At some point in the early 21st century, comedy stopped being funny. Politics became the biggest joke on earth, thanks to Trump, Corbyn, Trudeau, Rees-Mogg et al. The professional humourists couldn’t keep up. They turned worthy or bitter or both.
Satirical TV news shows, like Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You, ceased to entertain. Famous comedians became Twitter bores. Intelligent stand-ups became pretentious whiners. Satirists on the fringes, meanwhile, became angry and serious.
The actor and comedian Tom Walker is seriously angry. His creation, Jonathan Pie, is a TV news reporter who hates his job and life, and it’s an online hit. The sketches involve Walker, playing Pie, foaming at an imaginary producer in his earpiece. He shouts down the camera about the terribleness of the media, the idiocy of most pundit opinion, the utter horror of modern politics – then goes back to into reporter mode as if all were well. The joke is the disparity between Pie the real man behind Pie the fake news professional. It’s about the sheer awfulness of the 24-hour news age. Or more simply, as Walker puts it when we meet in a Cafè Nero near Broadcasting House, ‘Pie not only takes the piss out of Westminster. He takes the piss out of the people reporting Westminster.’
The videos are clever, topical, much-shared on social media. But they aren’t funny in any conventional ha-ha sense. Pie is depressing more than anything. Which isn’t to say it is bad – nobody sensible thinks comedy must be all laughs. Pie is a brilliant conceit, Walker’s delivery is excellent, and it’s hard not to be impressed by his command of character. Pie has been compared been to Alan Partridge, which Walker takes a compliment, though he adds, ‘the difference between Pie and Partridge is that Pie is good at his job. You have never seen him fuck up on air, he’s never once done it. He is quite good at what he does it’s just that he doesn’t enjoy doing it.’
Like Partridge, Pie is a sad case. He’s divorced and, occasionally, in between spittle-flecked rants against late democracy, he reveals clues about his family breakdown or his distance from his son. That is important, says Walker. ‘I love this idea that Pie is like a lot of us. We are not really pissed off with Theresa May, we’re not really pissed off with Boris Johnson, we’re pissed off with our own shitty little lives but we vent, having a good old argument about politics kind of gets it out and that’s part of it for him. Every comedy character has a flaw, like for Basil Fawlty it would have been his snobbery, or Partridge it was wanting to get on the telly. For Pie, it’s that he can’t not talk about politics and he can’t talk about politics without getting angry. There are so many people I meet that are like that, they can’t help it.”
In his savage mockery of the news, Pie echoes great television comedies such as The Day Today or Brass Eye. Yet the sketches are more millennial in spirit; the message more earnest. It’s difficult to see how Tom Walker differs from Jonathan Pie. The character may be a little angrier than the creator, but not much. They are both lefties who swear a lot. When Pie fulminates against austerity, neoliberalism, Blairites and the Tories, it’s obvious that Walker feels it too. ‘I don’t like our present government,’ he admits. ‘I can’t stand them so yes, Pie and I cross over. I am also glad that Corbyn is in charge of the Labour party because like Pie I think the Labour party should be left wing.’
Walker insists, however, that he’s ‘not using Pie to create the Tom Walker manifesto. That’s not what I’m interested in at all… One of the best things that happens after a show is when someone comes up to me and shakes my hand and then whispers in my ear “I vote Tory”.’
Freedom of speech, he says, is the one subject on which ‘Tom as Pie gets on his high horse and I catch myself pontificating a little’. Quite often in the sketches Pie righteously berates the left for shutting down debate on politically correct grounds. He attacks those who dismiss Trump or Brexit voters as racists or sexists. He lambasts those who say that Jacob Rees-Mogg’s religious views have ‘no place in public life’ – or, as Pie says, ‘it’s quite normal for a Catholic to agree with Catholic bullshit. If you think his opinions are rare, your echo chamber is secure.’
Such consistency on free speech lands him in trouble. Pie’s blisteringly honest tirade about why Donald Trump won in November, which has been viewed millions of times, prompted great consternation among so-called progressives. Pie was accused of apologising for Trumpism because he suggested that Hillary Clinton deserved to lose. The backlash was so sharp that Walker’s co-writer Andrew Doyle felt compelled to write a piece for the Huffington Post entitled, ‘Jonathan Pie Said The Left Was Wrong, Not The Right Was Right’. Walker now says crossly that he ‘wouldn’t have written that’. His attitude is more ‘if you’re offended, well you don’t have to watch it.’ He says that ‘the problem with my core audience is they are part of a liberal left that refuses to listen to other people’s points of view and that’s why we keep losing. I now spend quite a lot of time taking them to task for that.’
Pie has also been criticised for having launched his career on Russia Today. The Kremlin-backed broadcaster was quick to spot Pie’s online appeal, and offered him a contract before anyone else did. ‘I’ve been given a lot of shit for that; I’m Putin’s puppet, blah-blah-blah,’ he says, ‘But, to give you some context, they offered me 500 quid a week which was more money than I’d ever seen in my life. And they gave me total artistic control. They never wanted to see a script. It allowed me not do any more shit jobs working in call centres.’
Having been quite poor before his Pie character blew up, Walker is winningly anxious about his career. He complains, more than once, that no mainstream channel has yet offered him show – despite his obvious appeal to the younger generation. He’s also eager to plug his new book, Jonathan Pie: Off the Record – ‘a loo-read… or if you’re pleb, toilet-read’, he writes in the introduction – as well as his live tour next year. He’s less a social justice warrior using heavy satire as his weapon, more a talented actor on the make at a time when comedy is losing its sense of humour.
‘I’m not marching towards some utopia,’ he says. ‘I’m marching towards my Oscar.’ We end it there, possibly because it’s the first obvious joke he’s made in 45 minutes.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.