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Jonathan Pie won’t save Radio 4

Jonathan Pie isn't Partridge, nor was meant to be. Credit: YouTube

August 31, 2023 - 1:30pm

“Are we about to hear the rudest comedy ever broadcast on Radio 4?” gushed the channel on Sunday night, as it anticipated the broadcast of satirist Tom Walker’s new radio series Call Jonathan Pie. Behind the shrill excitement, however, was a hint of quiet desperation. Once a firmly held sceptre among the crown jewels of British broadcasting, Radio 4 has succumbed to what is a broader trend across the corporation: namely, fleeing audiences. In May, figures from Rajar revealed the radio station had lost 1.2 million listeners, a figure rivalled recently by the two million now gone from Radio 2. 

Pie, Walker’s fictional alter ego, has already been courted by BBC3, but his deployment to Radio 4 seems a deliberate ploy by commissioners to signal that they are keen to shake up the apparently stuffy sound. Pie went viral in the aftermath of the 2016 US election, prospering after making the groundbreaking discovery that you didn’t have to be funny to make political satire anymore. 

The character is a news reporter gone rogue, channelling the demented spirit of Network’s Howard Beale to deliver forbidden pearls of wisdom such as: Hilary Clinton lost because she wasn’t a very good candidate, or Boris Johnson wasn’t a very good prime minister. 

According to its new comedy commissioner, this is all perfect for a Radio 4 audience in need of something a bit spicier. The show has been on BBC Sounds since June, where it has been confusingly praised as an answer to the country’s search for a new Alan Partridge. This comparison doesn’t make sense, but also gets to the heart of why Pie isn’t funny.

Steve Coogan’s clown is driven by his desire to be a national treasure. Pie, on the other hand, betrays no such vulnerabilities. Behind the guise of the absurdist jester sending up both sides, there are the hallmarks of a surprisingly overt worldview for a comedy character: that Brexit destroyed the country, Gary Lineker deserves the money he’s paid, and that Jeremy Corbyn was a proper Labour leader.

Pie isn’t successful without good reason. He attempts to distil the best of his comic era and the one that preceded it, yet in this same process risks becoming a confused creation. There is the anarchic energy of Rik Mayall and the dismal chaos of The Thick of It, but also the more recent comic proselytising pioneered across the Atlantic by Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Lurking behind the blusterous fucks and twats is the inescapable politics. 

But why not? In an age in which no one reads newspapers and young people don’t vote, perhaps the best conduit for a political worldview was always the angry faux-comedy of a pub rant. Pie toys with the public’s unspent frustration through a confusing mix of nihilism and sincerity. This “you’ve been conned by them” narrative arc curiously places him in the same metaphysical category as Alex Jones and Tucker Carlson

Institutionalised on BBC 4 Radio, however, the act’s innovation reveals itself as an illusion. Listening to Pie’s latest, there is a strange sense of déjà vu in relation to the famously dire comedy of Radio 4: the nasally anger, the slightly flat jokes. All this creates a thin comic veil over the smug, pious anger about the stupidity of call-in guests, of the media, of politicians, of everybody. 

The BBC is mocked too, naturally, but just around the corner are the generous lashings of scorn towards the usual targets of Brexit, Nigel Farage, The Sun et al, all via characters drawn less from people encountered in his own life than the grotesque caricatures of Twitter and the media Pie is supposed to hate so vehemently.

In this sense, Radio 4 viewers are being conned. Pie is merely an unplugged, cruder version of a stale comic sentiment that has reigned supreme at the corporation over the last few decades. This is a cerebral curation of creative swearing and a political worldview unchanged since university, whose practitioners club together to form the cockwomble generation

Walker has survived as a clever contortionist, a meteorologist attuned to the fickle vagaries of social media rage. This has helped add an extra dimension to his act: of revelation, of speaking truth to power. Effective though this act has proven to be, it offers the BBC neither a reappraisal of its comedy greats nor fresh ground for a new audience.


