Comedian and TV host John Oliver of “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” brought his attention to Scranton, Pennsylvania. Specifically, an episode aired in June which showed a series of segments of Scranton news network WNEP’s “Talk Back 16” where callers commented on the presence of a backyard toy train set that runs behind the weather forecasters. When the train wasn’t running, a variety of opinions pooled in. Comments ranged from, “your news show is on so many times of the day, that you ought to just take one of those half hours and play nothing but a video of a train running around in a circle,” and “wah wah, the train’s not running, I wish [meteorologist Joe] Snedeker would put a quarter stick in that train and blow it up.”
Samantha Garvey, born and raised Scranton resident and West Chester University Foundation supervisor, commented that WNEP is, “one of the best [Scranton] news stations” and that “everyone [talks] about WNEP, specifically ‘Talk Back 16.’”
After this segment aired, someone called in to WNEP’s “Talk Back 16” segment and said, “I just watched this John Oliver train controversy. This guy, we’re not, we’re not clowns for his entertainment. I think this guy owes us an apology in (northeast) Pennsylvania.” Oliver responded in two parts. The first was to say that clowns aren’t for entertainment but rather solely for murder threats, attempted murder and actual murder.
Oliver then followed up by saying he loved the train set. “My only criticism of your train set is that I think you deserve a better one. A bigger one. An almost irresponsibly large one.” He then showed the revolving train set built using HBO resources for WNEP. This train set is 18-feet wide and 16-feet tall. It features a running water fall, the Scranton Electric City building, the Scranton sign, the paper building from NBC’s “The Office,” a train tunnel in the shape of NBA coach P. J. Carlesimo and it emits sparks.
After the episode aired, WNEP went to pick up the train only to find that the train was too big for their backyard. Instead, they decided to donate the train to Scranton’s Electric City Trolley Museum.
The museum unveiled the HBO train on Friday. WNEP reports that there were over 5,000 visitors from its initial unveiling on Friday to Sunday. While Oliver noted in a later episode that he was too busy to stop by because he, “[has] to work all week to make this show…[unlike] Stephen [Colbert] and Jimmy [Kimmel].” Instead, Oliver sent “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” mascots the Bolivian Zebra and Mr. Nutter Butter the squirrel.
Garvey thinks that the squirrel might have been selected with specific intent. “I don’t know if John Oliver specifically sent [the squirrel] because we used to be a very big coal-bearing region . . . I’m not sure if that was another little added touch because the squirrel [might have been] in reference to West Virginia coal,” Garvey said. “They could’ve picked any mascot but they specifically picked the squirrel that’s associated with coal . . . I don’t think there’s been any comments on it, but it would be interesting to see if that’s why that specific mascot came, because of its connection to the coal history.”
The squirrel was originally introduced in the show when Oliver aired his take on the Murray Energy Corporation. He cited a “United Mine Workers Journal” satirical article which said Murray was approached by a squirrel that told him, “Bob Murray, you should be operating your very own mines.”
After the unveiling, it was revealed that Scranton had replaced Carlesimo’s face on the train tunnel with Oliver’s.
Garvey says she feels the train was overall good for the area. “For the most part I think the reaction to the train was good,” Garvey said. “I think it just showed that the Scranton people, we love to laugh at ourselves as well and we’re not going to get upset over anything this small, when it actually was a great thing, “Bringing relevance and bringing a little bit of national attention to the area.”
Halle Nelson is a fourth-year student majoring in communication studies with minors in English literature and deaf studies. She can be reached at HN824858@wcupa.edu and on Twitter @Halle_N_Nelson.