You can call Jonathan Pie a lot of things. Unfunny. Untalented. Just don‚Äôt call him a racist or a bigot. Or a nazi.
‚ÄúI did something on freedom of speech in this country, and freedom of speech has now become a right-wing ideal, so by virtue of me defending freedom of speech I was called a nazi, I was called a nazi apologist, I was called right wing, I was called far right,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúI mean how stupid do you have to be, how ignorant do you have to be to think that me standing up for freedom of speech makes me a nazi. It means one: you don‚Äôt know what a nazi is and two: you haven‚Äôt watched my work.‚ÄĚ
He‚Äôs getting wound up now in true Pie style, and any minute he‚Äôs going to fire off a string of expletives that would make a sailor blush. Only he doesn‚Äôt.
Because this is his alter ego Tom Walker, and Tom is rather more measured than the foul-mouthed fake television reporter he created in a desperate bid to break through as an actor three years ago. Pie now reels in millions of viewers around the world via his weekly Facebook rants about Brexit, Donald Trump and other political issues, including the occasional swipe at Australians, such as Malcolm Turnbull‚Äôs misguided ‚Äúbonking ban‚ÄĚ.
Tom is quite happy for Pie to take all the heat, much of it from people who don‚Äôt understand it is satire ‚ÄĒ ‚ÄúI‚Äôm sorry but I‚Äôm not going to write for stupid people‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒ until you cross the line. ‚ÄúI try to keep a discreet distance from that sort of rhetoric and that sort of fighting on Twitter but like I say, when it comes to being called a racist or a bigot, it just boils my blood,‚ÄĚ he says from London, where he‚Äôs preparing for this month‚Äôs Australian tour. ‚ÄúHow dare you call me a nazi! It‚Äôs a horrible thing. And also what they‚Äôre doing is they think they‚Äôre winning the argument, but they‚Äôre just shutting down debate. I see it more and more, from the left especially.‚ÄĚ
Which is interesting because, as Tom puts it, Pie is ‚Äúa screaming leftie‚ÄĚ who started life as a vehicle to poke fun at the Tories. In more recent times, Pie‚Äôs opinions on topics such as freedom of speech and the gender pay gap, in which he interviews a fake female expert about the disparity between female and male wages, have seen many lefties up in arms.
‚ÄúI knew it was going to cause a ruckus but … what this piece was about was can we have a sensible debate rather than headlines that say ‚ÄėWomen get paid less than men‚Äô, that‚Äôs oversimplifying it to the point of being disingenuous,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúI was called a misogynist or an anti-feminist. No, no forget that … what fact in this piece of work do you disagree with and not a single person could find an inaccuracy.‚ÄĚ
There‚Äôs a lot of research behind Pie‚Äôs furiously funny rants. Even if you disagree with him ‚ÄĒ and Tom says he gets it wrong a lot ‚ÄĒ there‚Äôs no denying the heart and mind behind the humour. Which is why Tom gets rather ranty himself when he‚Äôs accused of creating a monster.
‚ÄúWhat changed my mind about certain things was the referendum (to leave the EU) and although the result was shocking … it was the reaction to the result from the people who voted differently to the result and the reaction was we live in a country of racists,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúDo you really have that low opinion of the British electorate that you think the majority of them are racist? And that to me really opened my eyes to an inherent issue with left-wing politics.‚ÄĚ
An opinion that was only backed up with the response to Trump‚Äôs election. ‚ÄúEveryone who was for Hillary on their Facebook page, all they saw was Trump‚Äôs a twat,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúAnd he is a twat. But when Hillary said half of the people who were thinking of voting for Trump are a basket of deplorables, I think she lost the election that day. What you‚Äôre saying basically is I‚Äôm not going to debate with you because I think you are deplorable. And by not engaging with the people you disagree with, you are refusing to persuade them of your point of view. And if you refuse to persuade them then you‚Äôre going to lose, because that‚Äôs what elections are about.‚ÄĚ
The creator of a fake reporter/social commentator is sounding like a real one now. ‚ÄúYou still see it with Trump voters. ‚ÄėF‚Ä¶… Trump voters.‚Äô Well, if that‚Äôs your opinion you‚Äôre handing him a second term. What you need to do is go ‚ÄėWho are the people who voted for him and why?‚Äô If you haven‚Äôt been able to feed your family for over a decade you‚Äôre not going to want more of the same, you‚Äôre going to want change no matter how awful that change looks. It‚Äôs so obvious to me and yet I‚Äôm considered right wing for expressing this point of view.‚ÄĚ
This unintended departure from Pie‚Äôs original brief, however, has made for what his creator believes is more interesting and balanced satire. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs more willing, or I am much more willing as a writer, to shine a light at the left as I am to attack the right for being as deplorable as they are.‚ÄĚ
Not bad for a character born out of desperation. Tom, whose mother and sister both live in Sydney, had been eking out a living from one ‚Äúcrap acting job‚ÄĚ to the next for 15 years but with his 40s looming he was ready to throw in the towel. ‚ÄúI thought I can‚Äôt do this anymore, mentally and financially ‚Ä¶ I thought I need to stop otherwise I‚Äôm going to die lonely and poor. But when you decide to stop and give it up the jeopardy has gone. Suddenly I felt like I could do whatever I wanted because I‚Äôd officially failed.‚ÄĚ
So he dug out this odd fake reporter he‚Äôd had in his head for a while, one he‚Äôd done a few pieces he thought at the time weren‚Äôt that funny, and had another go. He‚Äôd always loved newsreel bloopers. ‚ÄúTake away the politics and the comedic conceit is that it is such a formal way of behaving, a news presenter or news journalist, certainly on the television and the radio ‚Ä¶ so what do they behave like when they don‚Äôt have to behave?‚ÄĚ
Filmed outside Parliament House or similar, Pie is seen pulling out his earpiece and going hell for leather ‚ÄĒ generally at poor ‚ÄúTim‚ÄĚ, his producer ‚ÄĒ about what he really thinks of the story he is covering. Tom was on a train three years ago when a friend rang to tell him one of his videos had clocked up a million views on YouTube.
