Brow Beat

John Oliver Says We Can’t Grow Numb to Mass Shootings or Trump’s Rhetoric

John Oliver sits next to a graphic that says "PRISON."
John Oliver during Last Week Tonight’s main segment on Sunday.
HBO/Screenshot via YouTube

Last Week Tonight began on Sunday with a message from John Oliver about the mass shootings that took place over the weekend. Oliver prefaced the entire episode by acknowledging the difficulty of airing a comedy show that is famous for exploring niche subjects in the midst of tragedy, telling viewers, “Before we start our show tonight, which I’m sure will be about something like gravel zoning or doghouse foreclosures—I honestly don’t know, I don’t read this script until I start talking—before we do that, as I’m sure you’re aware, Americans have just seen two mass shootings within 24 hours in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas.”

He went on to place some of the blame on Donald Trump for fostering the racist ideas and rhetoric that drove the El Paso shooter:

When it comes to gun control, I know it can feel like everything’s been said before. In fact, even pointing out “everything’s been said before” has been said before. In fact, even pointing out the fact that “ ‘everything’s been said before’ has been said before” has been said before. But while the depressingly familiar numbness that you may be currently feeling can help you handle the pain in the short term, in the long term it can actually be a real problem because unless something hurts as much as it’s supposed to, nothing gets done about it.

And something has got to be done here, and not just about guns. The El Paso shooting is currently being investigated as a hate crime, and the shooter’s manifesto featured anti-immigrant language that may well be familiar to you from certain cable networks and certain presidents. Clearly white nationalism and anti-immigrant hysteria did not start with this president. But he certainly seems to have created an environment where those kinds of views can fester and indeed thrive.

Oliver then aired a clip of Trump at a rally in Florida in May laughing off an audience member’s suggestion to “shoot” migrants at the border, and he challenged Trump’s assertion at the time that “only in the Panhandle” could someone get away with that statement. “You can now get away with it all over the country, and, as he just made painfully clear, in any room the actual president is in, which is absolutely appalling, and that is something we cannot afford to get numb to,” Oliver said. “Because if that ever, for even a moment, feels like it’s become normal, we are completely fucked.”

Oliver then moved on to what he referred to as the “dumb,” preplanned show, telling his audience “after a tough, tough day, please enjoy this nonsense.” But the show that followed Oliver’s message was neither dumb nor nonsense. (OK, maybe the supercut of Fox News’ Shep Smith using his preferred phrase, “since Fluff was a kitten,” on the air was kind of dumb and definitely nonsense.) But the main segment was about prison labor, and it is as smart and thorough as we’ve come to expect from Last Week Tonight, shedding light on an important subject while sprinkling in bullfighting puns and jokes about art history majors. It’s just a little bit harder to laugh at them.