Maybe the oddest of odd couples to emerge in 2020 was a trash-talking British comedian and a small-city Connecticut mayor who waged the zaniest public feud to dominate this year’s media.
The dust storm began on the Aug. 16 episode of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” in which the eponymous host offered a segment highlighting problems with the jury selection system. Citing Connecticut as an example, Oliver claimed residents in Hartford and New Britain were being omitted from jury duty because a computer glitch reported them as being deceased. In the midst of his presentation, Oliver unexpectedly pivoted and launched into scatological denunciation of Danbury.
“Cuz if you’re gonna forget a town in Connecticut, why not forget Danbury?” Oliver exclaimed. “Because, and this is true, f— Danbury. From its charming Railway Museum to its historic Hearthstone Castle, Danbury, Connecticut can eat my whole a–. I know exactly three things about Danbury: USA Today ranked it the second-best city to live in, in 2015. It was once the center of the American hat industry. And, if you’re from there, you’ve got a standing invite to come get a thrashing from John Oliver, children included. F— you.”
This was not the first time that Oliver put Danbury in his crosshairs. Back in 2017, when Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton put forth a long-shot video campaign to lure Amazon into selecting his city as the site of its second headquarters complex, Oliver provided his distinctive brand of sarcastic putdown humor to denigrate the effort.
Three years ago, Boughton ignored Oliver’s provocations. This time around, however, Boughton responded immediately to Oliver’s insults via Twitter, retweeting an unflattering childhood portrait of Oliver while offering a bare-knuckles invitation to the comic.
“Hey @iamjohnoliver don’t worry, we are working on some Danbury payback for you,” Boughton tweeted. “Oh, and I will not hesitate to throw the hands. #bringit”
A week passed before Boughton dreamed up the “payback” promised to the funnyman: He would affix Oliver’s name to a sewage treatment facility.
“We are going to rename it the John Oliver Memorial Sewer Plant,” the mayor announced in a social media statement. “Why? Because it’s full of crap just like you, John.”
Boughton also sarcastically commended Oliver for raising the issue of Danbury’s efforts to lure Amazon to the city as the site of its second headquarters complex.
“And, oh by the way, thanks for showing that Amazon video. We did get Amazon here in Danbury,” he said, referring to the last-mile distribution facility that the e-commerce giant agreed to bring to the city this past spring.
Oliver, who waited with respectful patience for Boughton to run the course of his response, then switched the stakes by promising to donate $55,000 to Danbury-area charities if the sewage plant was named for him. He also claimed he would pay for a sign bearing the “John Oliver Memorial Sewer Plant” name.
“I will happily do all of that if — and only if — your mayor makes good on his promise to officially name that sewage plant after me because I want this. I need this,” Oliver proclaimed on his HBO show, adding he would give Boughton one week to meet his challenge. “I beg of you: Don’t Danbury this one up.”
Boughton returned the volley with a caveat: He would accept the charitable gift provided that Oliver attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the renamed facility in person. Yet the mayor was not ready to let bygones be bygones, ribbing Oliver’s charitable donation pledge as being “a little light for somebody in the 1%” and demanding that the comic make good on his offer.
“Now look, don’t Oliver this up,” Boughton said in his social media response. “Should you choose not to take us up on this offer, we certainly have something we’ve named after you — your own personal porta potty, the John Oliver S—house. So, Mr. Oliver, come on up to Danbury and sit on your throne.”
Danbury’s city council might have felt left out of the fun, so they used an Oct. 8 session to vote 18-1 with a single abstention to affix “John Oliver Memorial Sewer Plant” to the facility. Although the new name is strictly ceremonial and not an official renaming of the location, Boughton quickly took to social media to hail the development.
“Yup.. It’s official The Danbury Sewer Plant is now the John Oliver Memorial Sewer Plant. — You’re move John. Bam! #DanburyPride,” the mayor wrote online.
Oliver opted not to go public with his response, but instead quietly arranged to make good on his offer. On the Oct. 18 edition of his program, Oliver confirmed he traveled to Danbury for the unveiling of the sign that renamed the sewage treatment plant in his honor. Oliver played a brief video of his arrival in the city while wearing a homemade and conspicuously shabby hazmat outfit before posing for photos with Boughton.
For his part, Boughton did not mention when their meeting took place. He earlier explained a public ceremony could not occur due to health safety concerns related to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, he shared a photo he took with Oliver on his social media pages while declaring, “It was glorious. Congratulations to Mr. John Oliver. #DanburyPride.”
And when the story wound up, Boughton quietly acknowledged in a radio interview that the feud with Oliver was not exactly an act of spontaneous combustion.
“Something like that doesn’t happen with a little bit of planning, come on,” Boughton said during an appearance on “The Ethan and Lou Show” on WRKI-FM in Brookfield. “But yes, we did plan it. No, we couldn’t tell anybody about it. I did laugh at people that were like posting on my Facebook page and were like, ‘Hey man, he’s never going to come here, OK? You’re an idiot. Why don’t you focus on being mayor?’ Well, there, I got you back.”
More important, Oliver made good on his word with charitable donations being channeled to the Connecticut Food Bank, ALS Connecticut and the nonprofit DonorsChoose which is using the funds to provide school supplies to teachers. Yeah, maybe the feud wasn’t entirely legit, but for a year notably lacking in feel-good stories it was a wonderful daffy diversion.