Jonathan Pie - Without Decent Political Discourse, It Won’t Get Better.
I talk to Tom Walker, the man behind Jonathan Pie, about responsibility, ignorance, and the new mould of comedy and journalism.
You’ve said in The Pie Manifesto that Jonathan’s a socialist, is he a partisan character?
The character’s partisan, absolutely. He’s a leftie, he’s a Corbynista – he’s a true socialist. He voted remain; but he really struggled with that decision. It’s generally thought that most remainers were a fait accompli, whereas because he’s a socialist and he sees the EU as totally opposed to socialism – it makes his life difficult.
You’re often asked how you differ from your character; does it really matter?
It doesn’t matter to me, it matters to other people. Because from my point of view it’s a writing project, a fiction project, a comedy project, an acting exercise, my job, my career. But my fanbase, and the people that hate me, see me as a political activist, I think, and so think that I have some sort of responsibility. I don’t. And when people ask me "Do you think you have a responsibility?", they often mean "Don’t you have a responsibility to express my opinion?"
That sense of responsibility does, I think, come back to identity politics: people want to find the person behind persona, art or comedy, so they have someone to blame. Is that the world we live in today?
It is. And it’s extraordinarily unhelpful. And people think that they have the right not to be disagreed with. Because the majority of my fanbase are liberal, left-leaning, and lefties are genuinely upset when they hear something that they disagree with –when Pie dares to pull apart identity politics, and dares to pull apart the left, I’m no longer a leftie (in their eyes) because you can’t not be a leftie without being a Nazi.
Opinion that’s demonstrably ignorant is still allowed weight on the news.
You do a lot of things journalists can’t do – and politicians cant do; mainly, get angry and insult people, and that’s because Jonathan has opinions, as well as wanting to debate and discuss. Whereas, journalists are only meant to discuss – or do you think even mainstream news does have its own agenda?
They all have an agenda, they all certainly have an editorialisation. The BBC’s supposed to be neutral but it’s generally pro-remain and slightly right-leaning, or it’s centrist, which is why it doesn’t like Corbyn. In this country you have partisan newspapers and supposedly neutral broadcasters – and it’s the other way round in the US, although less and less these days. So Channel 4 is the liberal, left-leaning, slightly more robust investigative journalism, ITV is ITV – it’s the tabloidy version. Generally their agenda is to get viewership or make money, so it becomes a bit more entertaining: let’s see what the public think, let’s go on social media. That’s not news, is it.
I’ve seen you discuss that topic on clips from your live show – what’s the difference between that form and your YouTube and content?
Well the YouTube thing is my bread and butter really, and I hate to say it but it’s really hard work now to write 3-4 minutes a week. Whereas the live show, that’s a joy; I’ve got an hour, it’s an hour and fifteen minutes long and you can hone it. The weekly output is disposable, I doubt many people watch them more than once. It’s there, it’s gone, and it’s probably irrelevant two weeks later, things have moved on.
There are more than 160 on your channel now.
Fuck, yeah. Well it’s been one a week now for three years.
Do you think it’s going to get same-y?
It is same-y. There is a formula to it – which is why it’s exciting when one-in-six we go off-piste. We did one recently where he was interviewed by a feminist on the gender pay gap, and that was a joy to write and perform and get into a lot of shit with stupid people who suddenly think that because you’re raising a debate you’re a misogynist.
You’ve also taken a punt at “shitty, cynical journalism”; the montages of violence or death, human tragedy or ‘news pornography’ if you like, on the screen. In the age we live in where this sort of stuff is all over social media, what should mainstream news do – how can they remain relevant or sell papers without pushing this material?
Well, you have to decide what you want. The news used to be really rather prosaic, it used to be a man – generally a man, sat there reading out what had happened. You only went to a report if that reporter could tell you something that you couldn’t do from the studio. So it was generally: this is what happened, this is when it happened, these are the implications. And it was far less editorialised, a lot more boring. But these days, if it’s a story about the BBC you’ll have them cut outside the BBC building – and you go, ‘but he’s 100 yards that way’…
It’s just presenting it in an entertain-y kind of way – most news is filler. It’s the age of the 24-hour news cycle. Post-911. Before 9-11, everyone was going: 'What on earth do you need a 24-hour news channel for? We only watch it twice a day.’ Post-9-11 they were like, 'this is fucking brilliant, they’re flying planes into shit – let’s keep it on.' The majority of news now is filler, opinion rather than fact. Opinion has taken over fact. And also, opinion that’s demonstrably ignorant is still allowed weight on the news.
