Capital Punishment in the United States: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver | Transcript

John Oliver explores the complex and morally fraught issue of the death penalty in America, contrasting its harsh history with the Trump administration's recent push to resume federal executions.
Capital Punishment in the United States: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 11 Episode 7
Aired on April 7, 2024

Main segment: Capital punishment in the United States via lethal injections and nitrogen hypoxia
Other segments: Stock photo libraries

John Oliver explores the complex and morally fraught issue of the death penalty in America, contrasting its harsh history with the Trump administration’s recent push to resume federal executions. Oliver shed light on the unsettling efforts to make state-sanctioned killing appear humane, revealing the shady practices involved in obtaining lethal injection drugs and the consideration of nitrogen gas as an alternative execution method. This segment pointed out the ethical dilemmas and legal complications surrounding capital punishment, arguing that regardless of the method used, the government’s act of taking a life remains inherently inhumane.
In a lighter vein, Oliver also looks into the peculiar world of stock photo libraries, showcasing their extensive and often surreal collections, from the mundane to the bizarre. This exploration highlights Ilgar Pashayev, a model whose vast range of work in stock photography served as a lighthearted example of the strange and unexpected joys found in copyright-free imagery, culminating in Pashayev’s surprise appearance on the show.

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[Cheers and applause]

John: Welcome, welcome, welcome to “Last Week Tonight!” I’m John Oliver. Thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a busy week. In Gaza, Israel killed — among others — seven aid workers, something the Biden administration expressed outrage about as they continue to send Israel more bombs. Meanwhile, Taiwan saw a major earthquake, and New Jersey saw a minor one, which nevertheless got a ton of coverage, because it was felt where the national media are based, leading to this media are based, leading to this excellent moment on CNN.

To our viewers, we are getting some incredible new video just in out of New Jersey showing the earthquake. Watch this… Well, it doesn’t seem so incredible, this video.

John: Wow, you know when you tell your friend about a funny video you saw on YouTube, then you show it to them, they don’t laugh at all, and you both sit in awkward silence? That’s what just happened on the news. But we’re going to dive right into our main story tonight, which concerns the death penalty. America’s had it for centuries — but its methods have varied considerably, as this documentary from the eighties explains in weirdly comprehensive fashion.

The methods America has used to execute its criminals have changed over the years, from burning to drawing and quartering to hanging. Criminals have been axed, crucified, buried alive, pressed with weights, stoned, impaled, starved, decapitated, and gibbetted. Gibbetting is the hanging of the condemned man by chains to rot. Death often takes weeks to occur.

John: Holy shit. A few things. First, if that list wasn’t so horrifying, the creativity would be genuinely impressive. I mean… “Pressed with weights?” You’ve gotta be pretty inventive to be brainstorming ways to kill people and think: “let’s panini them!” Second: what the fuck is “axed?” At first, I thought “beheading” but then “decapitated” is listed as its own thing. So is “axed” just someone hacking at you like they’re in one of those lumberjack competitions? Or did people just throw axes, like they’re at a bachelorette party in Brooklyn that needed an activity? And as for “gibbetting,” that’s a horrifying definition for an adorable word. “Gibbetting” sounds like what you’d call baby goats rushing to food at a petting zoo or the weird head movement that pigeons make. At its grossest, “gibbetting” should be when you have the hiccups but there’s a tiny bit of throw-up in it. Not hanging someone by chains for days until they rot to death. And let me acknowledge: we’ve talked about the death penalty before, in our second-ever show back in 2014, and again five years later — in an episode narrowly beating out “Paul Blart: mall cop 2” as the least anticipated sequel of all time. And to quickly summarize the arguments in those stories: our stance was that the death penalty is morally wrong, there’s no humane way to do it, and any discussion of one is akin to coming up with the best way to fuck your mom — which is to say, there is simply no right way to do that. But we need to talk about the death penalty a third time, because there have been some grim developments. For one thing: since our last piece aired, the U.S. has executed 91 people. And 13 of those executions were done at the federal level. Which is actually unusual, given that, for almost two decades, there had been zero. And all those 13 federal executions were under Trump, who went on an execution spree at the end of his term, including the first lame-duck federal execution in more than a century. Which shouldn’t be surprising, given his outspoken love of capital punishment, from taking out full-page ads calling for it to be applied to the Central Park Five, to constantly saying things like this.

