I am such a huge fan of John Oliver and his show Last Week Tonight, but his newest segment on “psychics” caused me to let out the most Tina Belcher of groans.
For those who aren’t familiar with John, most of us first met him on The Daily Show as a hilarious correspondent. He also played an alcoholic teacher in Community who was hell-bent on making the main character stop being a dick. He’s hilarious, honestly. Since April 2014, John has covered the death penalty, net neutrality, the tobacco industry, donald trump, debt, and even riveting topics like civil forfeiture. Since he’s on HBO he has free reign to make fun of corporations, mega churches, individual celebrities, and basically any other right-wing or societal nonsense he can think of. It’s fantastic, and I watch it all the time to keep up with the news and get a critique I usually consider honest and entertaining.
Last Week, John tackled “Psychics”, especially mediums. After watching his episode called Televangelists that exposed how easy it was to start a church in the US and the corruption and greed of the pastors of tv “mega-churches”, I knew his priority was to expose scams that target innocent people and make sure his audience knows that this is more than just something funny to joke about. I knew his focus in the psychic segment would be on psychics he believed were scam artists, or who were raking in suspicious amounts of cash. I didn’t actually expect a bunch of rude and derogatory white non-sense from baby boomers, but that’s what we got.
The first psychic pictured in the segment is OF COURSE Miss Cleo – the infamous tv psychic from the 90s who was charged with fraud in 2002. The photo he shows is from 2000 (it’s watermarked!), and I had to roll my eyes. Talk about old news. Most of the young people interested in psychics weren’t even alive to see her middle of the night commercials, John. His main topic though is what he calls the most “insidious” part of the psychic industry – mediums. You know, John Edward, Teresa Caputo, and Sylvia Browne. If you’re under 30 you’re probably wondering – who?
What John failed to realize, and mention, is that there is a big difference between the psychic industry he’s talking about, and the genuine psychic industry. What he’s talking about are parlour trick psychics, a form of entertainment. No one who studies psychic phenomena or energy patronizes these parlours or even really watch the shows. If they do, it’s usually laughed off as a guilty pleasure. He explains how many of these mediums use mentalism tricks like cold reading to read a room and people’s individual responses. Some even outright research clients in advance, and then present that info like a genuine psychic impression.
He’s right, honestly, and I always respect exposing scam artists and standing up for those who’ve been taken advantage of.
The problem I found is that there was ZERO effort to differentiate between parlour trick psychics, and genuine spiritual service providers and practitioners. He even joked that he didn’t consult with real psychics for his segment because psychics aren’t real and anyone who claims to be psychic is lying. Now we got beef, John.
One of the absolute best segments in the history of Last Week Tonight aired in August of 2015. John spoke at length about how easy it was to set up a tax-exempt church, and about Televangelists who scam money out of their followers via letter campaigns and religious threats. It was INCREDIBLY well-done and definitely showed the hypocrisy of mega-churches and any sort of financial-based faith. Being a comedian, Oliver actually filled out the paperwork to create his own church, which he called Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, and performed a hilarious skit with the immortal Rachel Dratch spoofing these southern televangelists to big laughs – my own very big laugh included.
The most important difference between this segment and the one on psychics is that in the beginning he clearly differentiates from televangelists and real churches who do good in their communities. He never actually mocked real Christian beliefs, just the practices of these unscrupulous scam artists. The average Christian could watch the segment and know this guy was not disrespecting their faith but exposing a toxic part of it. This was not the case for those who practice any religion that includes psychic work or mediumship, or who work in the actual psychic industry.
Now before you go making assumptions, let’s get a few things straight:
- I CAN take a joke, I promise. I laughed multiple times through this segment. I’m not mad, just irritated.
- I know that there are a ton of psychics who are absolutely not legit. Not at all. I know there are a LOT of parlour trick psychics, versus genuine practitioners and they are the loudest. I also feel personally offended when I hear someone was using a psychic ruse in a fraudulent manner – because fraud is wrong.
- I genuinely do not care at all if someone (especially someone I don’t even know) believes in psychics. Do you think all of my loved ones are opened-minded witches? No! I’m Italian and French Canadian and the first generation of either side of my family not to be baptized Catholic (or at all). I do care if someone’s a dick and makes fun of me to my face, though.
