Modi: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver | Transcript

John Oliver discusses the ongoing elections in India, Trump’s guilty verdict, and the decline of Red Lobster.
Modi: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 11 Episode 13
Aired on June 2, 2024

Main segment: 2024 Indian general election and Premiership of Narendra Modi
Other segment: Trump hush money trial verdict, Bankruptcy of Red Lobster

John Oliver discusses the ongoing elections in India, Trump’s guilty verdict, and the decline of Red Lobster.

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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 has been a busy week. Israel continued its assault on Rafah, even as Biden unveiled Israel’s new peace plan that–fun fact–the Israeli government apparently hasn’t agreed to yet. A New York businessman [Donald Trump] got into some legal trouble, which was undeniably fun to watch unfold live.

We have our verdict, Savannah. Here we go: Count 1, guilty. Count 2, guilty. Count 3, guilty. Count 4, guilty. Count 5, guilty. Count 6, guilty. Count 7, guilty. Count 8, guilty. Count 9, guilty. Count 10, guilty. Count 11, guilty. Count 12, guilty. Count 13, guilty. Count 14, guilty. Count 15, guilty. Count 16, guilty. Count 17, guilty. Count 18, guilty. Count 19, guilty. Count 20, guilty. Count 21, guilty. Count 22, guilty. Count 23…guilty.

[Cheers and applause]

John: She did that for all 34 different counts. And it is so satisfying to watch, I’d be surprised if someone hadn’t uploaded it to Pornhub by now. Anyway, that will be so fun to remember five months from now, when we’re watching that exact anchor count the 270 electoral votes that Trump’s won, because nothing matters and we live in a broken world. And look, there might be more to say about this after the sentencing, but for now, we’re going to dive straight into our main story tonight, which concerns India. The last country in the world that wants to be discussed by someone with this accent. Which is why I’ll be doing the rest of tonight’s show in-a dis-a one! Everybody love-a-da Giovanni Oliver show! Mamma Mia, Bucca de Beppo, everybody love–[speaks in normal voice] Yep, yep, that’s fair, I didn’t love where that was heading.

India is in the middle of an election right now, and I do mean in the middle, because voting started several weeks ago and only just ended, with results expected Tuesday. And it’s a long process for a reason. India is the largest country in the world by population–with over 1.4 billion people, the equivalent of roughly four United States, six Brazils, nine Russias, 34 Canadas, or 1.4 billion Kevins. It is a lot of people. And the sheer mechanics of setting up an election that size are mind-blowing.

By law, every voter must be within two kilometers or a little more than a mile of a polling station. To set them up, officials trek over rough and mountainous terrain and across rivers.

Taking boats, choppers, even horses, trekking through mountains deep in the Himalayas and through lion-infested jungles. Sometimes a team travels 70 kilometers to set up a booth for just one person.

John: That is incredible. And just imagine if workers dragged a polling place through mountains and rivers just for you, and then you forgot to vote. “Oh, was that today? I’m sorry, it slipped my mind. Thanks so much for getting through that lion-infested jungle for me, though. I’ll definitely try and remember next time!”

Results for India’s election will be announced on June 4, and while we don’t yet know who’s going to win, we actually kind of do, because it’s gonna be Narendra Modi, who’s overwhelmingly favored to win a third term. In fact, most experts agree the only real question mark is, “How much will he and his party, the BJP, win by?” One polling organization found he has an approval rating of 74%, more than any world leader they track. And for some Indians, part of Modi’s appeal is the sense that under his leadership, the country’s been on the rise, enjoying increased prominence on the world stage–from Biden hosting Modi for a state visit last year, to the Australian Prime Minister introducing him at a packed arena in Sydney with this memorable line:

“The last time I saw someone on this stage here was Bruce Springsteen, and he didn’t get the welcome the Prime Minister Modi has got.” [Cheers and applause] “Prime Minister Modi is the boss.”

John: Okay, that is some weapons-grade ass-kissing and also a pretty strange way of transferring titles. “Bruce Springsteen didn’t get this reaction, so you’re the boss now. You also got a bigger reaction than Madonna, Luxembourg’s Henri Guillaume, and Lizzo, so by the transitive property, you are now Queen of Pop, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, and 100% that bitch.”