I’ve always supported the death penalty. I don’t even understand people that don’t. Death penalty, bring it forth. I am so for the death penalty. Remember the old days? A deserter. What happened? Bang! You know the old days, boom! Firing squad. You know, in the old days, bing bong! When we were strong, when we were strong. The ultimate penalty has to be the death penalty. Now, maybe our country’s not ready for that, it’s possible, it’s possible that our country is not ready for that and I can understand it, maybe. Although personally, I can’t understand that.

John: Okay. First, genuinely shocking to hear the phrase “bring it forth” come out of his mouth. Second, how can you understand, but also can’t understand? And finally, do you think guns go “bing bong?” Why would you make that sound, when there are so many correct gun noises? “Bang,” “boom,” “pew,” “pow.” I’d even accept “blam-o!” But “bing bong?” The fuck are you talking about? I guess what I’m trying say is I can understand it, maybe, although personally, I can’t understand it. But the thing I want to focus on about those federal executions is the method used to carry them out. Because it wasn’t 100% by the book. And that probably shouldn’t be surprising coming from the trump administration, but we may have some new information for you tonight about exactly how far from the book they ended up straying. And that disregard speaks to a larger issue, which is that our federal and state governments have continued to pursue questionably legal and definitely horrifying ways to do something that, again, I’d argue they shouldn’t be doing at all. So given that, tonight, let’s check in on some of the new ways our government has found to execute people. And let’s start with the fact that — as we’ve discussed before — it can be incredibly hard for the government to find drugs to use in lethal injections the governor of South Carolina once summed up the reasons for that at a press planned lethal injection couldn’t be carried out.

The reason we don’t have the drugs, despite efforts, intense efforts, to get ’em, is because the companies that make ’em, the distributors who distribute ’em, and the pharmacists who may have to compound ’em don’t want to be identified. They are afraid that their names will be made known, and that they don’t want to have anything to do with it.

John: He’s right. He’s doing a B-minus impression of foghorn leghorn, but he is right! Drug suppliers don’t want their names associated with executions. In fact, people generally don’t like to be associated with killing their fellow citizens. It’s why your friend’s husband says he’s “in consulting” instead of “working for big tobacco,” and Becca from college says she’s a “corporate lawyer” instead of “defending the sacklers in court.” Also — and this isn’t the point, but — did these two… Coordinate their outfits? I’m gonna choose to believe that the governor called up the other guy the night before and was like, “hey babe, let’s do red tie, white shirt, and an untailored black suit from joseph a. Bank’s drab conservative collection. See ya in the morning, twinsie!” What that governor was pushing for — and ultimately got — was a shield law keeping the names of drug suppliers secret. And South Carolina isn’t alone — since 2011, fifteen states have enacted new secrecy statutes that conceal vital information about the execution process, from the names of drug suppliers to the identities of those participating. But even with that secrecy, many suppliers still refuse to provide drugs for executions, because it is bad for business. And that’s led states to source drugs from pretty sketchy suppliers. Which is a problem, because when drugs are tainted, or not formulated at the proper dosage, executions can become a protracted nightmare of suffering, which is both horrifying, and also, unconstitutional. Take Arizona. Over the years, it’s sourced drugs from places including a driving school in London and a random guy in India whose supposed “facilities” included his former apartment and a tiny and whose drugs were seized by the FDA. And Arizona has a history of not administering drugs properly — it actually paused executions for eight years, after one in 2014 was botched, taking nearly two hours as a man died gasping for air. And when executions resumed there a couple of years ago, there was a concern they’d repeat those mistakes. But the state’s ag, Mark Brnovich, didn’t seem that concerned about any of this.

At the end of the day, what these killers get with lethal injection is much better than anything they did to the victims and their families.

