“Public shaming, or, as we call it in England, parenting,” John Oliver quipped, opening Sunday night’s episode of Last Week Tonight. Jokes aside, after delving into the role the Internet has played in fanning embers of controversy into raging fires, Oliver spent the second half of the show interviewing Monica Lewinsky, who first became acquainted with the subject more than 20 years ago, thanks to the tabloid-fueled scandal that erupted around her affair with then president Bill Clinton.
“It was an avalanche of pain and humiliation,” Lewinsky told Oliver in the interview. “At 24 years old, it was really hard to hold on to a shred of dignity or self-esteem when you’re just the butt of so many jokes.”
It’s really only recently, in the wake of the first #MeToo revelations, that earnest, public reevaluations of how Lewinsky was treated and talked about during the Clinton impeachment have gained traction, with podcasts like Slow Burn and empathetic interviews (and a few candid essays by Lewinsky herself). Lewinsky’s case doesn’t exist in a vacuum, however; on Last Week Tonight, she and Oliver discussed the role of social media in online bullying (Lewinsky is now a staunch anti-bullying advocate)—both its downsides and upsides.
“One of the things that happens with these kinds of experiences is that you start to disappear, you start to feel like you don’t matter,” Lewinsky said. “I think that when somebody sees you and just acknowledges your humanity in the smallest way, it really can make a world of a difference.” It could even “help save someone’s life,” she added. After all, the support of her own family and friends, she explained, was instrumental in getting her through the whole thing. After the interview, Lewinsky took to Twitter, which she does now have as a resource, to say thank you to Oliver and Last Week Tonight, but above all for the kind feedback she’d received on the platform in the wake of the segment.
Oliver didn’t shy away from his own complicity in Lewinsky’s public shaming; he brought up a Daily Show segment that he appeared in a decade after the scandal first broke in which a graphic read “10 Sucking Years.”
“Which is gross,” Oliver said. “It’s gross.” Oliver was not alone in making Lewinsky the ubiquitous, reliable butt of late-night jokes: He points out that Jay Leno, for example, made vicious and frequent Lewinsky jokes, which makes Leno’s recent calls to bring some “civility” back to late-night television ring especially false. After all, what’s more civil than a mocked-up Dr. Seuss book cover reading The Slut in the Hat? See the full Last Week Tonight episode, below.