Yet, despite Modi’s popularity, there are some major causes for concern. If you’re thinking, “Haven’t you talked about this before?” you’re half-right. We’ve actually covered Modi twice before: once four years ago and once for our very first episode, which was–based on this photo–200 years ago. And those episodes actually stand up pretty well. In fact, I asked my staff to pick a clip they feel is representative, and they tell me they’ve found the perfect one, so go ahead and roll it!

John: Hitler is the one who stepped up and got it done, and for that, I say, “Way to go, Hitler.”

John: Whoa, whoa, hold on. That needs a lot more context around it. Fuck you for choosing that. Explained in those episodes is that Modi’s party, the BJP, has a long history of espousing Hindu nationalism—essentially, rejecting India’s history as a pluralistic nation and trying to push it toward becoming an explicitly Hindu one. It’s long been affiliated with a paramilitary group called the RSS, whose early leaders admired Hitler–and that, for the record, was the context for that joke. It was a pretty good Hitler joke, so good, in fact, I’m guessing, even Hitler would say, “Way to go, John!” And please do not take that image out of context as well.

We also talked about how, over the course of Modi’s rise, he’d chosen to be “strategically quiet” about his pseudo-authoritarian, pro-Hindu vision of India. But there’s been a noticeable shift in his rhetoric during this election season, because his speeches have started to contain overt anti-Muslim statements like this one, in which he claims that, if elected, his rival political party will hand over the country’s wealth to Muslims.

“The earlier government said the Muslims will have the right over the resources of the country. What does this mean? This means they will gather all the wealth and give it to the people who have more children. They will distribute it among the infiltrators. Do you think your hard-earned money should be distributed to the infiltrators? Do you accept that?”

John: That is Modi referring to India’s Muslim citizens as “infiltrators”–and that’s not the only troubling sign. The BJP’s produced incendiary videos like this one, showing a bird labeled Muslim being planted in a nest and then consuming all the funding while the other birds get nothing. And look, that’s already ugly enough. But it’s also coming at a time when Modi and his party have seemed increasingly comfortable threatening democratic institutions by, among other things, stifling political opposition and freedom of the press. In fact, on multiple fronts, India seems to be sliding toward authoritarianism. So given that, tonight, let’s check in on Narendra Modi, what he’s been doing in office and what he might do next.

And let’s start with why it seems so likely he’s going to be reelected. Some of his popularity comes from the very real advances India’s made under his leadership, especially when it comes to infrastructure. He initially campaigned on issues like expanding access to sanitation and water facilities and has invested billions in a nationwide upgrade of the country’s roads, railways, airports, and seaports. On top of that, there’ve been programs to alleviate poverty, for which some citizens thank him personally.

“Sixty percent of the population benefits from Modi’s food distribution scheme, which he has pledged to renew for another five years. Every month, they give me five kilos of rice and flour. If Modi is no longer the head of the country, I don’t think we’ll get any help. And that scares me to death. We want Modi in power, not anyone else.”

John: Yeah, you can see why people might love him for that, especially since the grain literally arrives in a bag with his face on it. Which feels a little egotistical. It’d be like if Lyndon Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act of 1964, but insisted that food stamps be rebranded as “Lyndon’s Lucky Yum-Yum Vouchers.” It’s still a good program, but I dunno, man, maybe turn it down a notch.

And that’s not the only way that Modi tried to take credit for progress on his watch. Up until the election began, some train stations had Modi selfie booths, where you could take a picture with him and symbols of his achievements: from India’s space program to a giant tap representing water connections to a huge bottle of COVID vaccine. It was his not-so-subtle way of making sure you associate his face with all of India’s wins, kind of like how Trump makes sure his name is on all of his products and Elon Musk modeled all of his Cybertrucks on his weird penis. I’m not body-shaming. I’m just saying, his penis does look like that–including the wheels–and that’s what he wants you to think about the next time you see one slowly rolling into a tree whenever it rains.

Although, I will say, sometimes Modi’s tendency to take credit for things can be a bit of a stretch.

