John Oliver’s Dick Pic Interview With Edward Snowden Is Probably The Most Valuable Thing He’s Ever Done

John Oliver is a master at work.

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Yesterday Last Week Tonight flagged that this week’s episode would have a special 45-minute runtime, because “there was an awful lot of last week to cover this week”. Besides that, there was absolutely no fanfare given to an episode that featured the most fascinating and important LWT segment yet — one which accomplished what major traditional news outlets couldn’t, and found a way to talk about mass government surveillance in a way that people genuinely understand and respond to.

The centrepiece, obviously, was John Oliver’s revelation that he travelled to Moscow to interview NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden — a huge get for any media outlet, let alone one that preceded the broadcast of that interview with YouTube footage of a baby turtle humping a Croc — and broke the surveillance debate down to one question: “can the government see my dick?” (It turns out yes, yes they can. They know your dick better than you do.) It’s a neat trick, but it works: people care whether private photos of themselves can be seen by people other than the people they were taken for. It’s not “metadata” or “PRISM” or any other tech buzzword removed from most people’s experiences; it’s something real, and close. That’s what makes John Oliver so fascinating and valuable to watch; he can bring vague, far-off concerns and make them real to you.

But this time round, Oliver does more than trick people into caring about important stuff by frequently using the word “dick”; he handles a complex, confusing and ethically fraught issue with sensitivity, nuance and an acknowledgement that there are no easy answers in something like this. Oliver lets Snowden plead his case while not letting him off the hook for the potential consequences of his actions; he refers to him as a “hero and/or traitor,” recognising that the two extreme distinctions slapped on Snowden by his champions and critics are simplistic and alienating to anyone who didn’t think this issue affected them. Even Snowden himself looks disarmed by how Oliver upends the now-familiar talking points around him and his work and rearranges them into something fresh.