Jonathan Pie’s political rants have become a social media phenomenon. Creator Tom Walker sits down with The Big Issue to tackle free speech, the state of the media and why writing about homelessness is easy
The day Jeremy Corbyn was elected as Labour leader in 2015 signalled the start of a social media phenomenon, a political upheaval the likes of which Britain hadn’t seen before.
It wasn’t the Corbynistas, it was the birth of Jonathan Pie.
The rage-filled TV news reporter who launches into fiery rants when the camera has stopped rolling, created by comedian Tom Walker, has become a biting commentator on Brexit, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and the ‘woke wars’ waged on social media and the mainstream press.
In fact, Jonathan Pie’s views on the world are so convincing that he even fooled Donald Trump Jr in March. Despite years of videos slating Trump Snr, Pie’s fake praise for the former president was described as “most real videos I seen [sic] talking about the insanity of modern cancel culture” by his son. It’s perhaps a badge of honour for Walker.
As Pie returns to the stage this September for his Fake News (The Corona Remix) live show, the TV news landscape has expanded in his pandemic absence.
GB News is the new player on the block, bringing big media personalities and opinions to Britain’s televised news output. Would Pie fit in?
“Maybe in real life they would invite Jonathan Pie and then go: ‘Yeah, fill your boots. Just say what you really think’,” says Walker. “I always like the idea that Pie is a BBC reporter because that’s the prescribed way of doing it. But in my new show Pie gets cancelled for making an on-air gaffe that was pretty unsavoury. That’s what the show is all about.
“Actually, GB News has got form in employing people who have been cancelled previously, like Alastair Stewart [who resigned from ITN after posting a string of tweets insulting a Black man]. So I imagine his next move would probably be GB News because he’s sort of been through similar things to those guys.”
In a way, he’s already there. Much of Pie’s early work was a team effort, co-authored by Walker and Northern Irish comedian Andrew Doyle. Although Doyle has identified himself as left-wing and reportedly voted for Jeremy Corbyn in 2017, he has also come under fire from critics for opposing “political correctness” and identity politics. He stopped writing for Jonathan Pie in 2019 and now hosts a regular show called Free Speech Nation on… GB News.
Walker has now been playing the role for six years across a time of unparalleled political upheaval. He’s seen the social media landscape change and the conversation around freedom of speech and so-called “cancel culture” intensify. It’s a wave that the Jonathan Pie character has ridden to great success.
Pie does believe in open debate and reasonable discourse, but he doesn’t practice what he preaches. He preaches listening to your opponent but all he does is shout
With 1.6 million Facebook followers and 700,000-plus subscribers on YouTube, Pie’s regular rants have connected with viewers across the political spectrum.
And after playing the role of a news reporter for the best part of six years, Walker feels a kinship with the real reporters but wouldn’t swap his day job. He tells The Big Issue he was always “fascinated” with the role from an early age and could always “ape the voice” of a BBC reporter.
But unlike the reporters he satirises, Walker occupies a unique place in the world to analyse the world of free speech, politics and the state of the mainstream media. He is, typically, not short of opinions when he speaks to The Big Issue.
A Pie-esque rant is never far away. Whether it be on the so-called MSM – “The problem with the mainstream media is that fact and opinion are given the same weight” – being a lapsed Labour member – “Brexit killed them” – or being branded a right-wing comedian – “These days being called right wing is the biggest insult. That and Leave voter”.
But the ease with which Walker switches between himself and Pie begs the question: what is the difference between them?
“I think we both agree with open debate and reasonable discourse is the only way forward, which is why I believe in free speech and freedom of expression in general terms. Obviously there are outliers within that,” says Walker.
“The difference between me and Pie is Pie does believe those things, but he doesn’t practice what he preaches. He preaches listening to your opponent but all he does is shout.
“Pie is your mate down the pub who won’t talk about anything but politics. And when he does talk about politics, he gets angry and starts lecturing people in the pub. When I get to the pub it’s the last thing I want to talk about.
“I can agree with his politics, but it means I can also turn him into a bit of a wanker. He is a wanker you sort of agree with.”
That view on freedom of speech and cancel culture is not only the focus of Pie’s latest show, it has also coloured a lot of his recent provocative political content filmed during lockdown.
Walker is not the only comedian to speak out on the issue. Jennifer Saunders fanned the flames of the culture war recently with her comments on censorship in comedy, insisting she may not have made it big with Absolutely Fabulous under today’s standards.
We’re all offended at things sometimes. And you always have the right to say I’m upset. But to expect the world to change around you is entitlement
Saunders’ view proved divisive and Walker, too, said he has had criticism for his own stance on free speech. He cites late US comedian George Carlin’s quote: “I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.”
“I tend to agree with that,” Walker tells The Big Issue. “But you’ve got to test that material to know how far over the line is acceptable, how far over the line isn’t quite far enough. You can play with those live audiences. A joke is a joke and as long as the intent and the context of that joke isn’t to have a go at minorities or something like that, as long as the meaning behind it is okay – Ricky Gervais always says the subject of the joke isn’t necessarily the target.
“I would never do a joke that shocks for its own sake unless, within the plot of my show, it was necessary to offend the audience. In the last show I did there were a couple of jokes that deliberately made the audience wince. And then two minutes later, you kind of explain, you pull it back by [explaining] you deliberately did that.
“To me it’s this sense of entitlement that I am offended by something and, therefore, I require the world to change around me to suit my own very specific personal preferences
“We’re all offended at things sometimes. And you always have the right to say I’m upset. But to expect the world to change around you is entitlement.”
To close out the interview, The Big Issue asks Walker about a subject he is only too keen to touch.
He once said in a 2018 interview that writing about homelessness is easy. It should be of little surprise that his response is a Pie-esque take down.
“Because homelessness is so inherently hilarious,” he jokes with a grin.
“I think what I meant by that is it is such a demonstrable indication of a society that doesn’t work and is not interested in helping the poorest people. We live in the sixth biggest on the planet.
“I live in Whitechapel in East London and I see people on the street everyday and if we’re willing to spend I don’t know how many millions of pounds on a fucking royal yacht, it means we can solve homelessness tomorrow. Tomorrow. It’s easy.
“And a society that allows this to happen is a society that isn’t worth it. I think you would be hard-pushed to find many people that think otherwise. I mean, there are more people living on the streets now than there ever have been. It’s a fucking disgrace.
“So that’s why it’s easy to write that because it’s a universal truth.
Jonathan Pie’s ‘Fake News (The Corona Remix)’ will tour the UK from 4th September – 31st October 2021. Tickets at jonathanpie.com
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