In this promotional video, it’s even suggested that he halted the war in Ukraine to ensure the safe return of his citizens.

Modi brought us home. He stopped the war, Dad.

John: Wait, he stopped the war? Are you completely sure about that? I feel like I’d remember if Modi had somehow hit pause on the war in Ukraine like it’s a “Call of Duty” game and his mom just called him for dinner.

Now a key thing Modi likes to brag about is his economic record. On his watch, India has grown to become the world’s fifth-largest economy. It’s almost twice as big as it was, and its stock market has grown threefold since he took office. But those numbers only tell part of the story. For one thing, the economy was already improving before Modi took over, so he inherited an upward trajectory. And for another, the precise measures of growth that his government cites have been called into question, with even Modi’s former economic aides finding the recent growth rates of 8% announced by the government “mystifying.” Similarly, while he claims he’s lifted millions out of poverty, as this economist points out, that comes with a massive asterisk.

Economist: So what the government has done is that it’s changed how it is going to define poverty. It’s using one multidimensional poverty measure, which is, shall we say, problematic, and which is designed to suggest that less and less people are poor. We have a very, very large number of poor, and all kinds of data are telling us that not only do we still have a very large number of income-poor, but other kinds of poverty, like food poverty, may well be increasing.

John: Right, anyone can get rid of “all” poverty if you just change the definition of “poor people” to something else, like, I dunno, “fire hydrants” or “opposite snakes.” And if you’re thinking, “Wait: so, there’s been substantial growth and increasing poverty at the same time?” The reason is—actually, hang on, I can feel you’re getting hung up on something. Opposite snakes are just arms and legs, no face or tail. Basically, four legs with fingers on the end and a butt in the middle, covered with hair. Now, if you’re wondering how growth and poverty can coexist—they live in the jungle. That’s where opposite snakes live. Just to get ahead of any habitat questions. Okay?

If you’re thinking that growth and–sorry. Viewers at home probably can’t tell, but it has got a bit tense in here. So quickly, I’ll address as many questions as I can: How do opposite snakes eat? Through a vertical slit on the underside. What are its known predators? Um, badgers, mongeese, any of those gorillas they taught sign language to, bees, man, and dolphins. Like regular snakes, opposite snakes come from eggs but their eggs are violent. They live for 85 years, they have tongue tails, the proper collective noun is “a nightmare.” “A nightmare of opposite snakes is hounding that capybara.” Their meat is inedible, their skin’s toxic, and their bones are haunted. If you have any other questions about opposite snakes, you can just go to to learn more.

Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh, that’s right. If you’re wondering how there’s been both substantial growth and increasing poverty, that is because India’s economic gains have been widely unequal. By some estimates, just one million people now control around 80% of India’s wealth. And as they’ve gotten richer, much of the country has gotten poorer. Even with all those bags of grain with his face on them, under Modi, the country has fallen in the Global Hunger Index, and now sits below North Korea and war-torn Sudan. And you would think that all this would be fertile ground for Modi’s critics to exploit. But it’s actually hard to do that in India.

For one thing, it’s difficult to confront him to his face, because he hasn’t held a single press conference in India in the last ten years. And the interviews that he’s granted have been the exact opposite of hard-hitting.

Interviewer: Do you carry a purse on you? A wallet to hold your cash?

Do you have a best friend? Best friend forever, with whom you share matters of the heart?

At this age, how do you bring so much energy?

Does our prime minister eat mangoes? Does he cut it first or eat it with the stone still in?

John: Okay, most of those questions are embarrassing softballs, but “How do you eat a mango?” is a valid thing to ask. Mangoes are notoriously hard to peel and eat. They’re basically fruit juice grenades covered in rhino skin. And it’s not just me who thinks that. There are endless Reddit posts about the subject, including “How the hell do you eat a mango?” “How the fuck do you eat a mango?” “Mango eaters of Reddit, what is your go-to plan of attack?” and my personal favorite, “How does one eat a mango without making a huge mess? With a spoon? With a knife? It’s like that fruit was designed by napkin manufacturers.” Which received the pitch-perfect response: “You do not. You accept that the mango is a delicious mess and prepare for it beforehand. Do not make the mango prepare for you. You may need a bib and moist towelettes for the process, but this is simply the way it must be.” Which is excellent. Because it’s true, there is no way to eat a mango with dignity. Ergo, embrace the sloppy chaos of the mango.

