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Television

John Oliver roasts litigious coal titan in epic, squirrel-filled musical number

“Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”
HBO host John Oliver kicks off the sixth season of “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” with a song-and-dance number.
(Lloyd Bishop / HBO)

“Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver on Sunday repeatedly cussed out and gave the middle finger to coal titan Bob Murray in a glittery musical number mocking Murray’s frivolous lawsuits against his critics.

Heavy on insults and expletives, the song-and-dance piece has a title we’re not allowed to use or embed in this family newspaper. It closed out the Season 6 premiere of Oliver’s HBO talk show by accusing the Murray Energy chief executive of historically outlandish acts, such as murdering Archduke Ferdinand and starting World War I, bludgeoning ice skater Nancy Kerrigan and being disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein’s prison guard.

“We’re using protected speech to tell Bob Murray to eat ... ,” Oliver proclaimed in the Times Square-spanning musical, explaining that they were implementing “loose” and “figurative” speech to criticize the litigious mogul. “It doesn’t count as slander, because it’s way too weird,” he sang, “We made up these anecdotes, they’re silly and insane.”

The number came as Oliver celebrated his legal victory in the defamation lawsuit that Murray brought against him and the Emmy-winning show back in 2017. In fact, before the song and dance, Oliver devoted Sunday’s episode to recapping the legal saga, which he hadn’t been able to discuss because of pending litigation.

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However, since Murray recently dropped the lawsuit, the host went to town and used it as a timely pivot into the topic of SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) lawsuits.

A West Virginia judge has tossed out a lawsuit filed by a coal magnate who was ridiculed on HBO’s late-night show “Last Week Tonight” by host John Oliver.

First, a bit of background:

Oliver targeted Murray in a 2017 segment that blasted his company, criticized the standards of the coal industry at large and touched on the company’s long history of threatening litigation against its critics. Oliver also called Murray a “geriatric Dr. Evil” in the piece and harangued him through a “Last Week Tonight” staff member dressed in a squirrel costume. (The squirrels were back for Sunday’s musical number, by the way.) The coal titan then sued for defamation in 2017, shortly after the segment aired.

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A judge dismissed the case in 2018 after attorneys for HBO argued that Oliver’s comments were either factual — sourced from various court documents about Murray — or obviously satirical, both of which are protected by the 1st Amendment. However, Murray filed an appeal that languished after four judges on West Virginia’s State Supreme Court, who were meant to hear the case, were impeached in August 2018. Not long after that, Murray Energy filed for bankruptcy protection, which Oliver thinks could have been related to the lawsuits.

“Winning the case was never really his goal,” Oliver said, later explaining that “by cultivating a reputation for being aggressively litigious, Murray may have actually got what he wanted and successfully applied a chokehold on how he is covered [in the media].”

He explained that SLAPP lawsuits are ubiquitous, “frivolous suits with no legal merit, specifically designed to stifle public debate or dissent.” Oliver noted that 30 states have some form of anti-SLAPP laws but West Virginia, where Murray brought his “Last Week Tonight” lawsuit, isn’t one of them.

Oliver said that when his producers reached out to Murray about Sunday’s piece, Murray responded in a letter directed to Oliver’s bosses at AT&T and HBO, arguing that none of his lawsuits are SLAPP suits.

“Last Week Tonight”
John Oliver sings in the Season 6 premiere of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.”
(Lloyd Bishop / HBO)

Still, the outspoken host warned against the chilling effects and the culture of fear and bullying that the lawsuits create: "[The] lawsuits are like famous Instagram pugs. They don’t have to work to be considered very, very successful,” he said.

“Even if they are baseless, his lawsuits can do major damage. Ours wound up costing over $200,000 in legal fees. And even though our insurance covered part of it and we were lucky that HBO stood by us, this lawsuit was infuriating, took up a lot of time and resources and resulted in a tripling of our libel insurance premiums despite the fact, to reiterate, we ... won this case!”

Oliver then added that we need better anti-SLAPP laws nationwide “to deter powerful people like Bob Murray from using the courts to shut down people’s legitimate dissent.”

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“And I know that after tonight, Murray will probably sue us again, even though everything I said has been rigorously vetted by our lawyers who, may I add, are getting very tired with us.”

And from there, Oliver said he wouldn’t “say anything more” about Murray, but that he would “simply sing it instead.” A melodic attorney even made a cameo in the five-minute song to also tell Murray to “eat ... .”

An HBO representative for “Last Week Tonight” said Monday that they had not yet received a response from Murray regarding Sunday’s episode.


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