‚ÄúI didn‚Äôt really believe it and then by the end of the next day it had been viewed two million times and I knew it was an opportunity.‚ÄĚ Still he thought he had a couple of weeks at best to kickstart his career and get something out of it. ‚ÄúBut three years later I‚Äôm touring the UK and Australia and playing some of the most iconic venues in Britain.‚ÄĚ
The show he‚Äôs just finished in the UK, which explores the ‚Äúculture of offence, this idea of how quickly people are to condemn someone for being offensive‚ÄĚ, was one of the easiest and most rewarding things to write, but will require a bit of tweaking for an Australian audience. Having read up on Australian politics and finding our politicians to be lamentably dull, he thinks he‚Äôs hit on a hot topic. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs the week of the royal wedding and I‚Äôm sure you have many people who love the royal family but I‚Äôm sure you have many, many republicans too. But I also think if you are a royalist you are quite happy to take the piss out of the royal family, so that might be my starting point. Basically because the show goes in another unexpected direction, I need to start on firm ground. I‚Äôm hoping Trump and the royal family is a pretty safe bet, with the odd joke about your politics thrown in.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄėI don‚Äôt want to compromise him. I care a bit too much about it to water him down.‚Äô
Tom isn‚Äôt sure how much life is in Pie but he‚Äôd love to see him with his own TV show similar to one of his comedic heroes, Alan Partridge, the narcissistic radio jock and TV host created by Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci in the early 90s, though he reckons he‚Äôs had more airtime on Australian television, with several appearances on Charlie Pickering‚Äôs The Weekly, than the UK.
‚ÄúAustralians seem to be more open to having this sweary bloke from the UK whereas I have had many meetings here and they go ‚ÄėWe love your work, but um, it‚Äôs not for us‚Äô,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúThe thing is I don‚Äôt want to compromise him. I care a bit too much about it to water him down.‚ÄĚ
It‚Äôs gruelling work coming up with a segment each week, particularly because they‚Äôre often on difficult topics (the Grenfell fire cladding scandal in the UK, school shootings in the US, terrorist attacks in Paris) and require a lot of thought and care to keep the content at a consistent satirical level.
It‚Äôs those free segments on social media, though, that sell tickets to his live shows, which is how he earns his living. He‚Äôs helped by co-writer Andrew Doyle, who he says has brought a lot more balance to Pie. ‚ÄúHe voted to leave with the referendum, I voted to remain, so therefore there‚Äôs a discussion between us as writers so that Jonathan Pie is quite balanced when it comes to Brexit. He understands why people wanted to stay, he understands why people wanted to leave and he‚Äôs appalled that people assume that the others are stupid or bigoted.‚ÄĚ
Both writers are also voracious consumers of media, which is what gives Pie such powerful ammunition. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs the key to this sort of thing, keep reading. And don‚Äôt just read the Guardian, read the Daily Mail, or whatever your equivalent is, don‚Äôt just read things that speak to my sensibilities, read the exact opposite. Even Trump isn‚Äôt always wrong. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Do you know what I mean? Even someone you hate will have some merit in what they say, even if it‚Äôs just to help you articulate your argument.‚ÄĚ
That, he says, is the fable of his live show: that you have to listen to your opponents to be able to beat them. ‚ÄúListen to what they‚Äôre saying and then articulate their argument to persuade them otherwise.‚ÄĚ
You can be certain, though, that Pie will be delivering this message in an angrier, more expletive-ridden and viscerally funny rant than his creator. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm often accused of pushing a political agenda. I‚Äôm merely a commentator. I‚Äôm hoping that it‚Äôs funny, I‚Äôm hoping that it‚Äôs entertaining, I‚Äôm hoping occasionally maybe people think differently,‚ÄĚ Tom says. ‚ÄúThe only agenda I‚Äôm hoping for is reasonable political discourse, which is, of course, ridiculous because he is this shouty, angry man who is not very good at political discourse.‚ÄĚ
Jonathan Pie ‚ÄĒ Back to the Studio is at Regal Theatre, May 18, as part of the Perth Comedy Festival, perthcomedyfestival.com.