimistic that I was 27 years ago.” “That’s a low bar,” joked Oliver, and Hill agreed, but, as she illustrated when Oliver confessed to being part of the problem in not standing up to inappropriate behaviors early in his career, incremental change is not nothing. “If we do nothing,” asserted Hill, “the change in never gong to come.”