I think one of the most irritating parts was that this was all SO out-dated. Who’s going to John Edward shows? Sylvia Browne is literally dead and we all know she’s ridiculous. and Psychic parlours? They’re a novelty in most North American cities now. Most of the people who genuinely believe in psychics and who are searching out mediums, don’t wander into “Madame Sylvia’s Main Street Psychic – Fortunes Told!”* they go to a witch or new age store and ask around. No one in those new age stores sends anyone to parlour trick psychics. To be quite frank, it is an ENTIRELY different industry.
(* again, before you make assumptions, the aesthetic of old-school psychic parlours is still amazing and I frequently use images of crystal balls and neon signs because they rock)
I also noticed that every single psychic pictured or featured in the segment, outside of Miss Cleo, was white, middle-upper class, and over 40. The people seeking those services were also white and over 40. There was no mention of the psychic industry that features tons of young people, queer people, people of colour, etc. Didn’t focus on anyone who doesn’t scam their clients. Didn’t focus on psychics that weren’t a tv hit. Hey John, are all pawn shops like the one on pawn stars? All kitchens a nightmare? Are all storage lockers full of literal treasure? NO. Just because it’s called reality tv, doesn’t mean it’s real, John!
The problem here is that middle-class white people in their 40s aren’t john’s target demographic, or at the very least they’re the ones he’s usually making fun of. Last Week Tonight has a very similar demographic to The Daily Show – liberal academics in their 20s-early 30s. That’s me. I’m his audience! The same demographic that is abandoning organized religion at staggering rates, that has become more and more open to crystals and yoga, and who don’t have the money to give thousands to a scam artist over the phone every month. In short, the psychics he showed are not the psychics his target audience is even interacting with. So now he’s made these sweeping generalizations about an ENTIRE spiritual movement and industry that aren’t even entirely accurate. That hurts all of those young entrepreneurs of colour or who are queer or disabled or marginalized.
Another thing that is just a personal pet-peeve of mine is when people act like psychics and magicians are fucking different. You know who else uses cold reading to make money? Magicians. Oliver noted that a hundred years ago Miss Cleo’s network of psychic readers brought in $1 billion, with a cool half of that being profit. David Copperfield made $61 million in 2018 and has a net worth of $875 million. Penn & Teller made $30 million, Criss Angel $16 million, David Blaine made $13.5 million – all just in 2018. I actually attended a Penn and Teller show last year and was bored to tears until they started trashing psychics and astrology as if it’s any dumber than fucking magic. They use the same methods as parlour trick psychics have since the days of spiritualism, make millions of dollars, and get just as many tv shows and vegas engagements. Magic happens to be an industry dominated by men that don’t offer anything personal, where the psychic industry is mainly dominated by women who offer a personalized service that could be deemed “compassionate”. Magicians, no matter the size of the crowd, are in it to show off their hard-won skill and creativity to make money. Psychics; depending on the size of the crowd, location, method of reading, and other variables; have incredibly varied motivations ranging from making money to making a difference. There’s nothing about either group that a) makes one better than the other, b) isn’t subject to laws that force them to explain their services are for entertainment purposes, and c) isn’t totally and completely exploitable for the purpose of scamming people!
Actually, I know more people that have lost money to a legit game of 3-card monte on a street corner than to those psychic parlours or tv mediums.
You’ll never convince me that the reason magicians are cool but psychics aren’t isn’t because of some man shit. Women get hanged for being witches and practicing magic, men get to co-opt it and build a career off of it. Old. Fucking. News. Just like Miss Cleo!
I still love John Oliver and Last Week Tonight and would lie if I said I didn’t crack up every time he made fun of any of the three tv psychics I mentioned because their fuck ups are funny. So funny! They shouldn’t be telling people their loved ones are dead if they haven’t seen the body, as far as I’m concerned, and they deserve to get called out. I also believe it’s important to educate people about scams – ANY SCAMS – because it’s wrong. It doesn’t matter if that scam artist is a psychic, or a used car salesman a la Danny DeVito in Matilda, or a black widow. It just doesn’t!
Psychics aren’t a scam, scam artists are.