John: Okay. But that doesn’t really matter. Because the Constitution exists. The 8th amendment doesn’t say “no cruel and unusual punishment unless they like… Really deserve it.” Now interestingly, there’s been a big development in lethal injections, with states increasingly giving up on the method many had been using, a three-drug cocktail of an anesthetic, a paralytic, and a drug that induces cardiac arrest — a process that’s been likened to being paralyzed while fire is poured into your veins. Instead, they’ve switched over to a single, massive shot of a sedative called pentobarbital — that is the drug the trump administration used in its end-of-term killing spree. But it’s no less brutal than the other method. Because while the trump administration offered sanitized accounts of the executions it carried out, likening the process to “falling asleep,” calling the gurneys “beds” and the final breaths “snores,” witnesses reported that “prisoners’ stomachs rolled, shook, and shuddered as the pentobarbital took effect,” and in the two autopsies done after those executions, both revealed that inmates’ lungs were twice as heavy as they should be, indicating “pulmonary edema,” where fluid rushes into lungs and airways, which — if you’re not properly anesthetized — could cause pain akin to being suffocated or drowned. All of which is about as far from “peacefully falling asleep in your bed” as your kid’s dog is from “chasing cars in doggy heaven.” That person suffered, and the dog is dead and in doggy hell because he was never baptized. But even setting the brutality aside, a key question hanging over this whole thing is: where exactly did the trump administration get these drugs? Because it’s not like it’s easy to find a supplier willing to sell you pentobarbital. You can’t just pop into CVS and head over to the “state-sponsored execution drugs” aisle. Tennessee’s Department of Corrections spent years trying to find pentobarbital for its executions, and a report later exposed the lengths it was willing to go to, to find a supplier.

Emails between Tdoc and the pharmacy they work with revealed the agency was looking at importing the drug from a different country. Years earlier, Tdoc had even asked the pharmacy if they could get the drug through a veterinarian, but it didn’t work out.

You don’t get drugs that you give to animals to people. It is sort of ridiculous that we have to run around the country begging, borrowing for drugs to kill people.

John: Right, the doc shouldn’t be running around the country begging for drugs — that’s for diabetics and women who want to exercise their right to choose! This is America! And he’s right that you shouldn’t give animal drugs to people. We probably shouldn’t be ingesting anything meant for animals, aside from maybe fancy feast, because, be honest: tell me that doesn’t look good! I know it’s just a wet puddle of chicken for cats, but frankly, I’m interested. So pentobarbital is hard to find. Raising the question of, again, where the trump administration got it. But that is hard to find out, because, at every level, those who carry out executions crave secrecy. When South Carolina’s execution methods were challenged in the state supreme court, here’s the argument the state made for why some elements of their process had to remain secret.

Your honor, the minute you begin to disclose anything about the drug, you begin to give the other side puzzle pieces as to where the drug came from. So whether it’s manufactured or compounded, what’s the lot number of the drug or of the bulk materials, you begin to piece together who manufactured it, where could it have been compounded, who could have sold ’em the bulk material. And the minute you start releasing that, you make it harder for SCDC to get the drugs in the future.

