New York’s Matt Zoller Seitz has described Last Week Tonight as a combination of SNL’s “practiced irreverence” and 60 Minutes’ “deep-dish research,” and last night John Oliver proved that’s no exaggeration. Halfway through an episode on government surveillance, Oliver revealed a surprise: Last week he traveled to Russia to interview Edward Snowden. From a comedy standpoint, the segment would have worked even if it only featured Oliver growing increasingly agitated by the NSA leaker’s lateness. But once Snowden arrived, Oliver gave him a surprisingly tough interview, pressing him on whether he actually read all of the government documents he turned over to journalists, and informing him that the average American is actually not taking part in the conversation he sparked about NSA spying.
Oliver quickly made amends by giving Snowden some tips for how to change that. Or really just one tip: Tell the American people whether the NSA can see their dick pics. “The good news is there’s no program named ‘The Dick Pic Program,’” Snowden said. “The bad news is they are still collecting everyone’s information, including your dick pics.” Oliver then had Snowden go through various programs and explain if they allow the NSA to obtain photos of your “junk.” (Spoiler: The answer is pretty much always “yes.”)
After the interview, Oliver said the NSA declined to comment on their “dick-pic capabilities,” but in a way they already did. When Oliver interviewed former NSA head General Keith Alexander a year ago, the host explained that people aren’t worried that they’re taking the haystack to find the needle, they’re worried “you’re taking the whole farm, and the county, and the state and you’ve not got some photos of the farmer’s wife and daughter in the shower as well.” Alexander responded, “So NSA is not allowed to do that on its own, it has oversight” — but did not object to the idea that the NSA unintentionally scoops up Americans’ nude selfies while conducting authorized searches.
If the latest episode of Last Week Tonight does make Americans finally start caring about complex government surveillance programs, the NSA can’t blame Oliver. In his interview with Alexander, he suggested that they could solve their own marketing problems by re-branding as “Mr. Tiggles,” an adorable kitten stuck in a boot.