Brow Beat

John Oliver Taunts the Horse-Loving, Human Rights–Violating President of Turkmenistan With a Giant Cake

Last Week Tonight has made some strange enemies over the years—the coal baron who sued over the giant squirrel comes to mind—and after this week, it seems safe to add both Turkmenistan’s government and Guinness World Records to that list. The main subject of Sunday’s show was ostensibly Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, whose strange obsessions include rapping poorly, weightlifting, gun cycling, “playing” a guitar from behind a wall of smoke, and horses. In fact, when he’s not making Turkmenistan’s activists disappear and cracking down on journalists, the president can be found writing books and poetry about horses from his customized horse desk with matching horse throne.

But toward the end of Last Week Tonight’s segment, things took an even stranger turn than that sentence suggests. Oliver explained that the show planned to taunt Berdymukhamedov using one of his other favorite pastimes: collecting Guinness World Records. Specifically, Last Week Tonight planned to break the record for “world’s largest marble cake,” frosting it with an image of Berdymukhamedov being thrown from his horse in an incident that witnesses were ordered to delete footage of. But Guinness World Records, which Oliver points out had no problem sending its adjudicators to countries like Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia, declined to participate in the HBO show’s record-breaking attempt because, they told Last Week Tonight in an email, “[their] brand is aligned with kids and families.”

“I guess we just don’t run a brutal enough dictatorship to meet Guinness World Records’ high ethical standards,” said Oliver. Guinness World Records issued a statement in response to the segment:

We were disappointed to see the false and unfair allegations about Guinness World Records in Sunday’s episode of ‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.’

The piece appears to have been motivated by our decision not to participate in tonight’s show.

We were asked to provide a judge to officiate the so-called world record attempt for “largest cake with an image of someone falling off a horse”.

On the basis that it was merely an opportunity to mock one of our record-holders, we declined. It is our policy not to partake in any activities which may belittle their achievements or subject them to ridicule.

Again, the record-holder being subjected to ridicule in this case is Berdymukhamedov, under whose government religious minorities are punished, homosexuality is criminalized, and dissenters are imprisoned and subjected to conditions that “amount to torture.” An earlier version of Guinness World Records’ statement said that though the company reassesses the companies it works with and a record is not an endorsement, “We hold our record-holders in high regard.” Yikes.