John: That’s an interesting point, even if it is coming from teen Sheldon, super-lawyer. Anytime you unmask a drug supplier, that probably is going to make carrying out executions much harder. So you can see why the federal government so badly wants to keep its suppliers secret, too. And that’s why it may be slightly inconvenient for them that we’re pretty sure we’ve tracked down exactly who supplied the trump administration with its pentobarbital. It’s a company called Absolute Standards based in Hamden, Connecticut. That’s their logo on the sign outside, which is presumably supposed to be a chemical particle, even though it looks more like a mobile made out of minion testicles. Absolute standards’ business is making chemicals for calibrating machines, which is to say, not making drugs for human consumption. But we’re pretty sure they’re making execution drugs as a side hustle, and I think our case is pretty strong. And I know I’ve spent a lot of time over the past 10 years reassuring everyone that this show does comedy and not journalism, but I think we can all agree that the most important thing we do here is stir shit up. And it’s in that spirit that I want to explain how we got to this point. Because one of our researchers has been covering the death penalty for years, long before he worked for us. And he found that absolute standards had registered with the DEA to produce pentobarbital in August of 2018 — and, as it happens, when the Bureau of Prisons was asked when it entered into a contract with a new pentobarbital supplier, they said, “it would have been roughly august of 2018” — so the timeline matches up. And I will say, we’re not the first to suspect this company. Reuters asked similar questions a few years ago, and the lab’s director initially said his company “had no involvement with the government’s execution drugs,” only to later say he could not rule it out, because “in many parts of our market, we don’t know what the final intended use is going to be.” Which isn’t that reassuring. It’s one thing if you’re a peanut farmer and you don’t know if your nuts are gonna be used in trail mix or as the nipples on a snowman. Everyone knows you use coal for the eyes, a carrot for the nose, and peanuts for the nipples. I don’t make the rules, I just follow them. But for a manufacturer of drugs that kill people, you should probably know where your products are going. But we still weren’t entirely sure, so we filed a Freedom of Information Act request, or “FOIA,” with the DEA back in 2020, asking for any records they had on absolute standards, and while we were waiting for them to send us over the documents, the agency’s liaison slipped up twice over the phone and told us that the reason the request was taking so long was because the documents were “related to the death penalty” — which is what’s known in the government world as “a big ol’ whoopsie.” And, honestly. 5 Out of 5 on the post-call survey. This employee certainly helped me solve my problem. And on top of all this, a confidential source our researcher trusts has now confirmed that Absolute Standards is the company who made the drugs. So… It’s them. It’s absolute standards. Honestly, at this point, they might as well just update their real slogan of “we have the solutions” to “we have the solutions that were secretly used in a bunch of government executions!” It even rhymes! You can have that slogan for free, you monsters! And look, maybe Absolute Standards is proud to be producing the drugs that enabled our government to effectively drown at least 13 people while they were strapped to a table. I don’t know. We’ve reached out to them repeatedly for comment on this story, and they’ve ignored us. Which is an odd thing to do when someone’s accusing you of making execution drugs. But even if they are happy to keep doing this, it’s not clear whether they should be able to. Because under the law, companies that make drugs need to be registered with the FDA. And the trump administration claimed, before the executions, that its supplier was “properly registered.” But remember, absolute standards doesn’t make drugs for human consumption. So we filed another FOIA request with the fda, asking for records they had related to absolute standards, and they responded by saying they were “unable to locate any records responsive to your request,” and “the firm has not been inspected by the fda.” Which is basically government jargon for “who the fuck is absolute standards and what on earth are you asking us about?” So absolute standards aren’t just making execution drugs, I’d argue, they’re doing so illegally. And it turns out, it’s not just the federal government that’s been buying drugs from them. Because when the trump administration restarted federal executions, Arizona’s AG, Mark Brnovich, asked them for help, and his state wound up spending an incredible $1.5 million of taxpayer money to have 1,000 vials of pentobarbital delivered… In “unmarked jars and boxes.” The official packaging of “things you shouldn’t be shipping.” And I get wanting secrecy, but you’ve gotta put “something” on those jars to warn people they might be dangerous. At least slap on a sticker like a bunny with crossed-out eyes or a weirdly buff Michael Cera. Something that makes you go, “I don’t trust what’s in this thing.” And our source told us that the supplier in that instance was, again, absolute standards. Which, for all we know, could well still be selling those drugs to any state that wants them. And if those unmarked jars did come from a company without FDA approval, which they did, it sort of calls into question a promise that Brnovich made the last time his state was caught buying drugs from questionable sources, eight years and one beard ago.

All I can assure you is that as long as I’m attorney general, we will follow all state and federal regulations and all state and federal laws when it comes to obtaining and using the drugs in the executions here in Arizona.

