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John Oliver talks public shaming with Monica Lewinsky, who has some thoughts

John Oliver, Monica Lewinsky
Screenshot: Last Week Tonight

On Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver spent most of the show examining the phenomenon of public shaming. You know, that thing where millions of people around the world take turns dogpiling someone they don’t know but have very definite opinions about thanks to an often-misunderstood misdeed. (He showed talk show hosts and news anchors hyping up the hate on the supposed nephew-suing aunt from hell,” and then explained how that sort of glibly egregious abuse ignored an unfortunate case whose details were a whole lot more nuanced.) And while Oliver, as usual, took a long and complicated look at the issue, he was hardly one of those calling for a complete ban on the practice.

Partly, that’s because he claimed to be staunchly in favor of publicly mocking genuinely horrible people like—oh, just to pick one at random—Fox News white supremacist klaxon and “answer to the question, ‘What if the sound ‘thud’ grew a face?,’” Tucker Carlson, whose recently unearthed comments about Iraqis, women, and (checks notes) how child rape isn’t so bad Oliver claimed could use a little airing out. (Amplifying some anti-Carlson hashtags like #BoycottTuckerCarlson, and #FireTuckerCarlson, Oliver noted that, while #TuckerCarlsonFucksHisRoomba might not be trending yet, he had this weird feeling “it will be trending in 20 minutes or so.”) But, for another thing, Oliver was candid about the fact that, as a comedian that traffics in mockery, he and his staff aren’t blameless, either. Although Oliver noted that—just as an example—Carlson’s douchebro pronouncements to something calling itself Bubba The Love Sponge met his show’s criteria for public shaming (Carlson’s a public figure, he said the shitty things he said he said in public, and has not remotely apologized for them), the host also confessed how he’s done some piling-on in the past that makes him wince. Which brings us to his interview guest, Monica Lewinsky.

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Showing an old Daily Show graphic on a piece of his that employed a smarmy cheap shot at Lewinsky, Oliver publicly expressed remorse for his part in the incessant, late-night hackery, calling what he chose to do “gross,” and telling his audience, “My hands are not clean here.” However, as he noted, he’s ready for surgery compared to former Tonight Show host Jay Leno, whose recent calls for “a return to civility” in late-night comedy gloss over his own cottage industry built on jokes about the then 22-year-old Lewinsky. (Showing a clip of Leno hawking the fake Dr. Seuss book The Slut In The Hat, featuring a caricature of Lewinsky, Oliver flashed his own Seuss knockup, Oh, The Places You Can Go Fuck Yourself, Jay Leno.)

As for Lewinsky herself, the former worldwide punchline took responsibility for her part in the affair she had with her boss Bill Clinton—the much older leader of the free world—while agreeing with Oliver in their filmed interview that the decades of public shaming and hack comics going for the lamest jokes possible have represented a wildly disproportionate punishment. Pointing out that her name is forever linked to the affair not only in the public consciousness, but the congressional record, thanks to Special Prosecutor and selective uncoverer of sexual misdeeds Ken Starr’s choice of her name to label the scandal, Lewinsky detailed how her life has been affected. (Spoiler: not positively.) With Oliver asking sympathetically, “How the fuck did you get through that?,” Lewinsky cited family, friends (once she was legally freed to talk to them, that is), and a stubbornness regarding her decision to forge ahead and outlive her infamy. Noting that she found it nearly impossible to find work even after receiving a belated grad school degree, Lewinsky drew audience applause by asking why she gets asked about changing her name, while Bill Clinton is allowed to age into the comfortable (and lucrative) role of elder statesman.

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As to whether she feels her ordeal would have been somehow worse if social media had been a thing back in the 1990s, Lewinsky—now an advocate for those suffering cyberbullying, for some reason—was surprisingly torn. Explaining that she does find it empowering to block the trolling goblins still attracted to make shitty jokes on her very active Twitter feed, Lewinsky told Oliver that the random acts of empathy and kindness that she sees there might also have counterbalanced the isolation she felt during her time as global pariah. Without getting specific about that experience, she told Oliver feelingly that feeling less alone, even while undergoing unprecedentedly disproportionate public shaming, “could save someone’s life.”

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About the author

Dennis Perkins

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