But it is not just fawning interviews. What criticism there is of Modi often gets suppressed in India, sometimes in a pretty heavy-handed way.

Publications that have done stories critical of India’s leadership, like the BBC, recently saw their offices raided on charges of tax evasion or money laundering. One of the country’s most popular news channels that reported critically on the government, NDTV, had its founders raided for bank fraud.

John: It’s true. Not only were the founders of NDTV raided, but a few years later, a billionaire with close ties to Modi bought it, and its tone is now much friendlier to him. Basically, if you criticize Modi, there’s a pretty good chance things are going to get very unpleasant for you. And given that we’re here in America, I’m honestly not too worried about Modi’s goons coming after me. But on the off chance their reach does extend this far, you know what? Fucking try it. You want to try and shut us down for being critical? I dare you. Do you have any idea who I am? I’m Bill fucking Maher, and my show has been on for–holy shit–over 20 years now, and if you want to take us down, take your best shot. I, Bill Maher, would welcome it.

It is no wonder that India’s currently ranked 159th out of 180 countries for press freedom. That is 19 places lower than when Modi first came to power. But it’s not just national media. Local outlets have been targeted, too.

This network in Kerala was suddenly taken off air by the government in 2020, for reasons explicitly linked to its content.

The shutdown was triggered by the channel’s reporting on anti-Muslim riots in Delhi in February 2020. According to the notice from the Information Ministry, Media One’s coverage was biased and critical of the role of the Delhi police and of a Hindu nationalist outfit, the RSS. The ban was soon reversed, the channel back on air. But the signal was clear: fall in line or else.

John: Yeah, that’s not good. Because that crackdown creates a clear chilling effect where media outlets may well be intimidated out of criticizing Modi. That could actually help explain why Hotstar, the platform we were on in 2020, mysteriously chose to block our episode criticizing Modi. And look, there are plenty of reasons to not watch this show. Depressing subject matter, too much profanity, and the very fact the frantic pace of my talking voice causes dogs to–and this is a medical term–“go nuts.” Also, the show seems biased, it’s too long, “I prefer Jimmy Fallon, Kimmel, Colbert, Seth, or James Corden.” Hi, Mom, by the way. Whatever your reason, at least it’s your choice–not someone else’s–to not watch.

What I’m saying is, meaningful criticism of Modi is scarce on TV in India. In fact, many veteran anchors who were critical of him have migrated to sites like YouTube instead, but the government may soon be able to heavily regulate digital media, too. It’s pushing a law which could mean that anyone making social commentary online would have to adhere to advertising and program codes prescribed by the government. Meanwhile, an amendment is working its way through the courts, which would establish a fact-check unit, allowing the government to identify “fake news” about itself and order it to be taken down. And I actually have a lead for that fact-check unit: check out the batshit claim that Modi stopped the war in Ukraine. Because there’s a weird video going around that you should probably get taken down.

And it’s not just the press who’ve found it hard to take on Modi. The same goes for his political opposition. He’s currently facing off against a coalition called the “Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance”—or “INDIA” for short—a monumentally weak name for a coalition. The first “I” in “INDIA” stands for “Indian.” It’d be like if the “H” in “HBO” stood for “HBO.” Which it obviously doesn’t. It stands for “Hank.” “Hank’s Box Office.” The INDIA coalition is led by the Congress Party, the face of which is Rahul Gandhi. And while his party never stood a realistic chance of challenging Modi, even so, its campaign has been significantly hampered by the fact that, just weeks before this year’s election began, tax agencies moved to freeze their bank accounts. And on the same day that was announced, the head of one of India’s other opposition parties was arrested. And look, those could be just more lucky, complete coincidences for Modi. Except for the fact that, over the years, multiple politicians who’ve opposed the BJP have found themselves facing charges of fraud or financial malfeasance, only for those charges to suddenly stall or be dropped when they switch parties and join the BJP instead. There’s even a term for it: “the washing machine,” where supposedly dirty politicians come out clean once they switch sides. And it is a completely open secret there.

