Billy McFarland may have set up a prison colony for rich Instagram assholes, but he never told a grieving mother on national television that their (very alive) kidnapped child was dead.
John Oliver drove that point home on Sunday’s edition of his HBO show Last Week Tonight, with the episode’s main story focusing on the enormously popular—and lucrative—world of psychics, the flashiest and most reality TV-friendly of grifters.
“Look, it is easy to dismiss psychics as a joke. Really easy. Fun, too. But the fact of the matter is, one recent poll found four in 10 Americans believe in psychics,” said Oliver. “Just think about that. Stastically, that means out of all the people that saw John Travolta’s Gotti movie, four of them believe in psychics. So, whether they are real or not is incidental; what matters is, a lot of people think they are.”
“The psychic industry is both larger and grimmer than you might assume,” he continued. “By one estimate, it’s a $2.2 billion industry—and there has been a lot of predatory behavior. When the FTC settled charges with the company behind the Psychic Readers Network in 2002, the one that featured Miss Cleo, they found that over one three-year period, they had charged people about $1 billion and collected half of it. They took in $500 million! I had no idea psychics could make that much money.”
The majority of Oliver’s piece focused on what he called “the most insidious part” of the psychic industry: mediums, or people who claim to be able to communicate with the dead. The comedian then threw to a montage of reality-show mediums, including those on Mary Knows Best, Hollywood Medium, Psychic Tia, Mama Medium and Long Island Medium.
“While watching people tear up can seem incredible, the techniques that psychics use to achieve those moments are significantly less incredible,” said Oliver, “because there are two basic techniques that psychics tend to use.”
The first of these is “cold reading,” or making a series of high-probability guesses, and as Oliver explained, “the broader the generality, the higher chance it has of resonating with someone… and once a psychic has you on the hook, they use your responses—including non-verbal cues you may be giving them—to make narrower and narrower guesses.”
He then aired a clip of John Edward during an event of his in Huntington, Long Island, a town where one in five people are of Irish descent, wherein the psychic first asked if anyone in the audience knew anyone with an Irish name (“Brian O-something”), and then after landing on someone, offered, “I’m kind of getting the feeling of not liking the older female… of not liking the mother figure… so if you tell me that you didn’t like his father’s mother, then I would understand that.”
Cut to the woman in the crowd shaking her head, saying, “You got the wrong Brian then.”
“I don’t think I do,” shot back Edward. “I just want to be really clear, because I can’t tell you what you want to hear, I can only tell what they show me, and if he’s calling your mother a bitch, I’m going to pass it on.”
“Oh. My. God,” said Oliver. “Say what you want about John Edward but he’s sticking to his guns there.”
Then there’s “hot reading,” or doing prior research on a subject—like, say, when Hollywood Medium star Tyler Henry went on the Today show and told former host Matt Lauer that his father was sending messages from the beyond while on a boat alone fishing—an activity that Lauer had talked about the two doing quite a bit in the press.
“Look, maybe Tyler Henry genuinely accessed the afterlife, an action which would fundamentally change our understanding of everything on earth, or maybe he just googled ‘Matt Lauer Dad’ and hit the fucking jackpot,” joked Oliver. “Whatever technique Henry used, Lauer fell for it. And he’s smart. He’s a sophisticated Manhattan sex monster. But he fell for it. Hard.”
But more disturbing are the “psychic detectives” who “advise” parents on how to locate their missing kids—including the late Sylvia Browne, who was regularly featured on The Montel Williams Show. In one episode, she told the mother of kidnap victim Amanda Berry (who was alive and watching the episode), “I just hate that she’s not alive, honey.” (Amanda later said that she “broke down crying” because she couldn’t believe Browne said that.)
“That is heartbreaking, and Sylvia Browne is clearly an awful person for doing that. But I would argue that Montel also bears some blame for giving Browne a platform to begin with,” argued Oliver.
“Daytime shows are still holding hands with this shit. Just last month, Dr. Phil had a psychic detective on to help solve a cold case. And why would he do that?” asked Oliver. “This surprisingly large, often predatory industry relies on popular culture to lend it credence and validity. To put it another way: any time a psychic makes a grieving widow cry on Dr. Oz, ten con artists get their wings. And that is a problem.”