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John Oliver Trolls Disney With Steamboat Willie Promo: ‘What Are They Gonna Do, Sue?’

John Oliver, public-domain fan and self-appointed gadfly to powerful institutions, was back again poking a finger in the eye of the Mouse House in a new promo for his HBO show.

In a teaser for the Feb. 18 return of “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” for its 11th season, the host posed next to someone dressed in a suit resembling Steamboat Willie, the 1928 version of Mickey Mouse that entered the public domain on Jan. 1 after Disney’s copyright on the character expired.

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“What are they gonna do, sue?” reads the poster for the show’s upcoming season premiere. Cheeky monkey!

It’s not clear whether Disney will again be a target for Oliver on this season of “Last Week Tonight” or if he’s just opportunistically seizing the Steamboat Willie moment because he’s now on more solid legal ground. (A rep for HBO said the show does not announce episode topics ahead of debut.)

Oliver has mined this vein before. In an episode of “Last Week Tonight” that aired in April 2023, he discussed the looming expiration of the Steamboat Willie copyright — and then introduced a Mickey Mouse-like character as the show’s new mascot, daring Disney’s lawyers to take action. “The fact is, anyone wanting to use the ‘Steamboat Willie’ Mickey Mouse will probably still be taking a risk,” Oliver said in the segment. “But if you know anything about this show by now, we do like to take a risk every now and then.” The host also held a mock interview with an animated version of Steamboat Willie, who among other things told Oliver, “I hope Henry Kissinger dies soon.”

For decades, Disney has been notoriously litigious in policing the usage of its intellectual property, including of Mickey Mouse. Disney has said that it “will continue to protect our rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright, and we will work to safeguard against consumer confusion caused by unauthorized uses of Mickey and our other iconic characters.”

After Steamboat Willie entered the public domain, one indie filmmaker announced plans for a horror-comedy based on Mickey Mouse’s cartoon debut in which a sadistic mouse torments a group of unsuspecting ferry passengers.

Last December, HBO announced it renewed the Emmy-winning “Last Week Tonight” for three additional seasons, through 2026. The series airs Sunday nights on HBO and is available to stream on Max.

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