John Oliver is trying to rig New Zealand’s Bird of the Century competition

I was a mere two days into my vacation last week when I got an emphatic text from my mother saying “You HAVE to vote!!” I was like, what do you take me for? I’m an informed citizen who requested and turned in an absentee ballot well ahead of traveling out of state. Silly me, Mother Kismet wasn’t talking about the general election. She meant New Zealand’s Bird of the Century competition.

On the November 5 episode of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, titular host Oliver gave a call to arms for viewers to vote for his candidate, the pūteketeke. After laying out his reasons for selecting the pūteketeke — chief among them being excellent plumage, an elegant mating dance wherein partners present clumps of grass to each other, shared parental duties, plus it’s just fun to say — Oliver confirmed the competition was not limited to New Zealanders. Then he unveiled the global campaign his team had rolled out on behalf of the noble pūteketeke, a move New Zealand called “alarmingly aggressive.” He concluded his pitch saying “This is what democracy is all about: America interfering in foreign elections.” Oliver shared the results on last Sunday’s show. And the winner is… to be announced on Wednesday, because Oliver’s fans crashed the voting site.

The pūteketeke got 10,000+ votes in one night after the show aired: Oliver reported last week that the winning bird in last year’s competition received less than 3,000 votes, a number he was confident they could surpass rather quickly and extensively. And sure enough, the conservation organization that puts on the contest, Forest & Bird, posted on X (formerly Twitter) that “Oliver’s campaign for the pūteketeke to win Bird of the Century has kicked off with more than 10,000 votes coming in overnight! Verifying emails is a massive ongoing job — as you can imagine!!” A few days later, according to an email Oliver showed, Forest & Bird said that its “voting verification system was overloaded and temporarily crashed.”

Oliver revels in the backlash: Oliver said that since the episode aired, not everyone has embraced his shenanigans with open arms in New Zealand. He included a montage of various media reports and other social media personalities who took issue with him, mostly because they like their own choice for bird better. The pūteketeke campaign manager also pointed out — and gave some love to — the response from other bird campaigns who accepted Oliver’s presence “with grace.” Like supporters of the kakariki karaka, who put up multiple billboards with the message: “Dear John, don’t disrupt the pecking order.” Oliver said that he respects their aggression with the amount of billboards, but was not impressed with their bird choice at all, calling it a “bright green cat toy.”

The Zazu connection: Multiple people also referenced the fact that Oliver voiced a bird named Zazu in 2019’s The Lion King, including one billboard that said “the only bird worse than the pūteketeke is Zazu,” with a Photoshopped picture that shows Oliver with a Zazu beak and feathers. “I’ll admit, that’s pretty good,” Oliver said.

He teases because he cares: One thing Oliver wanted to clear up was the accusation that he makes New Zealand the butt of jokes because he doesn’t like them. And while he did admit to making the country the butt of many jokes, he said “It’s not because I don’t like you, it’s because I f—ing love you.”

A gracious, early victory speech: “And for the record, all of your birds are great. And it would be an honor to lose to any of them when results are announced on Wednesday,” Oliver said. “And the reason it’s so easy for me to say that is, we’re not gonna lose are we? We’re gonna win, and we’re gonna win by a lot. And when we do that, the pūteketeke will be your Bird of the Century, and there’s nothing any of you can do to stop that right now. Maybe good luck next century, New Zealand.”

[From Yahoo! Entertainment]

Man, I missed John Oliver during the writers strike. I need these weekly doses of whimsy, and greatly appreciate the extensive lengths and exorbitant funds he takes to provide them. And this competition isn’t all silliness! It’s run by Forest & Bird, New Zealand’s leading independent conservation group. The eligible birds are endemic to the country (meaning they’re not found anywhere else in the world) and most of them are decreasing in numbers. May the finest feathered specimen win and flourish.

As for Oliver’s campaign, perfect. No notes. His efforts included building a giant pūteketeke puppet to pose behind him on set, promoting the cause on Jimmy Fallon in a pūteketeke costume himself, and creating an info site complete with a pūteketeke dressed as Oliver and the new show title Best Beak Tonight with Pūteketeke. The heart of the campaign, however, was the collection of billboards, posters, and plane-flown banners put up in India, Japan, France, Brazil, and Manitowoc, Wisconsin (because of course). The best of these posters, hands down, were the ones deployed in England and New Zealand. England’s signs read “Help Us Crown A Real King,” (oh, snap!) while New Zealand enjoyed Lord of the Wings film-style posters that decorated bus stops. Like I said, no notes.

Photos are screenshots from YouTube and via Instagram

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