Fred Skulthorp is a writer living in England. His Substack is Bad Apocalypse 

Skulthorp

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Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
10 months ago

Having looked at some videos on YouTube, his schtick is pretending to a journalist while reciting the type of foul mouthed, deranged lefty nonsense ranting one finds in the Guardian comments section. It is not satire, but merely a unsophisticated, transparent device to dole out the sort of the smug, condescending, metropolitan leftist content that has been driving listeners away from BBC radio and TV.
I suppose the BBC thinks that if they wrap up the same crap they have been dishing out or years, in a supposed satire, people will be thick enough to swallow it. More likely, it when hasten the exodus.

Last edited 10 months ago by Marcus Leach
j watson
j watson
10 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

Do folks not ‘get’ the indignation exactly the reaction Pile would hope for from some, find extremely funny, vindicating and reassuring ?
I can sense this comment stream may provide a good few chuckles yet.

Matt M
Matt M
10 months ago
Reply to  j watson

It isn’t the comedian that will be worried (he will be laughing all the way to the bank), it is the BBC. Radio 4 lost 11% of their audience last year (1.2M listeners). The reason is obvious – woke producers vs non-woke listeners. A foul-mouthed, woke, remoaner, leftie comedian is pretty likely to speed up the exodus.

Last edited 10 months ago by Matt M
Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
10 months ago
Reply to  j watson

If I was indignant I would say the BBC should not employ him. I am glad they are employing him, just as I am glad at all the other stupid self-defeating things that the BBC does which diminish its audience and make the licence fee politically unsustainable.

Waffles
Waffles
10 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

Defund the BBC.

tom j
tom j
10 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Yes, well done, I laughed at you j watson!

Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
10 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

I think if you watch a few more, you will find he is not really of that ilk at all. He is definitely not a fan of cancel culture, identity politics or lefties such as Owen Jones.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
10 months ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

I agree, while he’s undoubtedly left leaning I’ve seen him attack both sides in his videos

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
10 months ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

“He is definitely not a fan of cancel culture, identity politics or lefties such as Owen Jones”

Of course he is.

Teresa Baker
Teresa Baker
10 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

And every programme seems to be about the afflicted. Nobody seems worth talking to unless they have an injury, childhood trauma, some disease, been abused or suffered terribly. I get fed up with it.

Anthony Roe
Anthony Roe
10 months ago

No doubt commissioned by the same friend of the DG who thought Nish Kumar was funny and Frankie Boyle was edgy.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
10 months ago
Reply to  Anthony Roe

Frankie Boyle was funny when he first came about to be fair. How Kumar ever got near the telly is a mystery

Naren Savani
Naren Savani
10 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Minority Quota

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
10 months ago

I wonder if anyone in the hallowed halls of radio sit back and ask themselves why does Joe Rogan have 10 million viewers, or whatever it is?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
10 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I ask myself why Joe Rogan is as popular as he is. I’ve listened to a few and I find him incredibly dull and rather clueless as to what is being discussed

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
10 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Rogan is dull and somewhat thick, but his skill is in getting and genuinely listening to the huge variety of interesting guests he is able to attract. He asks them the questions his listeners would ask, and he doesn’t let them off the hook when they bring their talking points (his interview with Dr. Sanjay “horse paste” Gupta is a perfect example).

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
10 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

He’s authentic and apparently lives in the same universe as his audience.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
10 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Authentic doesn’t necessarily mean good

J B
J B
10 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I agree
However, Joe Rogan is genuinly good. I don’t like all his guests or topics but, as a long form podcaster, he is a demon interviewer. He also has a ton of FU money and doesn’t give a damn about legacy media which adds to the mix. One of those personable Yanks that are great to mix with socially I suspect.

Last edited 10 months ago by J B
ben arnulfssen
ben arnulfssen
10 months ago

It hadn’t occurred to me that the central joke with Alan Partridge is that he thinks he is Stephen Fry… but yes, definitely.

