"If it's not good, or just a cat, people won't watch it for more than a minute": Jonathan Pie creator Tom Walker on social media
Social media has become a hotbed of creativity, opening up media channels to the world to allow those who want to entertain and communicate with people all around the world like never before.
The recent emergence of the fictitious reporter, Jonathan Pie, angrily ranting at his camera man between broadcasts about topical events has engrossed millions of viewers through Facebook and YouTube. Now, as the character reaches the mainstream through three reports made for Comic Relief, The Drum speaks to Pie's creator and performer Tom Walker who dropped by The Drum Arms during Advertising Week Europe, to discuss his creation and his lessons from it.
Where did the concept for Jonathan Pie originate?
The concept was never meant to be political satire really. The idea was based in a YouTube clip of Peter Sissons where he is slumped over a newsdesk while the feed have gone to sport or the weather, he is watching the Weakest Link and he basically insults Ann Robinson's tits, showing you they are human. There is a difference between that public and private persona and news reporters really encapsulate that with the rhythms that we hear these people speak - the moment someone says 'cut' we see their real persona. That was the genesis of it. I have had this character in my mind for a few years but never bothered to do anything with it.
I had been an out of work actor for a long time and I decided that I couldn't really cope financially and mentally, and I thought - I can't do this any more. But I had this character in my head. I already knew the name and what it was going to be like. Then Corbyn became the Labour leader and I had been following the Labour leadership with interest having backed Corbyn. I thought 'why not have a socialist leader for a supposedly socialist party - what an extraordinary idea that would be." Then he became leader and about 20 seconds after it was announced, literally the first thing the BBC asked in their next interview was "How long has he got?" I thought - it exposed everything that is wrong with the news. They had signed, sealed and delivered his death warrant before he had even started. And that same death warrant is still pending.
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I'm not someone who has posted their political views on Facebook, I've always found it a bit vulgar talking about how you vote, but I thought the character in my head could probably articulate that, so I did it. I recorded it and put it out there and it had about 1,000 hits in four days. I thought that was massive and it definitely reached people that I hadn't been able to before. So I did another one the next week and it was about the just broken pig fucker story, then I did a third one, which was outside Westminster and someone nicked it on Facebook and it went ballistic and ever since that moment, it changed my life and I realised that all these doors started opening. I remember thinking that I maybe had two days to a week to keep these doors open and see what I can get out of it. Here I am standing here nearly two years later and it's due to that determination to get as much out of it as I possibly can.
How do you prepare each video?
It's heavily written, it's not heavily learned. That's how you get that feeling, partially because I'm lazy but whenever he looks like he is trying to think what to say next it's because I am remembering the next line. It's heavily scripted thought.
Who writes each episode?
I write them and I have written a live show with my co-writer Andrew Doyle. So we started writing that about a year ago and since then we have worked together. It's either me or me and him week on week.
It's been incredible and there is a whole generation that thinks this is new and it's not. It's angry satire, but it just got forgotten for a bit. The reaction has been great. What I do find interesting through and it says a lot about the political times that we live in is from the left, when they do disagree they tell me they are never listening to me ever again. That's the whole problem. They are part of the problem and that is probably more true of the left of politics than the right, the unwillingness to at least consider someone else's point of view which Pie would argue is how things like Trump and Brexit come about. That's how Trump got in. From people who despise Trump, not believing that he could ever get in and by not listening to those who did vote for him.
You have to understand and why these people voted for Trump and what motivates them so it doesn't happen again the next time.
Why do you think people have reacted so strongly to the character?
Because it seems new but also be articulates things that people can't articulate, especially on Facebook where people vent their frustrations. Well he vents it in a sweaty, funny, articulate way that perhaps people can't articulate. Perhaps that's part of his success as well, parts of Facebook profile is you advertising yourself. If you think of it in those terms, you put your best picture up, it represents you. What Pie does, if you agree with what he says, is the reason you share it. You want people to see it and it's a statement saying "this man speaks for me". That's why he is successful, people share him because he is part of their personal brand this week.
