WTF Art History

John Oliver’s Weird Art Is Out to Save Museums

Bruno Guerra 24 February 2022 min Read

Comedians. What would we do without them? If your answer was something along the lines of just laughing less, then you might not be seeing the bigger picture. In fact, thanks to one particular late night host, you might not have gotten to see many weird pictures.

Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver is no stranger to delivering stunts on his show. Most of them serve a purpose to the episode’s plot, from starting their own church, to creating a new–more realistic–mascot for the tobacco industry, Oliver has used all sorts of performances as punchlines (emphasis on the punch) against corruption, hypocrisy, and abusive behaviors.

And what about art?

It should come as no surprise then, that in keeping with his tradition of giving an unexpected helping hand, Oliver turned his head to the museum scene. He offered five museums across the United States a chance to host Last Week Tonight’s Masterpiece Gallery in exchange for a US$10,000 donation.


The tour, which started in September 2021 and just finished its last leg in San Francisco in January of this year, was part of an effort to bring attention to the difficulties museums across the US have faced since the start of the pandemic. According to a survey by the AAM (American Alliance of Museums) taken in July 2020, a third of the US museums might never reopen post COVID-19.

In an official statement, Laura Lott, president, and CEO of the AAM, said:

Museum revenue disappeared overnight when the pandemic closed all cultural institutions, and sadly, many will never recover.

Laura Lott, President, and CEO of the AAM<

American Alliance of Museums. Accessed 11 Feb 2022.

So what about that weird art?

Last Week Tonight’s Masterpiece Gallery boasts paintings such as a portrait of Wendy Williams eating a pork chop. It came to be during the pandemic as part of a recurring joke between them, which included Oliver eating Dorito’s and caviar, sent by the TV hostess.

Untitled portrait of Wendy Williams eating a pork chop. The Wendy Williams Show / Debmar Mercury.

Untitled Portrait of Wendy Williams Eating a Pork Chop. The Wendy Williams Show / Debmar Mercury.

Another piece, Ties, a painting by Judy Kudlow, was purchased by the show after pointing out that the artist, who had applied for small business help from the US government, was married to Larry Kudlow, a financial analyst for Fox News, and former Trump advisor.

Last Week Tonight's Masterpiece Gallery John Oliver: Judith Kudlow, Ties.

Judith Kudlow, Ties, Last Week Tonight’s Masterpiece Gallery. Last Week Tonight / HBO.

And finally, Stay Up Late, a depiction of Alice and Bob, a couple of mice engaging in erotic behavior. This piece was acquired as part of an extended joke which Oliver attempted to showcase how much easier it was to purchase such a specific painting than to get tested for COVID-19. In the official announcement video for the tour, Oliver described the piece as “if Monet had a furry period”.

Last Week Tonight's Masterpiece Gallery John Oliver: Brian Swords, Stay up late, 1992.

Brian Swords, Stay Up Late, 1992, Last Week Tonight’s Masterpiece Gallery. Last Week Tonight / HBO.

Many museums entered the official competition to host the tour, submitting their proposal on how the pieces were going to be displayed. The show elected five official winners: the Judy Garland Museum (Minnesota, USA), the Museum of Broadcast Communications (Illinois, USA), the American Visionary Museum (Maryland, USA), the William V. Banks Broadcast Museum & Media Center (Michigan, USA), and the Cartoon Art Museum (California, USA).

A cutout of John Oliver in front of the paintings in Last Week Tonight's Masterpiece Gallery at the Judy Garland Museum.

A cutout of John Oliver in front of the paintings in Last Week Tonight’s Masterpiece Gallery at the Judy Garland Museum. Photo by Lorie Shaull via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

What’s next for John Oliver’s gallery?

While the pieces are no longer on tour, they served their purpose not only helping out five museums in need, but also shining a spotlight on the plight museums are now facing to recover from the pandemic. It is also worth noting that, on top of the donation made to the museums, Last Week Tonight made a donation to a food bank close to each of the museums, for the same amount (US$10,000).

Here’s to hoping Oliver’s weird gallery will keep on growing and go on another tour, to the delight of museums and audiences alike.

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