John Oliver lambasted psychic “mediums” on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, exploring the techniques they utilize to prey on people’s grief—and 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. “I’m not going to be litigating whether psychics are real in this piece,” he said. “For one, they’re not. See? No litigation required. Also, for anyone who does believe in psychic powers, there’s nothing I could say that could convince you otherwise. Logic isn’t the reason that you believe in them, and it won’t be the reason that you stop.”
Instead, the host analyzed the two primary tactics psychics use to wow their audiences with information about their deceased loved ones: “cold reading” and “hot reading.” The former, essentially a “magic trick,” 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. “The secret of cold reading,” he said, “is the broader the generality, the higher the chance it resonates with someone.”
“Hot reading” involves researching a subject beforehand to draw on their memories and emotions—as evidenced by former Today Show host Matt Lauer’s 2016 interview with Hollywood Medium psychic Tyler Henry. During that piece, Henry said the spirit of the Lauer’s late father often accompanied the journalist on fishing trips—a 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. “Maybe Tyler Henry genuinely accessed the afterlife, an action which would fundamentally change our understanding of everything on Earth,” the comedian said. “Or maybe he just Googled ‘Matt Lauer dad’ and hit the fucking jackpot.”
Oliver briefly paused his critique to play devil’s advocate. “You can see why people are vulnerable to psychics,” he said. “A 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 … You may say at this point, ‘Hold on, where is the downside in telling people their grandmother loved them?’ But I would say, at best, it’s reckless for people to take a stab at ventriloquizing the dead. Loss is complicated, and mourning doesn’t 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.”
One of those services, Oliver said, includes “psychic detective” 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 ever—which Oliver considers a real “problem.”
“This surprisingly large, often predatory industry relies on popular culture to lend it credence and validity,” he said. “To put it another way: Every time a psychic makes a grieving widow cry on Dr. Oz, 10 con artists get their wings.”
Oliver closed out the piece by introducing his own satirical talk show, “Wakey Wakey,” including a guest spot from Rachel Dratz, reprising her role as his wife, “Wanda Jo Oliver.” 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 “court-ordered settlement,” features random videos with vague cold readings.