One opposition politician who joined the BJP in 2022 let the cat out of the bag when he said he sleeps easier now that he’s a member of the ruling party.

Politician: I also had to switch to the BJP. Now I am stress and tension-free. All is good. No official inquiries, no investigation, and I can sleep peacefully. I am tension-free.

John: Wow, it is so universally understood, everyone in the audience laughed. And laughed so hard, honestly, I’m a little bit jealous. It kind of makes me wonder if I should have spent our last show admitting to political corruption instead of—what were we talking about–corn? I did 25 minutes on fucking corn? And people watched it? What exactly is this show?

But in general, and to put it mildly, it seems good to be on Modi’s good side, and very, very bad to be on his bad side. And that brings us back to his attacks on Muslims. As I mentioned earlier, he and his party are adherents to Hindu nationalism, or “Hindutva.” It used to be a fringe ideology but is now mainstream, and it’s been said “nobody has done more to advance this cause than Prime Minister Narendra Modi.” And Muslims, as India’s largest religious minority, have borne the brunt of this.

Earlier this year, Modi famously opened an over $200 million Hindu temple, showing up personally to help consecrate it. Which might seem benign, until you learn that temple was built on the former site of this mosque that was demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992, in an incident that set off riots reportedly killing over 2,000 people, most of them Muslim. So it’s a site of tremendous pain for Indian Muslims, and the symbolism of opening a temple on that exact spot has been called “the crowning achievement of a national movement aimed at establishing Hindu supremacy in India.”

But the damage here isn’t just symbolic. In the climate that Modi’s stoked, Muslims have been lynched by Hindu mobs over allegations of eating beef or smuggling cows, an animal considered holy to Hindus. And then there’s been this.

Reporter: Muslim-owned buildings are literally being bulldozed in what the government calls a crackdown on illegal construction and accused criminals. A brand of bulldozer justice all too common in India.

John: That is awful. And it’s happening so much now, “bulldozer justice” has become a commonly used term. In fact, the bulldozer itself has become a Hindu-nationalist symbol, and it’s been featured during election victories and in political rallies. This hardline BJP leader has even earned the nickname “Bulldozer Baba,” and there’s now a whole new genre of Hindu-nationalist pop songs, or H-pop as it’s also known, with bulldozers appearing front and center, including this one, which–if you knew nothing else about it–would sound pretty good.

♪ Baba bulldozer has won! ♪
♪ Baba bulldozer has won! ♪
♪ The enemies have been put to shame ♪
♪ Baba bulldozer has won ♪
♪ The enemies have been put to shame ♪

John: Look, I hate what she’s saying, but the way she’s saying it is undeniably catchy. All that bulldozer video really needed was Bob the Builder shaking his ass to it. I’m sorry, did you not know about Bob? There were two dump trucks on that show, and the biggest one was in his overalls.

And while Muslims are a minority in India, there are still 200 million of them, the equivalent of nearly two-thirds of the United States. And with anti-Muslim hate speech and violence on the rise, it’s no wonder many are feeling increasingly targeted, and in incredibly grim ways.

Reporter: Muslim shopkeeper Shamsher Ali feels like he’s being pushed out.

Anything can happen at any point. That is the amount of hate now.

Violence against Muslims is on the rise.” A Delhi police officer was caught on camera last month kicking a group of Muslim men praying by the side of the road. The video went viral. The officer suspended. Another police officer arrested for killing three Muslims on a train, praising the prime minister while standing over their bodies.

John: Yeah. And it’s worth remembering, that is not a bug of Modi’s leadership. It is a feature. So given all this, what can we do? Well, for those of us who don’t live in India, nothing really. Also, asking a British person, “What should we do about India?” is a little bit dangerous, as we tend to have quite a lot of ideas, none of which should be listened to. But as an international community, it seems past time to stop the uncritical fawning praise of a man who is, to put it mildly, a deeply complicated figure.

