Tonight, John Oliver closed out the second season of Last Week Tonight by tackling a problem that is, in his words, both “tiny” and “totally fixable”: the penny. He got the important information out of the way early — that pennies cost more to produce than they make up for in inherent value — rendering the rest of his main story satisfying icing on the cake.
Pennies, despite having a literal worth of one cent, are virtually worthless. Oliver cites two local news broadcasts with
fun segments during which reporters throw pennies on the ground, only for nobody to grab any. He also cites statistics, including a poll that showed that people throw away around two-thirds of pennies altogether. So the United States Mint is basically producing zinc garbage that it markets as copper. Plus, kids and dogs eat them, and frat bros put them up their butts, so they’re just really, really inexpensive safety hazards!
So why are pennies still around? Lobbyists. And not even good ones. Jarden Zinc is a particularly powerful name in the penny game, as it produces the little zinc disks that are turned into our meaningless, Lincoln-emblazoned currency. Jarden, however, spends just $140,000 in lobby money annually. The corporation is worth about $10 billion. So even Jarden is just spinning its wheels trying to keep the penny around when the coin apparently brings in very little, relative to its other products (like crockpots and official class rings).
The other group that wants more pennies? Lincoln enthusiasts. Who, as Oliver points out, seem to forget that he’s on the five-dollar bill. So that just doesn’t make sense, and Oliver doesn’t get too heated about it.
Ultimately, Oliver suggests we just get rid of the penny. New Zealand, Canada, and more have done it and World War III is still decades away. Not quite yet time to panic! Even the United States got rid of an obsolete piece of currency — the half-penny — in 1857 because we just didn’t need it anymore. But remembering the good ol’ days often mean ignoring the actual old days. So, Oliver probably realizes the penny isn’t going anywhere — valueless or not. We’re a nation full of contradictions and it’s occasionally charming!
Oliver closed out the episode with some heartfelt recapping of the successful season. In Season 2, he made a commercial, he opened a church, and he had Kenny G on the program. But the sweetest ending he could really provide was the culmination of his best running joke: Even with all the accomplishments, Janice in Accounting don’t give a fuck, and she showed up in real life to show it.
God bless you, Janice.