John: Yeah, but it turns out, maybe not. And as long as he was making promises he wasn’t going to keep, he might as well have added: I can also assure you that I will never grow a beard that makes me look like Ted Cruz’s less hot cousin.” Now, Brnovich maintains Arizona didn’t have to follow drug laws, because the DOJ issued a legal opinion that the FDA has no jurisdiction over drugs intended for use in lawful executions. And it is true that, during the Trump administration, under Bill Barr, the DOJ did write that opinion. And that memo prohibits the FDA from taking action against a company making unregulated drugs for executions. But the federal appeals court in D.C. has repeatedly ruled, both before and after that memo was written, that drug laws still apply when they’re used for lethal injections. Meaning they essentially found the central argument of Barr’s memo to be horseshit. Which makes sense, because think about what Brnovich and Barr are arguing. They’re saying that a company that wouldn’t be qualified to make drugs to euthanize animals is perfectly qualified to make drugs to kill human beings. It’s a pretty embarrassing argument for a state ag to even try to make. Although I will say — it’s not the most embarrassing thing he’s ever done, considering he’s also a self-described nunchuck enthusiast who once did this.

It’s Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich. We’ve gotten a lot of calls, a lot of emails. But there’s one thing people definitely want to see. They want to see more chucks. So people, you want more chucks? You got more chucks! [Laughter] [applause]

John: Cool. Though, just to be clear: at no point did I say I wanted more chucks. And I’ve never hoped so hard that someone was about to accidentally chuck themselves in the dick. Now, thankfully, Arizona’s current governor has paused executions there, pending a review of the transparency, accountability, and safety of the execution process. And let me just say, governor: I have some notes on where you might want to begin asking questions! It’s right here on Google Maps. If you hit the cheese manufacturer, you’ve gone too far. Also, if you work at absolute standards, you’ve gone too far, but that’s a different issue. But the truth is, even if we shut down the use of pentobarbital, it won’t stop executions in this country. Because elected leaders seem hellbent on getting it done. In South Carolina, where you saw the governor bemoaning their difficulty in sourcing execution drugs, his outfit doppelganger, the head of their prison system, at one point noted that they could just fall back on the electric chair instead. And just watch as a local interviewer starts spitballing other alternatives for him as well.

If lethal injection is not available, then it defaults to the electric chair.

And why not? Like, I mean, it’s — it’s — even fentanyl, I mean, that stuff’s just been — been such a horrible drug for so many people and it obviously is very widely available but even something like that you couldn’t get?

No one would sell it to us. We — any time we have a conversation with people about trying to find it, trying to compound it, people just say, “well, I’m not gonna give it to you for that.”

Can you guys take it from evidence over at one of these county sheriff’s office? Would that require an act of law?

There — there’d be a — there’d be a constitutional claim there and that’s just too dan — you can’t do that.

John: What are you doing? Honestly, a part of me wishes he’d just kept throwing out ideas to kill people: okay, so if we can’t get fentanyl, could we sprinkle prisoners with anthrax? What about throwing a bunch of poisonous toads at them? What if we dropped them into the hippo pool at the zoo and just let the hippos take care of it? Or, y’know what? What about gibbeting?” I hear that’s really good. But the solution some states are increasingly looking at involves suffocating prisoners to death using nitrogen gas. Something, like most execution procedures, that wasn’t developed by medical professionals, but originated with a bunch of amateur death enthusiasts, first finding its way into u.s. Law a few years back, after this Oklahoma state legislator “watched a BBC documentary called “How to kill a human being” in which a retired member of British parliament sampled various execution protocols” before “deciding that nitrogen was the perfect killing device.” And look, there are lots of tv programs you can learn from — “bill nye the science guy” can teach you about science, “the kitchen” can teach you about cooking, and “property brothers” can teach you how to renovate a house with your twin brother who you’ve definitely fucked. But lawmakers shouldn’t be learning how to perform executions from one. That legislator then called in this guy, a high school friend and criminal justice professor, who put together a presentation for the legislature, in which he tried to prove the method was painless, by — for some reason — playing YouTube videos of kids passing out from breathing helium.

So, this is a teenager that is breathing helium to make their voice sound funny. But they’re not really thinking of it, when they’re breathing helium, they’re not breathing oxygen. And so, she’s trying to get as big a breath as she can, and in a second, she becomes hypoxic. So, then they get back up and they’re giggling and laughing.

