Meet the British Satirist Who Fell Into Political Humor and Became a Social Media Star

'Jonathan Pie' creator Tom Walker comes clean

If you are a regular Facebook user, there's a pretty good chance you've seen Jonathan Pie—a faux TV news reporter in the U.K.—swearing up a storm about the state of politics while he "thinks he's off-camera." After all, the fictional character's page on the social platform has garnered more than 50 million video views since last September. 

Pie has hurled insults at British politicians, particularly David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson and Tony Blair, as well as pols here in the U.S.—Donald Trump is becoming one of his favorite targets. Here's Pie's take on Brexit in a post that drew 3.6 million views on Facebook:

The man behind the character is 38-year-old satirist Tom Walker, who became an overnight social media sensation, getting an average Facebook reach of 25 million a month. Months ago, Walker signed on with RT (Russia Today), a state-run channel owned and operated by Vladimir Putin's Russian Federation. But the funnyman recently walked away from the TV station and is getting set to roll out Jonathan Pie Live, a comedy tour in the U.K. that will run through the fall. 

Adweek spoke with Walker by phone to get his take on the current state of British and American politics—with new U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and Trump, respectively, dominating the scenes—and discuss what happened at RT. 

Adweek: What's the story behind the character?
Tom Walker: Well, it's been in my head for years, but I hadn't bothered to do it until last September. You know when there's blooper reels and kind of TV shows going wrong? When I was a kid, it was always the news broadcaster bloopers that stood out to me. My idea was never originally about politics, it was just about things going wrong and the real person. Because there is such an obvious language that news is done in. People don't actually speak like that. That was the genesis of it. 

Why is politics a target-rich area for you?
Well, it is now. I mean the thing is, the first one I did was about politics. And then that one went bonkers. So then I thought, well, I'll stick to the same sort of subject. Three or four in, [the character] went completely viral. What hooked people might have been politics more than the humor. I don't know. I write it more for the humorous point of view. British politics at the moment is going a bit mental, and I feel tied down by it sometimes, do you know what I mean? For instance, we just got a new prime minister last week, and I think, "I cannot not mention that." At the moment, there are so many things happening in British politics, I don't really get a choice about what I get to talk about. 

How often do you riff on American politics?
I did one last November that was a bit of a light piece. It was on Trump. Last November, he didn't have a cat in hell's chance of making the nomination. I was thinking, "Imagine this man thinking he can make president." It was just a few lines because he was in the news here. And then I kept holding off on the U.S. election until the nominations came through. I've mentioned Bernie Sanders a lot because there's been a similar resurgence of the left here. And then I did one a few weeks ago specifically about Trump getting the nomination, which did really well.

As the election progresses, I think the U.S.'s politics will become more prevalent in what I do. Actually, one of my biggest dates on the tour is two days after the election—it's in London—so I am going to have to watch your election very closely. 

Were you a social media-minded person before the Pie character launched?
No, not at all. I had a friend who helped me when this all started up. He's sort of a social-media fiend. You know, there are no rules to it. Some people say the videos cannot be longer than 90 seconds. Well, I am never shorter than 90 seconds. Some of my most popular clips are five minutes long. If it is good enough, people will stay and watch it. But no, for someone who is supposed to be an internet sensation, I am the least tech-savvy person. I mean, I have a Facebook and Twitter account, but I never used to use them. Not it's my job to kind of keep them [flowing] over. It's been kind of a baptism by fire. But I would never be where I am now, at all, without social media.

You are leaving Russia Today?
They have been very good to me. I thought it would be a flash in the pan. I thought I got two or three weeks here in which to capitalize on this momentum that I have. Before them, I had been in discussions with a few TV companies, a few internet companies, but they really didn't get it. With Russia TV, they gave me full artistic control, and it was a no-brainer. Though it has not been without controversy due to their politics. But they've never edited me or tried to control me. I am not a journalist. I am a writer, a satirist, and I don't see it as a conflict of interest—but some do. 

So why are you leaving?
Because I do get a lot of shit for it, to be honest, and it's gotten to a point. I want to be able to go on tour and to talk with people like you and say what I want to say about Russia Today. But if I was still working for them, I couldn't say absolutely anything I wanted about them because I'd still be working for them, you know? I wanted to be free of that so I could move on. 

Is Theresa May good for Jonathan Pie? Is she better for Jonathan Pie than David Cameron?
It's a really odd one, and I have been thinking about this. We have a weekly [parliamentary] thing on TV here called Prime Minister's Questions, where she has taken questions. She's clearly a formidable politician. I got to figure out what Jonathan Pie thinks of her. It's been quite easy to have a go at David Cameron—he's tough, he's old school, he's a man. Do you know what I mean? The thing is, I could hurl insults at him. I wonder if there's going to be a difference literally because she's a woman. I wonder if there's a difference in how it will be perceived hurling insults at her. So I am biding my time before I go out on that limb. I mean, her politics are awful. She's more right-wing than Cameron, without a shadow of a doubt. But she is in some respects more personable. Though that may change—maybe it's just because she's new. She will be ripe for satire, but how I approach that—I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Is your appeal due to more of the politics or the off-camera shtick?
I suppose to many it's the politics. For me, the idea of doing it is about the artistry, the writing and the performance.