If you haven’t seen Jonathan Pie in action yet, he’s the satirical creation of two comedians, Tom Walker (who ‘embodies’ Pie) and Andrew Doyle: a shouty, left-wing news reporter on the potential edge of a nervous breakdown, whose raison d’etre is to deliver scathing monologues ‘between’ to-camera reports for news programmes. When his online videos first went viral, many initially failed to understand he was a satirical character, instead believing he was an actual news journalist, sickened by the state of the world, delivering what he called ‘the real news.’
Since then, Pie has released video reports on Brexit, Trump, the fall of Cameron, and the rise of May, and much more besides. There’s been a live show, a book (and audiobook) of Pie’s greatest political villains, and now this nationwide tour – so an audience of Pie fans arriving at an Jonathan Pie show already have certain expectations going in: a typhoon of sweary political invective directed at Pie’s enemies on the right, and some rather more serious, punchy criticism of his friends on the left, usually punctuated by some dark moments of Pie’s ‘real life’, and more than likely a breakdown pitched somewhere between Network and Basil Fawlty.
For this tour, the format – which allows Walker and Doyle to weave some of Pie’s usually brief social-media-sized rants into an hour and a half of unbroken show – is straightforward: like Alan Partridge before him, Pie is set to go mainstream, with his own show in a nice warm studio, and the live performance being a ‘try-out’ gig to start a bidding war between BBC and ITV for the rights to the show. Clear?
What follows is all you expect … and slightly less. There are some overwritten staged-feeling diversions and excursions from the point, as Pie argues with the technical staff on his show-within-the-show – but there’s a reliable dose of what you came for; sweary ad hominem but accurate rants at Donald Trump and Theresa May raise by far the biggest laughs of the night.
Where the show’s on less solid ground is in its educational and challenging elements: Pie introduces a ‘Wokelator’ spinning wheel to explain the meanings of recently evolved phrases, such as BAME (Black and Asian Minority Ethnic), Mansplaining, and White Straight Male Privilege. These sections are where the show starts to feel off-kilter. While there’s a subtlety to Pie’s assertion that “if you’re a woman and I’m explaining things to you in a patronising manner, it will never be because you’re a woman – it’ll be because you’re an idiot,” it’s an uncomfortable argument, because it assumes the right of the male-explainer-of-things-to-women to decide people are idiots simply by virtue of either not agreeing or not understanding the point they’re making. His argument that White Straight Male Privilege is being used as a blanket term without acknowledging the element of wealth feels like it holds more water, but watching a show where even a fictional white straight male explains why it’s wrong to call him on his privilege as a white straight male is equally uncomfortable. Pie only dares to make the case in the show once – spoilers – his life has spectacularly fallen apart. Which it does in the most clever, the most pithy, the most believable and frightening element of the show.
Without spoiling it to much, comments made in a comical context are taken seriously and exploded into a mushroom cloud of misunderstanding that destroys Pie’s career in real Twitter-time during the course of the show – a timely twist indeed in a country where fellow YouTube comedian Mark Meechan was found guilty in March of committing a hate crime for teaching his girlfriend’s pug to give a Nazi salute, more or less to annoy her. Pie’s way of addressing the culture of offence and the left’s determination to be offended irrespective of context is poignant, it’s clever, it’s believable… it’s just not terribly funny. Plus going direct from the meltdown of Pie’s career, to a tackling of the White Straight Male Privilege question as a way of ending the show leaves an odd taste in the mouth, even if you know the kind of show you were in for when you walked in the door. I’m not suggesting there’s any way of going from a nuclear meltdown of Pie’s career to a feel-good ending – there clearly isn’t. Just be aware that the twist, and the journey from the twist to the end, are harder going and feel more like a punch in the mouth than you might expect, even if you’re familiar with the Pie’s work.
So… could Jonathan Pie: Back To The Studio be considered “Exciting Stuff”? Absolutely. It’s powerful, and cathartic, and a plague on every house you care to name, and from time to time, it is also funny. It’s just not as funny as watching Pie’s pithy, focused YouTube vignettes might persuade you it should be.