Pie seems like a second-rate Pub Landlord. The genius of THAT satirical creation is that he is completely without self-awareness, a very British form of humour

R4 6:30 slot stopped being funny years ago

Last edited 10 months ago by ben arnulfssen
Chipoko
Chipoko
10 months ago
Reply to  ben arnulfssen

R$ 6:30pm slot is toe-curlingly bad (apart from I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, which seems, so far, to have escaped Woking Class treatment).

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
10 months ago
Reply to  Chipoko

Ed Reardon? Come on…

Coralie Palmer
Coralie Palmer
10 months ago

Yes! The utter joy of him being on BBC sounds.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
10 months ago
Reply to  ben arnulfssen

No I think that’s not quite right. I’ve seen Pie’s live shows (well, two) and he’s very self aware and far from “woke”. Indeed he lampoons the “woke” sections of his audience. Hard to imagine how it’s going to work on primetime radio though, without the swearing.

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
10 months ago

Poor old Auntie *
Try so hard to be relevant but far too often alienate the audience they actually have. I have seen this character on Youtube and I don’t even think it is satire, just not funny from any political left or right.
The BBC have one chance to remain as is and that is to make sure the Conservatives don’t win the 2024 election. If by some chance the Conservatives win then the funding model of the BBC will radically change in 2027. If, as seems likely at the moment, Labour win then the BBC will expect “payment” for their “support”.
*Auntie is an old name often used for the BBC, Auntie Beeb for example.

Ian L
Ian L
10 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Buckley

Let’s keep auntie away from the kids. She can’t be trusted

Dominic A
Dominic A
10 months ago

Seems like a case of, Those that can, do. Those that can’t, critque. The big problem with this now, is that humour is under existential threat for political reasons – first kill the comedians then you can control the people. This article reminds me of David Stubbs’ political corrections of British Humour in his new book, Different Times – as The Times reviewer described him, ‘a proper little passive aggressive commissar.

Coralie Palmer
Coralie Palmer
10 months ago
Reply to  Dominic A

In a pleasing irony, that book is so bad that some parts of it are laugh-aloud funny – his delirious attempt to crush Monty Python being a high point. Not enough of those parts to finish the dreary effort though.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
10 months ago

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were funny before they became cringemeister political hacks. The average cat meme gets more laughs than those two in over a decade.

Lucas D
Lucas D
10 months ago

“Prospering after making the groundbreaking discovery that you didn’t have to be funny to make political satire anymore.”

Take a bow

Last edited 10 months ago by Lucas D
Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
10 months ago

It’s all so desperately safe, predictable and middle class, this ‘comedy’ which is really just the thinly disguised snobbery and resentment of the unemployable graduates of something with ‘Studies’ in its title.
Left wing comedy is an oxymoron.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
10 months ago

My algorithms no longer take me to any left-wing contributions to culture. With the exception of the above and Owen Jones, I doubt any exist.
Instead, it is the people who are now engaged in the Great Leap Forward rather than these cultural gatekeepers working for the media of the old order. Only our opponents appear on the heretical YouTube.

j watson
j watson
10 months ago

He sounds fab and will have to listen in. Appreciate Author drawing attention.
Was it Groucho Marx who said ‘ a joke ain’t really funny until someone takes it seriously’?

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
10 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Nah, probably his Uncle Karl.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
10 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Yes, you’ll love him. He’s right up your street.

James Kirk
James Kirk
10 months ago

Jack Russell syndrome desperately trying to make a living. Without Youtube he’d be stacking (lower) shelves.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
10 months ago

Oh lighten up, for heaven’s sake.
“Wrong sort of humour for Unherd. Laugh, but not at our sacred cows, or we will patronise you from a great height.”
Tally, but not ho.

V Reade
V Reade
10 months ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

Very true. Don’t offend the herd on ,er, unHerd