I think the BBC does quite a good job, secretly.
You often talk about ignorant opinion being validated by these sorts of channels; but if you expect there to be a single group of qualified news readers who sum up the day – isn’t that a form of news-reader elitism?
You can split the difference maybe. The news should be about disseminating facts, probably in an interesting way, and then finding some experts to back it up – and also finding experts to challenge that view.
But opinion is part of that.
Opinion is part of it, yeah. I’m a huge advocate of free-speech, and you should have people writing articles about how climate change is bullshit – because then they’re out in the open, and the argument against my argument is out in plain sight, so I can read the arguments against my position and get better at sharpening my point of view.
How much of the news do you think is entertainment?
Filler. I don’t know about entertainment.
Well, I think there’s been a huge growth in broadcasters like Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, or John Oliver, who take the trappings of a news studio – sit behind a desk, and then perform on the news, as comedy. And it’s not the news, they wouldn’t say it is, but it’s becoming the thing people first digest. It’s para-news, and I’d include your show in that.
Oh I get people all the time going “I go to Jonathan Pie for my news”, urgh – don’t fucking do that.
Doesn’t that become your responsibility? (To avoid adopting the authority of ‘the news’)
I say ignore it, you’re stupid if you’re doing that. The problem is that we’re in this age when everyone thinks they have the right to have their opinion consolidated. I read The Guardian, but I also read The Spectator. I follow everything on fucking twitter, from Breitbart, to The Guardian, to The Independent, to The Socialist Worker. And I read articles that make me go “oh yeah, I agree with that”, and articles that make me go “he’s talking out his arse” because it’s part of my job I suppose...
But, I have a much healthier intake of news than most people. You know, I prefer to read The New Statesman, but I’ll read The New Statesman one week and The Spectator the next – and just mix it up a bit. That is the most elitist thing I’ve ever said, I swap between the two. But people don’t do that, and that’s why Guardian readers are such a pain in the fucking arse, because they wouldn’t read anything else. Guardianistas, that’s what I call them. And most people who watch my stuff are Guardianistas, and it’s really nice holding a mirror up. The first half of my live show is Tories, Trump, and then the 2nd half is “You Guardian reading wankers, you’ve got to start listening to people." The point being that if you stop listening to people, Trump gets the White House, and Leave win, and May’s in No. 10, because you refuse to talk to the people you disagree with.
I grew up fucking poor... and I get lectured by privately educated comedians about my privilege – it fucking boils my piss.
I’m trying to understand where you sit in relation to news. Because you are a comedian, whose job is the evisceration and of the news cycle in order to show some truth; but if the mainstream news is coming down from its ivory tower, and is becoming more entertainment orientated, more social-media orientated – there’s been almost a reversal of form. You’re doing each other’s jobs.
Yes, and the news itself is news now. The US administration is all about discrediting the news, and they don’t do themselves any favours. It really pisses me off when CNN does some really shit journalism, because now is the time for The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and CNN to just reign it in and be fucking perfect. Because every time they’re not – you play into his hands. The amount of Americans who think the news is evil – it’s madness. It’s working for him.
The US doesn’t have a state broadcaster. What do you think the role of one should be?
I love the fucking BBC, it’s a great idea – a socialist principle. I’m happy to pay my licence fee, I really am, they’re one of the most respected news broadcasters on the planet. They do have an agenda – and lefties think they’re right wing and vi se versa, there’s a lot of prominent Tory presenters on there – but I think the BBC does quite a good job, secretly. I hung out with BBC news for a day, it was a project that fell through – but I was allowed to sit in on their 6am, 8am meetings – see how they construct the news. And it’s a newsroom like no-other on the planet.
