Comedian John Oliver’s attempt to parody the tax-exempt status of televangelists appears to be paying off – literally.
The host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” recently founded a faux religious organization called “Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption” to highlight the people who profit from their claims to cure lupus and “make midgets grow.” Oliver somewhat facetiously encouraged viewers to donate to his cause and the money has started to flow in more prodigiously than he expected.
“To be honest,” he said on his show Sunday, “slightly more of you responded than we were expecting.” According to Oliver, thousands of dollars have been given to Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption. “Robert Tilton, Kenneth Copeland and other pastors of their ilk have been taking advantage of the open-ended IRS definition of the word ‘church’ and procuring a litany of tax breaks,” reads a statement from Oliver on the website for the organization. In that same sarcastic statement, Oliver promises to remain “dedicated to collecting copious donations and all manner of divine blessings, but mostly the donations.”
According to TIME, the IRS has only audited three churches in the last two years and investigated none between 2009 and 2013. This, despite the fact that celebrity pastors have called for the crowdfunding of their multi-million-dollar private jets, among other requests.
The comedian has utilized the government’s vague 14-point parameters for what constitutes a religious organization to support his “church.” For instance, he calls his studio in New York City his “place of worship.” Oliver also registered his show as a “nonprofit organization in Texas,” to establish legal standing and was able to get his studio audience to “profess their belief” in his church.
Oliver’s gambit will likely remind many viewers of his fellow “Daily Show” alum Stephen Colbert’s high concept spoof of the super PAC system. In 2012, the then-Comedy Central host created his own “100% legal and at least 10% ethical” political action committee to raise money for a theoretical presidential campaign. Colbert uproariously mocked the notion that candidates were not in cahoots with side organizations and even flirted with running for “president of the United States of South Carolina.”
That effort also raised considerable money (more than $1 million, according to the Federal Election Commission), but did little to shake up the status quo when it came to super PACs. Still, Colbert’s “campaign” landed him a prestigious Peabody Award.