John Oliver sends man in polar bear suit to Nenana, pledges $10K to Food Bank of Alaska

The Nenana Ice Classic Tripod in 2009. (Photo by James Brooks/Flickr Creative Commons)

On his show last Sunday, comedian John Oliver called the Nenana Ice Classic “the single greatest ice-melting contest in the world.”

“Every year, the people in the small Alaskan town of Nenana put a giant wooden tripod on a frozen river,” he said on HBO’s Last Week Tonight, “and place bets on exactly when the ice will melt enough to break up, and the tripod floats downstream.”

Oliver riffed on the history of the Ice Classic, then declared he’s participating in this year’s event.

“We decided to place exactly one bet on this year’s competition, for April 26, 2022, at exactly 2:17 p.m. Why? I just have a really good feeling about it,” he said

John Oliver at his desk with a photo of the Nenana tripod inset
Oliver offered an outsider’s tongue-in-cheek perspective on the Ice Classic tradition. (HBO screenshot)

He then launched into a story of Marshmallow the Polar Bear, a guy in ridiculous costume who travels from New York to Nenana to submit Oliver’s guess for when tripod will fall.

That’s the part of the segment that was filmed on location. And it’s why Oliver’s producer called Ice Classic Manager Cherrie Forness a couple of weeks ago to talk about the segment.

“They told us what they were doing and what they wanted me to do, and all this,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “And so it’s like, ‘OK, let’s do it.’”

Forness says a crew from the show spent a couple of days shooting video in downtown Nenana, including a scene in the Ice Classic office, where she delivered her only line.

“And with his bet placed,” a narrator says, “a kind stranger said the nicest words anyone had ever said to Marshmallow”

“Thanks, Marshmallow,” Forness says, “Good luck to you.”

The story of Marshmallow ends in a climactic scene where the bear journeys to the tripod.

“And suddenly,” the narrator says, “there it was — the mighty tripod on the Tanana River!”

A graphic showing the Nenana tripod towering over a man in a polar bear suit
(HBO screenshot)

Forness says she wasn’t exactly sure how the segment would turn out until she saw it Sunday on television.

“I thought it was hilarious! I thought they did a really good job,” she said. “They were a great group to work with. We just had fun!”

Nenana Mayor Josh Verhagen also enjoyed it. But he said Wednesday that he had no idea about the segment until a couple of friends contacted him Monday after they’d seen it.

“I got a friend from England,” he said, “who messaged me and said he watched it and asked whether or not he could buy tickets over in England.”

Verhagen says the segment will provide a lot of great publicity for Ice Classic and Nenana.

“I think people will be really curious about this tradition, which is a major part of who we are in Nenana.”

Forness says she thinks the segment is already generating that kind of curiosity. She suspects that’s why her office got more than 100 calls for tickets on Tuesday, triple the number of calls they got on Monday. But the town and Ice Classic weren’t the only beneficiaries.

“When we win,” Oliver said near the end of the segment, “I’m proud to announce that we will donate our entire prize to the Food Bank of Alaska. And if for some weird reason we don’t win, we’re going to donate $10,000 to them anyway!”

Jenny Di Grappa, a spokesperson for the food bank, said promise was a surprise

“We haven’t gotten any communication from their show,” she said.

Di Grappa says the organization hasn’t yet gotten confirmation of Oliver’s offer, but she says he’s always made good on other charitable donations he’s promised during his programs. And she says donations are badly needed because food banks around the country are scrambling, largely because of the pandemic.

“That would be a major gift for our organization,” she said. “Every dollar donated to Food Bank of Alaska helps us provide three meals. And so that is equivalent to 30,000 meals.”

Spokespersons for WarnerMedia, HBO’s parent company, didn’t respond to a query Wednesday about the donation.

Ice Classic tickets are available through Tuesday, April 5.

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Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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