We don’t really think of local radio as being important, but they’ve got this network – and they get information before anyone else. The Daily Mail is the 2nd best at that, they’ve got so many journalists on the ground that Breaking News is either BBC or Daily Mail.
They do fuck up. And I think generally their coverage of Brexit was badly done. No-one was really put on the rack because we were always going to stay in the EU so what’s the point? And it’s the politicians’ fault, more so than it is the journalists’, there was an opportunity for a robust, sensible, national debate there. And we didn’t have one. And the BBC especially could have pushed for one.
Any political leader can now point to any individual incident in a news organisations’ history and say, because of that – they’re not trustworthy. We’ve lost so much trust in broadcasters that we’re eager to believe they’re rotten. How do we fix this?
You have the phone tapping thing, the Leveson inquiry, nothing’s been fucking done. Nothing’s been done. And on the other hand, you’ve got this Hacked Off campaign that I think is noble but misguided. You want a free press; but you want a free-press that’s accountable, so that when they go hacking dead girl’s phones, they go to prison. That’s already been dealt with in the law. But now you’re not allowed to hack people’s phones at all – so now we just go by peoples’ historic tweets. And if you wrote something 6 years ago that is no longer fashionable, we’ll get you that way.
When I interviewed Nick Davies, who took the Murdoch empire to court, he was quick to point out that the 2nd round of Leveson recommendations is being dropped by the government. So this is now a political problem.
And let’s not forget, Murdoch has had most recent occupants of No. 10 in his pocket. “I’ll get you elected if you stop pushing ahead with these recommendations.”
So why aren’t you an activist?
Because I’m an actor. This is an accidental career for me, I don’t care half as much as the character does. It’s a character piece, it’s funny, it’s commenting on the news. I think people take me far too seriously. I take the work seriously; but I don’t take me seriously. My agenda, if there is one, is reasonable political discourse, and I’m doing that ridiculously, through a character who doesn’t have reasonable discourse in him, and I’m doing it over social media – that’s the satire. But I don’t have a political agenda – I love it when Tories come up to me and say “I love your work”.
The problem with journalists in the UK, I sometimes wonder, is that it’s a bit too combative.
In you video on President Trump, you ask: “when has anyone ever been persuaded by being insulted?”. And then you proceeded to insult him –
Yes. That’s the joke. Can you not see that that’s written within it, it’s may not be laugh out loud funny, but he says “don’t use ad-hominem attacks”, and then he calls everybody a cunt. When people are so stupid that they can’t see that…
Well I think it says something about your target audience: just like Pie says, when has anyone ever been persuaded by being insulted – you’re not trying to persuade the people you’re insulting, they’re not listening, or they don’t give a shit. Who you’re actually talking to is the man listening to you on the Clapham Omnibus, I was going to say the working man, but I guess just the country at large –
It’s middle class people, who need to talk to working people. That’s another problem with identity politics as well, it forgets that people are poor. I grew up fucking poor – it’s only in the last year or so I’ve started to earn some money, and I get lectured by privately educated comedians about my privilege – it fucking boils my piss. These millionaire comedians, lecturing me, I can’t fucking bear it.
Yeah, so my question was, your comedy, and perhaps comedy as an art form, seems like more of a weapon to attack the powerful – rather than a tool of conversation?
Yeah, and Pie’s also articulating people’s anger in a scripted form that comes out as if it’s an improvised diatribe. It’s cathartic for people to watch it. And it’s really interesting when in one-in-four weeks, we do something different. Because then suddenly even that audience is getting slapped round the face, and having their perceived norms challenged. I’m having a go at my own constituency – and then having a go to get them back on side.
Why can’t journalists do that? Because we’ve got some excellent opinion columns, so shouldn’t we let them speak their minds?
From a politician’s point of view, it’s always nice when a politician leads their party for a few years and you think they’re a complete nob, Ed Miliband for example, and then they leave and suddenly they’ve got a personality. Miliband’s suddenly human. Paxman to be fair brought his own way of doing things to it – not necessarily his opinion, and he became a parody of himself by the end, but you know “get the fucking answer”, was great.