So maybe we could at least stop comparing him to Bruce Springsteen, and when you talk about what he’s done for India, at least acknowledge that while, yes, he’s responsible for giving bags of grain to people, he’s also responsible for some getting sent bulldozers. And it should be possible to acknowledge the good things Modi’s managed to do for India while acknowledging that many Indians live in active fear of what he seems more than happy to represent.

And I know this episode is almost definitely not going to end up airing in India. And depending on what they do with the laws around YouTube, I’m not totally sure what’ll happen to it there, either. So if this show does get taken down, and if you have friends or family living in India who’d like to see it, just encourage them to visit where they’ll find tons of fascinating facts on opposite snakes, as well as a 25-minute video titled “Opposite Snakes,” which is, in fact, this entire story. Alternatively, you can send them to “,” which features this video, promising tips in Hindi on mango-eating technique, but is, again, this entire story instead.

And if any of Modi’s people take offense at this, let me just repeat, I’m not remotely scared of you. In fact, I’ll meet you, and your stupid bulldozers, in front of this studio, right here in Los Angeles, or my name isn’t Bill Maher. Which it very much is.


John: Moving on. Finally tonight, a word about Red Lobster. One of many restaurants that sounds like a sex position, alongside Jack in the Box, Hard Rock Cafe, Sonic Drive-In, and, of course, Five Guys. As you may’ve heard, Red Lobster has had itself a rough month.

With no notice, signs like this are popping up at Red Lobsters across the nation.

Reporter: This sudden shutdown here in Mira Mesa is one of dozens of abrupt closures nationwide today, an unwelcome surprise to loyal customers.

So what was your reaction when you got to the–got to the door?

Customer: [Laughs] Got to the door, you know what, I can’t say it on camera, is what my reaction was.

John: Okay. Although, I’m now a little curious to know what he was going to say, especially given they’ve chosen to blur out whatever was on his hat. So it might’ve been pretty spicy.

But the fact is, last month, Red Lobster–Long John Silver’s hot cousin–officially filed for bankruptcy. And it tried to spin this as a positive, issuing a letter to customers saying, “Bankruptcy is a word that’s often misunderstood. Filing for bankruptcy does not mean we are going out of business. In fact, it means just the opposite.”

Except, no, it doesn’t. You either don’t know what “bankruptcy” means or what the word “opposite” means. Because while the company as a whole isn’t going out of business, they’ve already abruptly closed at least 99 restaurants in at least 27 states, amounting to 15% of the chain, and could shut down 120 more. And as the news spread, it’s notable that what many people were concerned about losing access to at this seafood restaurant wasn’t actually seafood at all.

What about the Cheddar Bay Biscuits? Those were the best. Are they not the best?

So good. Is it just me, or do you also want those Cheddar Bay Biscuits?

We’ve been talking about them all morning, and we are hungry.

I like their Cheddar Bay Biscuits. [Laughter]

Tried to make them at home one time. They sucked.

They’re soft and then they’re buttery and they’re cheesy and then they’re garlicky, and it’s, like, the perfect biscuit.

They’ve got good food. Good seafood. And the biscuits just slap.

John: It’s true! The biscuits are so good that anytime someone’s talking about Red Lobster, the conversation inevitably turns to them. You could call 911 and say, “There’s a Red Lobster on fire,” and people would say, “Ooh, I bet it’s warming up those biscuits real nice.”

The point is, a lot of people are fond of Red Lobster–to the point that it once got the ultimate name check from Beyoncé:

♪ When he fuck me good, I take his ass to Red Lobster ♪
♪ When he fuck me good, I take his ass to Red Lobster ♪

John: Wow. That is the single greatest endorsement a restaurant could ever get. It is no wonder their sales actually spiked 33% immediately after that song came out. Also, just as an aside, how does Beyoncé’s rewards system work? Do they talk about it in the moment, or the next time they drive past a Red Lobster, is Jay-Z like, “Hey, can we go?” And Beyoncé has to search her sexual archives to determine whether or not he’s banked a trip. I don’t know. I don’t think I want to know. I’m just posing the question.

