Ever since Jonathan Pie began attracting attention in late 2015, the spoof news correspondent has been aggressively off-message, mocking the journalistic code that a reporter never becomes the story. His liberal-blasting tirade in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory has attracted more than 150 million online views alone. However, the first mass-appeal satirist to emerge from YouTube has polarised opinion and been kept at arm’s length by the British television and comedy industry.
With little more than a suit and a camera, Pie is capable of responding to breaking news within hours. But he’s had to become a live act to make money. His creator, Tom Walker, spoke to me from Australia, where he was performing Jonathan Pie: Back To The Studio, ahead of his Scottish mini-tour, while his co-writer, stand-up and playwright Andrew Doyle, joined me simultaneously down the line from Belfast.
Walker shares elements of Pie’s left-wing anger, his chippiness, outspokenness and readiness with an expletive. Even so, he’s dismayed at how readily critics conflate the character’s views with his own. And he laments recent interviews in which sharing his own politics “have caused me no end of grief”.
A struggling actor in his late thirties, he threw his early Pie videos up online with little expectation. But something in his “off-air” portrayal of a media insider lambasting press coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s private life captured the reality of a fake news era, while his subsequent critique of why the out-of-touch Hillary Clinton lost the US election, shared as genuine news content by the influential conservative blog PJ Media, boosted his international following. “This idea that we have a responsibility to people who might mistake it as real ...” he marvels. “If you’re so thick that you can’t understand that it’s satire, sorry, I’ve got no time for you.”
It is ironic then, perhaps, that some denounce him as a useful idiot for the alt-right, and indeed, far worse. Pie is most interesting Doyle reckons, “when he’s criticising his left-wing fanbase and their culture of taking offence. As writers, our challenge is finding a way to do it without irretrievably alienating them.”
Pie’s first live outing in 2016 was a howl of rage about austerity masquerading as a Children in Need appeal. Walker ventures that this follow-up is funnier, more universal and more challenging, “as much about holding a mirror up to the Left as slagging off the Tories”. It concerns “the culture of offence and social media being so quick to brand everyone a f***ing racist”, a situation he’s recently become well acquainted with.
Particularly contentious has been Pie’s coverage of the conviction of Mark Meechan, aka fellow YouTuber Count Dankula, fined £800 by Airdrie Sheriff Court in April after he was found guilty of committing a hate crime for teaching his girlfriend’s pug to perform a Nazi salute on camera. Reacting to the verdict, Pie accused the judge of wilfully misunderstanding the comedic context and intent of the video and suggested that, with their silence, the majority of comedians had ceded the freedom of speech fight to extreme right-wingers like the EDL’s Tommy Robinson. Among the more prominent figures to take issue was Father Ted creator Graham Linehan, tweeting a suggestion that Pie might follow up by shouting “It was a joke, you c***s” at Ephraim Borowski, director of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, who condemned Meechan’s video.
Walker doesn’t prevaricate about this ad hominem attack from a writer who deployed Nazi iconography to comedic effect in the episode Are You Right There Father Ted? “I’ve had some very high profile people in the last month or so directly accuse me of being alt-right, directly accused me of being a Nazi and a bigot. They know who they are and they’re c***s.”
Doyle, who is a columnist for the anti-censorship magazine Spiked, adds: “Alt-right has connotations of white nationalism, which is utterly against everything Tom and I agree with or stand for. And more to the point, what the character stands for. This is the tribalism of politics now. If you think you know one thing about someone politically, you can assume what they believe in other categories. But politics should be more nuanced than that.”
Both voted Labour in the general election. But where Walker was a Remainer in the EU referendum, Doyle was Leave. And Brexit changed Pie because it changed Walker.
“I was as shocked as anyone by the result” he says. “But I was more shocked by what like-minded people on my Facebook page were calling anyone who voted differently to them: racist, thick, ill-informed.
“I had been a pretty standard, Guardian-reading liberal Lefty up until I was interacting with the majority of my fanbase. And it’s changed my view. Their political discourse can be just as nasty, divisive and unhelpful as the Right. Becoming so wary of the Left has been extraordinary for me because that’s where Pie comes from, he’s a proper old-school socialist.”
He and Doyle, he maintains, are “liberals who happen to agree with freedom of speech as an almost immovable right. There have to be some restrictions within the law, obviously. But generally, the fewer restrictions, the better. And that is where Andrew and I differ from the prevailing liberal wind.”
As an experiment, Pie’s parodic Nazi salute was also reported to the police, who promised to investigate. “Of course, nothing’s likely to happen,” Doyle observes. “But we have just seen someone criminalised for what is clearly a joke, no matter if it’s funny or not. So it’s not out of the realms of possibility”.
He recalls comedians’ widespread opposition to early drafting of the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act, which left them vulnerable to prosecution if they were reported for mocking religion. “There was a broad consensus in the comedy world that this was not acceptable and we had to stop it” he points out. “And something’s changed in the interim. I’m not surprised that comedians don’t want to stick their neck out for Dankula because of the Tommy Robinson association. But I am surprised at so many comedians siding with the court. That’s been eye-opening for me.”
So Pie remains out of step with what Doyle describes as British comedy’s “political homogeneity … a consensus on where you should stand that many deny but which seems utterly futile to me to refute”. Walker maintains that he will never return to the Edinburgh Fringe, because in 2016 he felt that “I would walk into a room and people would avoid eye contact. And I think that was because I hadn’t paid my dues, because I hadn’t spent 15 years on the circuit. I paid mine as an out of work actor. Some comedians have been great and supported me, they get the satire. But generally, I’m glad I’m not part of that world. I’m glad I’m looking in because it seems vicious, vile and horrible.”
Doyle laughs. “A lot of them are my mates of course”. He first met Walker when the latter starred in a forgettable play, Shamlet, that the comic wrote 13 years ago. “I’ve seen the extent Tom’s had to struggle to succeed. And they haven’t.”
Walker is also defiant about Pie’s exposure on the Kremlin-backed channel Russia Today in 2016, pleading his poverty at the time and his appreciation for the channel’s hands-off editorial approach. “I don’t regret it” he states. “Because I wouldn’t be talking to you now if I hadn’t been afforded that opportunity. I probably wouldn’t do it now. But then Alex Salmond is more than welcome to do whatever the f*** he likes with his retirement.”
Back To The Studio is released on download this month, and discussions have begun about taking the show to America, which might be where Pie’s future lies. There have been videos of him interacting with other characters, notably in a recent piece on the gender pay gap that stirred further outraged reaction. And Walker is keen to develop a sitcom around the character, fleshing out his work and personal life as he did to an extent in last year’s spin-off book, Off The Record.
“The live shows prove that he’s much more than a three-minute soundbite every week and there’s somewhere for him to go,” Walker says. “But it will take a bold commissioner. He’s been bringing in viewing figures some digital channels would jump over themselves for. But he’s still not on telly. I’m not saying he deserves it but it’s interesting no-one in the UK seems up for it.
“He’s a Westminster correspondent, so it would be a shame not to explore that here. But if America or Australia said here’s a six-part, half-hour sitcom, you’d never see me again. I’ll go where the work takes me.”
Jonathan Pie: Back to the Studio is at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 10 June; Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 11 and 12 June; and Eden Court, Inverness, 13 June, www.jonathanpie.com