John Oliver lambasted psychic âmediumsâ on Sundayâs Last Week Tonight, exploring the techniques they utilize to prey on peopleâs griefâand the shameful role pop culture plays in promoting their gambit as credible.
Early in the segment, the comedian cited an October 2018 poll from the Pew Research Center that found 40 percent of Americans believe in psychics, helping fuel a $2.2 billion industry. Despite that shockingly high number, Oliver was unwilling to bend in his dismissal. âIâm not going to be litigating whether psychics are real in this piece,â he said. âFor one, theyâre not. See? No litigation required. Also, for anyone who does believe in psychic powers, thereâs nothing I could say that could convince you otherwise. Logic isnât the reason that you believe in them, and it wonât be the reason that you stop.â
Instead, the host analyzed the two primary tactics psychics use to wow their audiences with information about their deceased loved ones: âcold readingâ and âhot reading.â The former, essentially a âmagic trick,â involves taking high-probability guesses, like asking a packed audience whether anyone had a family member who died from a common cause of death, or if particular initials register to anyone as important. âThe secret of cold reading,â he said, âis the broader the generality, the higher the chance it resonates with someone.â
âHot readingâ involves researching a subject beforehand to draw on their memories and emotionsâas evidenced by former Today Show host Matt Lauerâs 2016 interview with Hollywood Medium psychic Tyler Henry. During that piece, Henry said the spirit of the Lauerâs late father often accompanied the journalist on fishing tripsâa revelation that visibly moved the interviewer. But, as Oliver noted, Lauer has spoken about a father-son fishing bond in various TV and print interviews over the years. âMaybe Tyler Henry genuinely accessed the afterlife, an action which would fundamentally change our understanding of everything on Earth,â the comedian said. âOr maybe he just Googled âMatt Lauer dadâ and hit the fucking jackpot.â
Oliver briefly paused his critique to play devilâs advocate. âYou can see why people are vulnerable to psychics,â he said. âA message from a lost love one is something many people in the midst of grief would do anything for. And psychics may tell themselves they offer a harmless way to deal with painful loss âŚ You may say at this point, âHold on, where is the downside in telling people their grandmother loved them?â But I would say, at best, itâs reckless for people to take a stab at ventriloquizing the dead. Loss is complicated, and mourning doesnât look the same for everyone. But at worst, when psychic abilities are presented as authentic, it emboldens a vast underworld of unscrupulous vultures more than happy to make money by opening an open line to the afterlife, as well as many other bullshit services.â
One of those services, Oliver said, includes âpsychic detectiveâ work, using these so-called powers to investigate crimes (now a staple on daytime talk shows like Dr. Phil). Given that psychics are also prevalent throughout reality TV (Hollywood Medium, Mary Knows Best, Long Island Medium, Psychic Tia, Mama Medium), the industry is more visible than everâwhich Oliver considers a real âproblem.âÂ
âThis surprisingly large, often predatory industry relies on popular culture to lend it credence and validity,â he said. âTo put it another way: Every time a psychic makes a grieving widow cry on Dr. Oz, 10 con artists get their wings.â
Oliver closed out the piece by introducing his own satirical talk show, âWakey Wakey,â including a guest spot from Rachel Dratz, reprising her role as his wife, âWanda Jo Oliver.â The character, now flaunting a thick Long Island accent instead of her previous Southern inflection, unveiled her own psychic medium website; the page, established as part of a âcourt-ordered settlement,â features random videos with vague cold readings.