So how the fuck did this restaurant get into such a mess that it’s going into bankruptcy? Well, many have speculated that it’s all thanks to their disastrous “Ultimate Endless Shrimp” special. Multiple articles cited it while covering the bankruptcy, and even regular customers assumed that it was the main problem.

Customer: They shouldn’t have done the all-you-can-eat shrimp. You don’t know how many people are pigs, and they’ll just keep eating.

John: Hey! Hey! I’m feeling a little attacked here. What you don’t seem to understand is that unlimited shrimp is not a suggestion or a recommended serving size. It’s a fucking challenge for anyone brave enough to accept it. So frankly, you should either embrace the madness and join in, or just go to Starbucks, where you get to speak fancy fake Italian to distract from the fact that it’s really just a public toilet with more rules.

But while endless shrimp was undeniably stupid, it wasn’t actually the crucial factor in the company’s bankruptcy. It cost them more than $11 million, but given their total debts stand at $294 million, it’s clearly just a drop in the bucket. The fact is, Red Lobster’s decline is about a lot more than just a single bad promotion. I’d like to take just a moment to talk about what happened, because it’s a case study for what’s happening to so many companies in America.

And I’ll skip over the early years—suffice it to say, it was founded in 1968 by a man named Bill Darden, seen here in front of his first restaurant, “The Green Frog” in 1938, while holding a sign promoting something called “Swamp Boy Breakfast”—which I assume is like “girl dinner,” but in the morning and for male crocodiles. When Darden started Red Lobster, it was an immediate hit, and by 1978, it had 236 restaurants all around the country. It even became the first casual dining chain to advertise on network TV. And over the years, it’s had some great ads, featuring lemons being squeezed over various seafood products, and even last year, the co-opting of a Shirley Caesar classic.

♪ We got tails, shrimp, waiter, potatoes, sauces for bosses, Cheddar Bay stuffing ♪
♪ Tails, shrimp, waiters, potatoes ♪
♪ Tails, shrimp, waiters, potatoes ♪
♪ Tails, shrimp ♪
♪ Tails, tails ♪

Three lobster and shrimp entrees for a limited time. ♪

Come taste it ♪

John: That is fantastic. Though it’s a little weird for a restaurant to boast about having waiters. That’s a pretty basic component of sit-down restaurants! They may as well be proudly announcing they have a stove and some plates.

But in the early 2010s, the chain had a few years of sluggish sales, and in 2014, its parent company, Darden Restaurants, sold Red Lobster off to a private equity firm called Golden Gate Capital for $2.1 billion. And that private equity firm did exactly what private equity firms always do: immediately try and suck the value out of the company. In fact, one of the first things Golden Gate did was sell off Red Lobster’s real estate and then immediately lease the restaurants back. Meaning Red Lobster now had to pay rent on stores that it had previously owned, setting it on a downward spiral, as the rent they were suddenly paying was about $118 million a year, roughly half the chain’s annual earnings.

It was terrible for Red Lobster, but pretty great for Golden Gate, because that real estate deal covered most of what it had paid for the company in the first place. Very basically, Red Lobster got fucked—fucked so good, in fact, it probably should have taken Golden Gate’s ass to Red Lobster. And in 2020, Golden Gate sold off what remained of the company, and Thai Union, a major seafood supplier with no experience in running restaurants, became the leading shareholder. Now initially, it said it wouldn’t get involved in day-to-day operations, but pretty soon, dozens of veteran Red Lobster leaders were fired or resigned, and Red Lobster ended up having five CEOs in five years—a level of corporate turnover usually reserved for whoever owns fucking HBO.

They also instituted cost-saving measures, from squeezing waitstaff by switching from servers covering three tables to ten, to charging for a side salad for the very first time, and leaving tails on shrimp in pasta. Which suddenly makes it a lot less fun that they were telling customers to expect this.

