John Oliver tackles the problem of psychics for Last Week Tonight


Aren’t TV psychics harmless? John Oliver isn’t so sure. Check out the latest episode of Last Week Tonight to hear his case.

On Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver decided it was time to talk about psychics. Or, maybe you knew that already.

“Chances are, you haven’t thought about psychics in awhile”, said Oliver. That is, unless you’re a fan of daytime television. In that case, according to the bevy of clips presented by Oliver, you can’t wade through an episode of Dr. Oz without knocking into a psychic.

So what? With all of the things going on in this world, why should we devote 20 minutes of our time picking on psychics? For many, psychics are harmless fun, or maybe even people with a genuine connection to the beyond. Of course, this is Last Week Tonight, which generally brooks no fools. And, lord, is the world of psychics chock full of them.

“I am not going to be litigating whether or not psychics are real in this piece. For one, they’re not.”

Otherwise, there isn’t a real way to convince people otherwise. Belief is funny that way. So is the deeply painful state of mourning many find themselves in after a loved one dies. Even John Oliver and his writing team aren’t willing to touch the matter of the afterlife on this episode.

There are some real-world issues with psychics, however. As much as you may want to think of this as a joke, an estimated 40 percent of people believe that psychics are real. It’s also big business. At least one estimate says this is a $2.2 billion industry. People who can supposedly talk to the dead can make bank on other peoples’ grief.

It is true that mediums can produce dramatic episodes of television. Look at all those crying people! Except… well, those people on the living side of things are having genuine emotions. But the ways psychics get them there are less so.

First in many psychic tool kits is the “cold reading”. That’s where a medium will start off with a very general statement, then zero in on people who are giving them cues, intentionally or not. “I’m thinking of someone with an ‘M’ name” one might say, or “There’s someone who had trouble in the abdominal region”, and so on. They look for people who give them nonverbal and verbal signals that they’ve hit, like leaning forward, nodding, or the ever-present possibility of bursting into tears.

Cold reading is convenient when you have a decent-sized crowd in the room. When someone is throwing out broad issues like “heart trouble” or “a name that starts with A” to a TV studio crowd, they’re almost certain to get a hit. It also helps if they can move on quickly or deflect by saying it was someone else in the room.

Who has the right to speak for your dead grandmother?

Then, there’s “hot reading”, where a psychic does research ahead of their meeting with a subject. It’s not that hard to do some investigating, especially if you land a sit-down with a celebrity. Tyler Henry, the “Hollywood Medium”, is shown making some claims about Matt Lauer’s father (yes, Lauer gets skewered by Oliver). Touching and all, but less impressive once you realize that much of the information about the father-son relationship is accessible after only a light Google search.

Why are seemingly smart people willing to buy into what amounts to an extended magic trick?

Ultimately, it has to do with grief. Mediums hit you right in the feelings. The idea of contacting dead relatives, with all of the weight of lost opportunities, frayed relationships, and the pure longing for a loved person that’s gone from you, possibly forever, is enough to make a grieving person believe in almost anything. Even if your loved one passed many years ago, those emotional connections with their memory can be enough for a psychic to take hold, throw out some vague platitudes, and make a profit.

Are psychics offering a “harmless” way to deal with this grief? That’s a frequent defense offered up by people like the Long Island Medium or the Hollywood Medium. But it’s not quite so easy. Losing someone and dealing with the aftermath of their death is complicated. Who has the right to speak for your dead grandmother?

Besides, as you may guess, there are some pretty screwy details when it comes to being a psychic. What about the mediums that actively target mourning families? Imagine losing a loved one and then having to deal with unsolicited offers from “psychic detectives” who offer the supposed ability to communicate with the lost person. It is unspeakably ghoulish. It’s certainly deeply parasitic on the part of the “psychic” involved.

The people and shows who host mediums also bear part of the blame. Even within the past few weeks, Dr. Phil hosted another psychic detective. Why are we still doing this?

At least the news features taking down psychics are pretty satisfying. Take the psychics who claim that someone is dead, only to learn that the very alive person is sitting right in front of them.

“That is the only responsible way to put a psychic on television,” said Oliver. After witnessing the entirety of this segment, it’s hard to disagree. We shouldn’t allow con artists to do their business, especially when it takes advantage of deeply vulnerable people, and often with such self-satisfied glee.

To drive the point home, Oliver moved over to the set of “Wakey Wakey”, his fictional daytime talk show. There, he met up with Wanda Jo, his fictional wife and a newly-minted psychic played by Rachel Dratch. Wanda Jo, who was previously very Southern, now sports a distinctly Long Island accent and aesthetic. Wonder where she got her inspiration?

Anyway, Wanda Jo is now a psychic after a sudden revelation about how much money mediums can generate by “sharing their gift.” She’s offered to give free readings as part of a court order, which you can enjoy at

This time, Oliver agreed that it was a decent idea. “We promise it will be exactly as accurate as any psychic reading you will pay money for.”

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