Jonathan Pie’s American Pie aired on BBC3 this month, marking a new step in the rise of the ranting satirical spoof news reporter. Viewers tend to read him as an example of generally ‘lefty’ or even progressive comedy. And with his attacks on austerity and tax avoidance, and past defence of Jeremy Corbyn, the character might well originally have been that. But things are not quite as they seem.
It’s been a busy month for Pie. As well as the BBC debut, one half of the team behind him – actor Tom Walker – has been criticised for taking selfies with fascists at Tommy Robinson’s Brexit march, while the other half – journalist Tom Doyle – is implicated in revelations about spiked magazine and the far right, as we will see. We suggest that these are not merely fortuitous occurrences, and instead point to the underlying politics of Pie’s comedy itself. Pie’s fans will scoff that ‘even’ a character as benign as Pie can be attacked from the left for being too right-wing these days. But this is not quite the point. As we have suggested elsewhere, the greater concern in culture today may not be that entertainers, thinkers and politicians are ‘secretly’ fascist or sympathetic to the ‘alt right’. Rather, the more important thing for the left to be perceptive to, is the parts of alt right thinking that many centrists, liberals, and even left-wingers are privately perfectly comfortable with: and these tendencies are getting more marketable by the day.
We suggest that Pie reflects a wider pattern of initially liberal and leftist figures ‘flipping’ toward further right-leaning contrarian positions in response to this market. Since Jordan Peterson demonstrated that it is possible to ‘monetize’ resentment towards ‘social justice warriors’ – the anti-political correctness psychologist earns $80k per month in Patreon donations – many individuals and institutions who should know better have found the attraction difficult to resist.
Even without the tacked-on bits of The Office-derived filler added to flesh out Pie’s character in American Pie, Jonathan Pie is a strange act. It’s comedy, but it has no jokes. It’s satire, but there’s no ironic gap between what the character says and the message we’re meant to take from it. Jonathan Swift trusted that his readers would not approve of his proposal for eating the children of Irish peasants, but rather would recognise it as an exaggeration of the sort of heartless idea the kind of English aristocrat he was attacking might come up with. Another news-based satirist, Chris Morris’s absurd headlines on The Day Today are delivered with deadpan seriousness, but the ‘message’ we receive is that news media itself is somehow absurd. When, by contrast, Pie rants to the camera against identity politics or tax avoidance, his targets are assumed to be those shared by the laughing participant. In this way, it is a more prescriptive ideological comedy than its apparent predecessors, directing its viewer not only to be against something ridiculous and absurd but to be forsomething which it would be ridiculous or absurd to be against.
Satire that isn’t satire is also pretty popular among the alt right. As the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer’s style guide– in which Andrew Anglin gives potential contributors advice as to how to get racist views to gain traction among readers – reads, ‘the unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not’. Pie’s snide exasperation meanwhile, might remind us of the YouTube lectures against political correctness of such alt lite figures as Paul Joseph Watson. Pie might not be in bed with such extreme toxic ideologues as Anglin and Watson, but his comedy might nevertheless share something of that logic.
In turning his focus from riots to rape jokes, social care cuts to safe spaces, Walker wouldn’t be the first left-winger to make the trip right via a misplaced fixation on ‘free speech’. A paradigmatic British example is spiked magazine, formerly Living Marxism, and now funded, as George Monbiot has recently uncovered, by the notorious far right Republican Charles Koch Foundation. The Kochs evidently see something beneficial to their cause in spiked’s obsession with the alleged oppression of white men. spiked specialises in such works of faux-rebellious cringe-contrarianism as ‘Why the Modern Left Loves Shutting Down Debate’, ‘Let’s Stand Up for the Right to Be Offensive’, and ‘The Stupidity of Modern Anti-Racism’. If these examples of spiked articles seem familiar in tone to admirers of Pie, it’s because they are among the many the co-writer of Walker’s Pie monologues, Doyle, has written for the site. When Walker was attacked for making rape jokes at Cambridge Union in 2017, it seemed those spiked headlines were only a breath away.
We can’t speculate further on the personal motives of the Pie team, nor indeed on their financial ones. However, we can address those of the BBC in giving such a transparently substandard performer his own show (Jonathan Pie’s American Pie aired to two-star reviews across the national press). As Tom Mills has shown, the BBC has, since at least 2010, responded to accusations of liberal bias by deliberately courting the populist right (Nigel Farage well before UKIP’s 2015 election success made him a relevant voice) and even far right (more recently, Tommy Robinson). While the BBC might claim – in classic ‘free speech’ manner – to have opened these voices up for criticism, it seems hard to argue that the BBC has not at the same time needlessly given credence and respectability to their views. If Farage and Robinson represented the BBC hearing the siren call of the right at the level of politics, we should be concerned that Pie represents a similar gesture at the level of culture. Haemorrhaging viewers of key shows, and always in danger under a Tory government, we should be concerned that the BBC are starting to see Peterson’s Patreon account as a viable business model in its comedy output.
James Smith and Alfie Bown
Alfie Bown is a lecturer and a journalist for The Guardian and The Paris Review, among other places, who writes mainly about how videogames are kind of rightwing.
James Smith is author of Other People’s Politics: Populism to Corbynism, coming march 2019.