The Absolute Joy of Masterful Petty Revenge
Why John Oliver’s musical revenge episode feels so satisfying.
John Oliver’s November 10th episode of Last Week Tonight was a masterpiece of petty revenge. The episode focused on SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) suits, baseless lawsuits designed to scare journalists and activists into silence by burying them in legal fees. Oliver highlighted one SLAPP suit in particular: the two-year-long defamation suit against his show by coal tycoon and overall Bad Dude™, Bob Murray, CEO of Murray Energy.
The lawsuit cost HBO over $200,000 in legal fees, plus a decent amount of headache and frustration. Oliver used his latest episode to not only educate the public on SLAPP suits and numerous concerning allegations against Murray, but also to enact revenge in the pettiest of ways: through song and dance.
Oliver ends the episode concludes with a four-minute-long musical number, complete with Times Square can-can dancers and a squirrel quartet, making fun of Bob Murray. Titled “Eat Shit, Bob!”, the song takes advantage of a court ruling that found that statements which no reasonable person would construe as fact (aka, “jokes”) were protected speech.
The musical diatribe includes fun tidbits such as:
He cut off Van Gogh’s ear
Told Hitler to quit painting and to find a new career
He masturbates to Schindler’s List
He was Cosby’s drug supplier
Jeffrey Epstein’s prison guard
The musical number concludes in a can-can dance of 50 people in the middle of Times Square and asks, “Hey Bob, was this as bad as you feared?” as pyrotechnics fill the screen and fireworks light up the words: “EAT SHIT BOB!”
After two years of silence, it’s clear by the emotion on Oliver’s face that this is a moment of catharsis for him, and likely for all the Last Week Tonight and HBO staff that had to deal with the frivolous lawsuit. The moment was so perfectly accomplished that I made my partner watch it again with me, then watched it another two times on my own. As an act of petty revenge, it was perfectly executed.
Why Do We Love Petty Revenge So Much?
Whether we’re enacting it or watching it, petty revenge is a universal pass time. An entire subreddit exists with over 700,000 users dedicated to stories of petty revenge. The top all-time post on the subreddit features a woman who pulled an act of small revenge on her abusive ex — he’ll be driving two hours with his new girlfriend to a concert he won’t be able to get into. Tough luck!
These little acts of petty revenge hold a special place in our hearts because they satisfy our desire for revenge, justice, and even schadenfreude without going too far or crossing a line. No one really gets hurt, and no permanent damage is done. There’s nothing to truly feel guilty about after.
“These little acts of petty revenge hold a special place in our hearts because they satisfy our desire for revenge, justice, and even schadenfreude without going too far or crossing a line”
A 2017 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who have experienced a social rejection experience a mood boost from enacting petty revenge — such as poking a voodoo doll with needles. In fact, the small act of revenge was able to restore participants’ mood so much as to be indistinguishable from people who had not been rejected in the first place.
Other research has found, however, that when people are able to enact physical pain against someone who has slighted them only men demonstrate neural activation in their reward pathways. Women remained empathetic even to someone who had previously hurt them and did not enjoy watching them experience pain.
This may help explain the sweet spot of petty revenge. With petty revenge, even empathetic people to get a little mood boost without having to worry about being responsible for long term consequences or physical pain.
“Women remained empathetic even to someone who had previously hurt them and did not enjoy watching them experience pain.”
In fact, none of the top 10 stories on r/pettyrevenge involve physical pain or anything that could remotely be seen as long-term suffering. One mother-in-law finds a scandalous text after snooping. A group of college girls misses out on delicious donuts after cutting someone off in the parking lot. A woman out-smarted a group of city water guys and got free water for a year. Lots of one-liners were thrown right back in the jerkoff’s face.
Some research, such as a 2010 study in the European Journal of Social Psychology, suggests that the acts of revenge are driven by a desire for justice and the restoration of social order. Students reported only feeling a sense of satisfaction from revenge only when the other person admitted that they had received their just deserts and learned their lesson.
Acts of petty revenge, like Oliver’s “Eat Shit, Bob” song, are especially satisfying when the other person will understand exactly why it is happening. Imagining Bob Murray sitting through that song, face red, hands and teeth clenched, brings genuine joy — and I don’t even know the guy. These small acts of vigilante justice help us feel better about our ability to restore order in an unfair and unjust world.
Should You Seek Revenge?
The truth is, even though petty revenge can be oh so satisfying, there are still negative consequences with being focused on revenge. According to The Science of People, Swiss researchers have found that enacting revenge provides short-term benefits, but increases the negative feelings associated with an event in the long-term.
If you enjoy a good petty revenge story, it’s probably best for your own mental health to stick to enjoying them online.
As Frank Sinatra said: success is the best revenge.
M. K. is a feminist writer and activist with a background in mental health advocacy. Subscribe to get her latest posts directly in your inbox.