John: Now, obviously, there’s a lot wrong with that. For starters, they’re “voluntarily” depriving themselves of oxygen, not trying to resist, which is what’d likely happen during an execution. So you can’t really compare the two scenarios. But since Oklahoma lawmakers seem to respond well to videos of people on helium, allow me to address them directly to deliver an important message about that criminal justice professor… Here it goes. Fuck that guy, and his fucking youtube videos! Stop listening to a man who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, you idiots! [Laughter and cheering] and I’ll point out, both that expert and the legislator who brought him in, lacked what you’d think would be a pretty relevant bit of experience.

Have you ever personally seen an execution?


No. I’m wondering, have you ever been to an execution?

Never have, and never — I don’t wish to.

Why is that?

I just — it’s not my — probably — it’s probably something I probably should, but I have no wish or desire to — to witness — witness one.

John: No? A really? Why not, Mike? Because killing another human being is an act of brutality that’s harrowing to witness? Because being present might impress on you the hideous gravity of the power you’ve given yourself? Or were you just like… Super busy on the day they were doing it? And look, if they’d consulted an actual expert, they might’ve learned that even animal welfare guidelines no longer allow pets to be put down with nitrogen gas because dogs were observed “yelping, gasping, and convulsing.” Nevertheless, legislators in Oklahoma voted to allow nitrogen gas executions. Apparently, during the debate over it, there were a few holdouts — but only because they didn’t want the inmate to feel good while dying, they wanted pain. And since Oklahoma’s decision, multiple other states have passed similar laws. And earlier this year, Alabama performed the very first nitrogen gas execution. Which was, by all accounts, absolutely horrific. One witness described the man who died as “someone struggling for their life.” And another, who’d seen five executions, said it was “definitely the most violent execution that I’ve ever witnessed.” All of which makes it pretty galling that afterward, the state’s AG took this victory lap, while thanking his whole execution team.

Everyone in this room knows they are the first team in the country to carry out nitrogen execution, and what occurred last night was textbook. They deserve a great deal of thanks and credit for being willing to be the one to step up, first in the country to do so, and I now suspect that many states will follow. As of last night, nitrogen hypoxia as a means of execution is no longer an untested method, it is a proven one.

John: Yeah, he called it a textbook execution. Which I’d call “textbook bullshit.” And by the way, Alabama — do you ever get tired of being trailblazers in all the worst ways? Your state history is just brave Alabama citizens protesting, as your leaders are the last to do something good, or the first to do something terrible. And look, it seems America’s going to keep innovating ways to kill people, and drawing a veil around it to protect anyone involved. But on some level, all this secrecy is also meant to protect us — the people in whose name it’s done — from confronting the horror of what the death penalty truly is. Because whether it’s nitrogen gas or an IV injection of drugs or a firing squad or an electric chair or being “pressed with weights,” it’s all brutal. And to their credit, some lawmakers will admit this. When Idaho was debating whether it should have a shield law for suppliers of its death penalty drugs, one state senator summed it all up pretty well.

There’s a fundamental contradiction at work here. Lethal injection, I believe, is sold to the public as humane. And yet, the secrecy that becomes necessary in order to actually get and use the drugs mandates that the public like — public can’t independently confirm that it is, in fact, humane. And there is a great deal of evidence to indicate that, in at least some cases, it is not. I think lethal injection is a lie. It is as if we are selling the idea that this is just putting your pet to sleep, that’s not what it is. And then in order to perpetuate that lie, we have to lie and lie and lie and lie and lie again. This is a terrible position to put our public servants in. It’s a terrible position to put the state of Idaho in. It’s wrong, it’s unfair, it needs to stop.