Who is Jonathan Pie then? Who is this character?
He develops. I remember one week dropping in for the sake of a joke that he had a son and then suddenly from that moment on his son is born. And I love writing it when suddenly he mentions his ex wife and in the live show you do get to understand a bit more about him. Many people are not actually frustrated with Theresa May, they are frustrated at their job or their crap car or their failing marriage, but that spleen is vented politically. That's true of him. It's much more about his frustration with his career, his boss who he hates, his ex wife and his estranged son - that's why he's an angry man. And the most successful comedy characters have a fatal flaw and his flaw is he can't not talk about politics without getting angry about it and it trips him up time and again.
How far do you want to develop him?
Whether he's right for TV or not - I'm trying to develop a sitcom for him. It would be interesting to see him in a bit of a long-form content. Social media and YouTube...its all about the three minute video, which is why I love the live show. It's an hour of him and a lot of people ask "how is that going to work?" Well it does because you don't have to just shout for three minutes, you can develop something a bit more long-form and as a writer and performer it's much more interesting. To keep him on the screen the only way forward would be to give him half an hour a week to develop him in that way. I'd like to try anyway.
Alan Partridge is one influence surely, but what else has influenced Pie?
Partridge has been a massive influence in my life. I knew of him since I was 14 from when it first started. The problem is that because our characters are comparable, they are both in broadcasting while not at the pinnacle of their career, I spend my life talking [mimics Partridge's voice] talking like that.
My vocabulary is personally full of 'Partridgisms' and I have to be very careful to make sure they don't creep over into Pie which sometimes does happen. There is a sarcastic little edge of him in the same way that David Brent is all part of our make up now. We all do a David Brent now and again, I have to be careful not to make him do a David Brent look to camera. But other influences; obviously Chris Morris, that sort of satire and The Thick of It is a massive influence and that would be where I'd want to take him. In that tone. It's a heightened reality but it feels real. Those are typical influences but I'd be mad not to admit that Coogan was a massive influence of all my work.
As an actor and a creator, where do you want to take Jonathan Pie?
My ambition was always to be an actor and it would be nice to be handed a script that I didn't write and you don't have any other responsibility than to learn it. Ultimately the aim is to be a working actor and that was all I have ever wanted to be, but for the time being Pie is my main way of sustaining my career for the rest of however long my career sustains, and I am enjoying doing that. Hopefully there will come a time when I can juggle both but for the next year or two, Pie would be my main focus without a doubt.
What have you learned from social media in creating and building this?
That there are no rule. Everyone told me that no one will watch anything on YouTube that is longer than two minutes, well that's bollocks. And you can see in some of my analytics for how long people watch it for. Most people, if they are still watching one of my films after 15 seconds, will watch to the end and that defies any norm that most people would suggest is the way to do it. Also, if you are savvy, I have just sold out a live tour without spending a penny on advertising. I just used Facebook well without over-saturating it with plugging my tour, but I am trying to sell the download of it now and it's really difficult to make some sales without suddenly turning my Facebook page into an advertising stream. At the end of the day, all Jonathan Pie is as a product is a Facebook page. That's all it actually is, with free content, so it's been. A strong learning curve, but if it's good enough then people will watch it. If it's not good or it's just a cute cat, no one is going to watch it for more than a minute. If it's interesting, engaging and challenge then it doesn't matter. The Trump video got 120 million views. That's my longest video ever and that's seven or eight minutes and most people watched it to the end.
How do you fund this?
The live tour. A ticket sale is how I afford to do it. It's quite funny at the moment because I am doing something for Comic Relief this week while two or three episodes are coming out. The amount of shit I've gotten for that from people calling me 'a sell out'. I'm doing something free for charity, it's not really selling out. I need to find a way to keep it going but for the time being I'll be doing another tour next year and that will pay enough money to keep going another few months before I need to find more revenue.
Tickets and details about Tom Walker's live tour with Jonathan Pie can be found on their official website.