♪ Tails, shrimp tails, shrimp tails, tails, tails, tails, tails ♪

John: Yeah, there’s gonna be unwanted tails fucking everywhere. Hope everyone is okay with that. And all this brings us back to that incredibly stupid “Endless Shrimp for $20” promotion. Even at the time, it seemed like a very bad idea. Their CEO was reportedly warned by the company’s leaders that $20 was too cheap to make a profit. And they were right about that. Because even as the company raised the price to $22 and then $25, customers made it a point to get more than their money’s worth. It even became a TikTok trend to see how many you could eat in a single sitting, leading to videos like this:

My waitress was so proud of me. I set a new record at my local Red Lobster. This is my greatest achievement in life. $27, that is one quarter per shrimp. So proud of myself, best day of my entire life.

John: Of course it was. If I’d done that, even if I then cured cancer and achieved world peace, I’d open my Nobel Prize acceptance speech with “Who gives a shit about any of that? One time, I ate 108 shrimp in a single sitting.”

But interestingly, while that offer was terrible for Red Lobster, you can see why Thai Union might’ve thought it’d turn out great for them. Because remember, it’s primarily a seafood supplier. And as it happens, Red Lobster had cut two of its longtime shrimp suppliers to purchase more shrimp from Thai Union at higher costs. It seems they were basically just selling shrimp to themselves, sinking Red Lobster even further into debt that it’s now trying to discharge through bankruptcy. Which is, at best, incredibly shitty.

And the end result of all this mismanagement is Red Lobsters shutting across the country, leaving unemployed workers in their wake. And the restaurants themselves are now literally being sold off for parts.

Reporter: This location is now part of restaurant liquidator Tagex Brands’ largest restaurant equipment auction ever. One top bidder for each location will walk away with commercial appliances and furniture. Images posted by RestaurantEquipment.Bid even include the lobster tank. It’s unclear if the crustaceans are part of the deal.

John: It’s true. You can even get the tank! So if you’ve been searching for the perfect gift for that one friend who’s impossible to buy presents for but who also has a bunch of loose lobsters roaming around their house, I’ve got great news for you. The chain’s auctions were winner-take-all, meaning each winner would receive the entire contents of the Red Lobster they bid on. And before you even ask: No, we didn’t. I know, I know, we buy a lot of stupid shit on this show, but not even we would be interested in old furniture from a carpeted seafood restaurant containing a fish smell that’s just never coming out. Besides, we went all out on a purchase earlier this season that didn’t really turn out the way we hoped.

So as far as where Red Lobster goes now, it’s kind of hard to say. One or more of the company’s lenders might buy it, and since one of their key lenders is yet another private equity firm, this whole merry-go-round of asset stripping may still continue. The frustrating thing is, it seems just about any random idiot could run a Red Lobster better than these companies have done. But there’s really only one way to put that to the test.

Which brings me back to those auctions that I mentioned a second ago, because the truth is, I lied to you. We did participate in one, for the contents of this Red Lobster in Kingston, New York, and we fucking won everything inside it.

[Cheers and applause]

And though we have no prior restaurant experience, that doesn’t seem to be disqualifying. So please, come with me…

[Cheers and applause]

♪ ♪

And welcome to Red Lobster with “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” It’s a new concept in casual dining, where we’re not looking to get rich off this. We very much won’t. Thanks so much. Instead, what we do want to do is give people the single item they actually want from a Red Lobster. And that’s the biscuits. They are the only things this location will sell. We’ll still have the inexplicable nautical-themed artwork and the lobster tank. But those lobsters are really only there so they can watch you eat biscuits. And I’m excited to say, we’ve got a “finite biscuits” promotion on right now, where for just $1 you can get one biscuit, and that’s it. It’s a limited-time promotion, for the duration of this taping, so please… bring out the biscuits!

[Cheers and applause]

Plus, we’ve got waiters, biscuits, biscuits, waiters, and biscuits, biscuits, waiters, and that’s all. Now is this a good idea for a restaurant? Who can say? Well, lots of people, and the answer is no, but you’ve got to admit, it’s a better idea than any of Red Lobster’s previous owners have had. And at least we are not bleeding trying to make a handful of idiots rich, which is what’s happening to so many companies nowadays.

That is our show. Thanks so much for watching! We will see you next week! Good night! Biscuits for everyone! Waiters, biscuits! Come taste it!

[Cheers and applause]

♪ ♪


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