John: He’s right. It is, and it does. And lying is one of the first things we teach our children not to do. Then we tell them they’ll be punished by the tooth fairy and/or Santa Claus, but that’s trauma they can work out later. The fact is, no matter how executions are performed, they’ll never be humane. No matter how many times you call them “textbook,” or claim it’s “much better than anything they did to the victims” or show people viral videos of dizzy tweens on helium, it’s never going to be okay. And we’re kidding ourselves if we think taking someone’s life actually lowers the number of killers in the world. It literally, definitionally, creates more. And I know this is usually the point where I say “so, what can we do?” But the answer is so clearly: just stop doing it!” The fact is, around the country, there are still over 2,300 people on death row. And I know, in some cases, they’re in states where no one in a position of power will put a stop to their execution. But when it comes to federal prisoners, Biden could, before leaving office, commute all 42 death sentences to life in prison. That way, even if Trump is reelected, he can’t pick the bing-bong bloodbath up right where he left off. But beyond commuting sentences, Biden’s administration could do much more. It could investigate the legality of the federal government’s drug purchases from absolute standards and rescind that bullshit DOJ memo that tries to exempt execution drugs from regulation. It could also force states to surrender the pentobarbital they’ve acquired from an unregulated source. As for state legislatures, I’d argue they should be eliminating secrecy statutes, not passing more of them. Because if the government is going to give itself the power to execute its own citizens — which, for the final time, I strongly believe that it should not — then I want to see where the drugs come from, who’s making them, and relentless scrutiny of every part of this process. Because all this is being done in our name, and far too often, in secret. And we should get a voice to express how we feel about that. Specifically, this voice: stop fucking killing people. You fucking assholes.


John: Moving on. Finally tonight, we wanted to talk about stock photo libraries — massive repositories of images you can license on almost every concept you might need, from the incredibly generic, like this family photo, to the incredibly specific, like this image of underwear filled with spaghetti that someone, somewhere apparently needed. Stock photo libraries are your one-stop shop when you need photos like this one, of employees happier than anyone’s employees have ever been. That photo, by the way, is captioned “happy diverse business team celebrating success and having fun all together. Group of cheerful ecstatic people standing in circle in modern office high-five each other and shout yes we did it, hooray.” Stock photos provide an income stream not just for photographers, but also for actors starting out. Here’s pre-fame John Boyega in a stock photo playing a student, and here’s Simu Liu in a series of them — pointing at a laptop, looking at the camera during a group project, and exercising in a totally normal, not-at-all-unhinged way. And the great thing about stock photos is that there’s one for almost everything you can imagine. You need a samurai? There you go. You need a samurai… On a Zoom call? They’ve got that covered, too. Now, on this show, we use our own staff for graphics a lot of the time. That dead-eyed parent at her kid’s swim lesson? That’s Megan, one of our producers. This guy fucking a cheesecake? That’s Jeremy, our script supervisor. He’s been in a lot, by the way, and you will see him again. And whenever there’s someone shitting on something, that’s our editor, Ryan. But if the graphic calls for a very old man or a sumo wrestler or a healthy-looking John Oliver type, we simply don’t have one of those in-house. That’s when we turn to stock photos. And while we appreciate all the photographers and models we’ve used over the years, we’ve also developed a particular fondness for one man. This guy, Ilgar Pashayev. This man has the “it” factor, which in stock modeling terms, means a willingness to do anything he’s asked to, whether it’s wearing big pants, wearing a space helmet at a desk for no clear reason, or getting into a swordfight with death at a woman’s bedside. We first encountered Ilgar while looking for an image to help us convey “grampa dies while watching Fox News.” That was a first draft, and we didn’t actually use it on the show. Instead, we went with this version, because the grampa just seemed deader in every meaningful way. But the person who’d found the photo of Ilgar noticed there were other photos of him linked from that same page, and when they clicked through to see more, were amazed at what they found. Because it turns out, Ilgar has been in a lot of photos. I mean, a lot, a lot. He’s currently featured in over 250 pages on the website Shutterstock, which doesn’t sound like much, until you realize that each page contains 100 photos. So that’s more than 25,000 photos of this one man, demonstrating a Meryl Streep level of range. He’s been a baker, a judge, a doctor, an unclear but seems like something in finance, a carpenter, a dentist feeding a baseball bat to teeth, don’t overthink it, and the image that will now forever come to mind whenever I picture the concept of “business.” Basically, whatever you need, ilgar’s got you covered, whether it’s watching VR, or doing yoga with his friends. And by the way, eat your heart out, Simu Liu, that’s how it’s done. But when you’re in, again, 25,000 photos, you’re going to repeat a few setups, and some pronounced themes emerge. Like ilgar pointing guns at things, or being inexplicably angry with paperwork. But maybe the weirdest subgenre is what I like to call “Ilgar’s bones period.” Because the man loves posing with bones. Taking selfies with bones. Arguing about money with bones, sharing coffee with bones, growing tired of bones’s shit before ultimately saying “hey, there’s the door, bones.” There’s this photo where Ilgar appears suspicious of his coworker bones, or this one, where he’s a doctor reminding the viewer that skeletons don’t have penises, a fact it seems this skeleton would’ve preferred left unsaid. Ilgar loves bones possibly a little too much. And not just human bones, he loves dog bones, cat bones, cute little mice bones, upside down bat and bird bones. I’m just saying, if you wanted a single photo to communicate the idea “you just walked in on someone who finished doing something weird with bones and is now trying to assure you ‘it’s not what it looks like'” this is the image I’d use. I love this man, despite knowing almost nothing about him, apart from the fact that when a photographer asks him if he can do literally any task, his answer will either be “fuck yes” or, if he’s asked to pose as someone who is definitely familiar with American football, “fuck kinda.” And he’ll do it even if the prompt seems like it was clearly the result of something getting lost in translation, like “mischievous old man makes phones fight featuring Christ vibes.” Incidentally, when we discovered that one, the caption on it read “almost never licensed, high potential.” “Be the trendsetter, make this untapped asset yours.” Like it’s an undiscovered oil well, and not a drunk dad at a wedding photo booth who got real weird with the props. And at this point, you might be wondering why I’m even talking about stock photos, let alone, this one guy. To which I say: hey, shut up. This is one of those stories where we, forgive the term, chill the fuck out a bit. We’re not doing charts and graphs and pull quotes over my shoulder. In fact, here’s the only chart I’ll show you in this piece. If 90% of our episodes are “sad daddy honks some numbers at you,” the rest is “wasting your one precious life on meaningless bullshit.” And good news: we are comfortably in the latter zone now. We’re burning through time like death isn’t real. And if you’re wondering where all this is going, it’s that we became obsessed with this guy. So much so that, even though there’s clearly an absolute mountain of photos that exist of him, there’s one I realized I wanted more than any other. And that’s of me, shaking hands with Ilgar himself. And I know, we could technically photoshop that up. But that doesn’t feel the same. I know it’s fraudulent. So we set out to track him down. And that’s why, ladies and gentlemen, I want to reveal: ilgar, the man from the stock photo!