The problem with journalists in the UK, I sometimes wonder, is that it’s a bit too combative. When politicians walk in, you see it in most political interviews, they sit there and say nothing. Nothing. Because the minute they misspeak – by one word, that’s it.
I’m sure politicians and public servants do have personalities, they may be a bit beaten down, but there’s always a party line, a government line, an editorial line – and the one thing there isn’t room for is just to say what they think. People get attacked online for that.
That’s the whole free-speech thing. You should be able to express your opinion, you don’t have to do it in such a way… like Boris – he’s been deliberately provocative this week, I’m trying to work out why. But his opinion’s valid. It’s a classical liberal point of view that he’s coming from, he’s just done it in such an imbecilic way. I can’t believe anyone’s genuinely offended – it’s just Boris Johnson being a cunt again.
I need to think of Twitter as what it is – just a place for people to vent their spleen. I’ve been subject of a few Twitterstorms now, and I’ve taken it dreadfully personally, lost sleep over it – and then lost the moral high ground when you call them something rude and get involved. Imagine writing an unsavoury joke 6 years ago, getting a new job, and suddenly your new HR department goes back and finds it unpalatable – when actually it’s an in-joke between you and your mate. You know, when Pie started I went back and deleted 3 or 4 tweets. When I wrote them they were the sort of thing that would have been on Mock the Week – but wouldn’t be now. And that could end me. That could end me. It’s not fair.
Comedy used to be about holding a mirror up to prescribed norms
Politicians have a responsibility, to their constituents, to their country. So do journalists, to the truth perhaps. Comedians don’t, in the same way – they run on their own steam. People listen to them, they laugh if they find it funny. Or is this not happening in practice anymore?
It’s not happening in practice, it’s actively being railed against. Stuart Lee, probably our most prominent stand-up comedian, wrote something recently in The Guardian saying there’s no room for irony or nuance in comedy anymore. Saying if someone doesn’t get your stuff, if you offend someone, or if a right-wing opponent takes you seriously – then it’s your fault. You’ve fucked up. I can’t believe that’s coming from our best stand-up comedian, he’s talking out of his arse.
Why are people misunderstanding comedy?
Because they’re stupid, they’re thick! The one that’s thrown at me quite often is that “you’re a useful idiot, for the right.” And I know what I’m fucking doing, just because you disagree with it you’re framing me as either stupid or right wing, that’s unfair. With the gender pay gap, some people said “people may not realise it’s satire” – well fuck ‘em, I’m not going to write for stupid people. Stuart Lee's argument in that article appeared to be saying: “it’s time for comedy writers to assume their audience is stupid”, well I’m afraid I love the guy, I respect him, and think he’s a comedy genius, but he’s fucking wrong about that. Sorry, I’m not going to write for snowflakes. Basically, if you don’t know it’s not satire you are fucking stupid, and if you’re pretending not to know it’s satire on other people’s behalf then you’re being wilfully stupid – which is worse.
My point being, comedy used to be where those structures get unpicked. Now, the head judge of the Edinburgh festival this year wrote about how great it is that comedy is woke, that you can’t offend people with comedy anymore – we’ve moved on from that, and basically that means it’s not funny.
Do jokes ever go too far for you?
For me, yes they do. But the jokes that go too far to me, might not be too far for you, might be deeply unfunny to her – and might be fucking hilarious for the guy over there. So leave everyone to their own taste, stop denigrating other comedians’ work, i.e. my work, because it’s tasteless. And there should not be a prescribed way of doing comedy. There should not be a list of can and cants. Comedy used to be about holding a mirror up to prescribed norms, and challenging those prescribed norms, and breaking taboos. Over the last five years… breaking taboos – you cannot do that because it may offend, and holding mirrors up – that’s fine unless it’s the liberal prescribed view, because you’re alt-right.
What’s interesting is that comedians fucking hate me, but I haven’t met a journalist yet who hasn’t said “I fucking love your work”, whether they’re right or left. What’s left of journalism once Trump leaves the White House – that will be interesting for the future. I hope that the right becomes less right, and the left became less censorious, less sensitive. I think that people on the right are better at debate than people on the left. I think people on the left need to reclaim freedom of speech and learn how to debate - because without decent political discourse, it won’t get better.