[Cheers and applause]

Is not coming out. Here, let me explain. Turns out, he’s not an easy man to find. Ilgar has almost no digital footprint — aside from, famously, 25,000 photographs. We did, though, manage to track down the photographer who took the photos, a man named Elnur Amikishiyev, who lives in Azerbaijan. He told us Ilgar lives there, too. But when we asked him to put us in touch with Ilgar, he was hesitant to do so without more information. Then we lost email contact with him. So we were at a dead end. Until a few months ago, when we found the photographer on WhatsApp, got in touch again, and he told us that he was now willing to help us. But it turns out, bringing someone here from Azerbaijan is very difficult — it involves meetings at the American embassy there, applications for visas, interviews… It’s a lengthy process. And the reason I know that, is because we got to the end of that process this week. And you know when I said Ilgar wasn’t coming out from over there? That was technically true. But that’s only because he’s coming out from over here instead! [Cheers and applause] because we found him! We found him! Ilgar Pashayev, everybody! Ilgar Pashayev! Ilgar, thank you so much for being here. We’re such huge fans of your work.

Ilgar: Thank you.

John: Okay, would it be okay if we took a photo together?

Ilgar: Of course.

John: Now, obviously, the setting where you’ve done your best work is a doctors’ office, so — I’m gonna need a white coat for Ilgar and a selection of weird bones. I can’t believe I’m doing this, dreams really do come true! Are you ready, Ilgar? I’m ready. Let’s do this!

[Cheers and applause]

♪ ♪

We did it! Ilgar Pashayev, everyone! That is our show, thank you so much for watching! We’ll see you next week. Good night! Ilgar Pashayev!

[Cheers and applause]

[camera shutter]

♪ ♪


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