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October 2, 2016 | by  | in Features |
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On White Men Being Behind Desks

A little while ago I was in New York, trying really hard to not be a tourist. I didn’t go up the Empire State Building, I didn’t go on that free commuter ferry that goes kind of near the Statue of Liberty, I didn’t go to One World Trade Centre or even the Brooklyn Bridge. Some of it wasn’t entirely intentional (I told myself so many times “oh I’ve got plenty of time to do that” that on my last day I had fourteen attractions to visit, none of which I saw due to a real banger of a headache onset by the yesternight’s farewell boozing that kept me groaning and bedridden until a few hours before my plane home), but a lot of my snubbing was due to my being determined to dive into the NYC ecosystem with as small a splash as possible. I chewed gum on the subway to seem like more of an asshole and so blend in. I would roll my eyes at bewildered German tourists and smh at out-of-towners paying six dollars for a hotdog in Times Square. I walked around Manhattan with my head down, pretending to care nothing for those endless blocks of magnificent skyscrapers, and I stopped smiling, and it all totally worked. After a while I started getting asked about directions and subway connections. I didn’t know any of the answers, and usually at that point my facade crumbled within microseconds, but it was nice to be asked. The one thing though that I couldn’t help myself from getting totally un-New Yorkerly excited about was going to a taping of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Colbert’s Late Show is shot in the Ed Sullivan Theatre up on Broadway and 53rd, and the tickets are free and in super-high demand. To get a ticket you have to fill out a whole online profile and present a photo ID, and then you’re only allowed to go once every six months. People travel from all over the country just to see a taping, and it’s a huge night out for them. (Or rather, afternoon: they had us gather at like 3pm for a 5pm taping. If you want a really good seat you get there at like noon. When you finally get to leave the theatre after the show, it’s still light out.) But it’s easy to see why. Colbert is surely the undisputed king of the late night shows, and has been since he took over from the also legendary David Letterman last September. He’s a powerhouse, with his unshakeable delivery and his super-refined screen charm. (It also helps that he just knows he’s king, the perennially depressed Jimmy Kimmel being relegated to second place, where he’s pretty safe, largely as a result of the limits of his own persona’s comic low self-esteem.) Colbert has heaved the Late Show back into the mainstream. YouTube loves him, because his nightly monologues and desk sequences are as quality joke-wise as any pro stand-up set, and a hell of a lot more relevant. (For an illustration of what else can happen when the helm of a late night institution changes hands, see the tragically fading Daily Show under the impeccably well-intentioned but kind of visionless Trevor Noah.) One of the reasons that Colbert’s Late Show has done so well is that, as everyone expected of the host of the Colbert Report, he shines the show’s spotlight onto the world of politics at every chance he gets. In a climate where the rest of the late night circuit is largely either apolitical (see Kimmel’s timeless “Mean Tweets” or “Lie Detective” series), or alarmingly naive politically (see Trump’s recent appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s late show, where the boyish host notes gravely that “…the next time I see you, you could be the President of the United States,” before getting the candidate’s fake-begrudging permission to mess up his hair, a bit which strongly feels like it was pitched by a campaign coordinator from Trump/Pence 2016), Colbert’s show is refreshingly and urgently current. The day I was in the audience, which was the first show back after a two-week hiatus, Colbert presented a section called “What Donald Trump Did On My Summer Vacation”, where he skewered the candidate—or rather, let the candidate steadily twist himself onto a giant skewer—re. his bizarre plea to Black Americans which was basically a large-scale public neg, with Trump listing off all the reasons he thought that black people’s lives sucked, before telling them “what do you have to lose by trying something new, like Trump?” Colbert then showed us a doctored election ad featuring what he thought Trump’s new campaign slogan should be: “You’re already on fire, so you may as well shoot yourself in the head.” It was searing, bold, and totally unambiguous. It wasn’t just a funny joke at the expense of a public figure who is a walking comedy material factory, it was an outright judgement. If Trump is going to be president, Colbert was saying, we might as well kill ourselves now. Trump has been so present in the media for so long, and been taken so seriously (most media outlets are guilty to some extent of treating Trump and Clinton with false equivalence, by saying like “sure, Trump’s bad, but Clinton’s not so great herself…”) that our standards for judging him have slipped. In the “You’re already on fire” bit, Colbert was telling us in no uncertain terms that—forget the small hands and weird hair—the reality of a Trump presidency would be truly horrifying. It was real, biting satire, and everyone in the audience lost their shit about it.

America has a strong tradition of satire and has in recent history been enjoying a Golden Era of the genre. You now have to be a pretty small-fry politician in America to escape the ridicule of one funny man behind a desk or other. New Zealand, on the other hand, has lately been stuck in something of a ditch satire-wise. Since the demise of Facelift in 2007 and Jeremy Wells’s frequently outrageous Eating Media Lunch in 2008 (though it was relegated from prime time television long before then), politicians here have found it pretty easy to avoid the attention of people who would make fun of them in public. Nathan Rarere’s Brown Eye on Māori Television did a great job of comic current event commentary, but it lacked a mainstream audience, then vanished completely last year. We had to rely on the global-outreach arm of Last Week Tonight to step in and make the appropriate fuss about John Key and his sad flag referendum. And while it probably suits certain politicians pretty nicely to not have a keen satirical eye watching their every action, for others it’s a more worrying sign. “I grew up on a diet of McPhail and Gadsby,” Grant Robertson, the Wellington Central MP, said, “and while some of it was cringe-worthy, it did mean there was mainstream piss-taking of politicians every week. That has gone now. We desperately need more of it, and with more prominence.” Then in 2013 The Civilian appeared out of nowhere, practically mid-sentence, and quickly became a popular source of headlines in the traditional Onion style about New Zealand’s hypocritical politicians and strange, outspoken laypeople. We lapped up The Civilian like it was our first taste of fresh water in years, and its Facebook fandom quickly grew to the tens of thousands. And with our appetite for local satire finally whetted again, last year we got our very own funny man behind a desk, one who likewise emerged from the internet seemingly fully-formed, with White Man Behind a Desk (WMBAD).

One Wednesday in May last year, a video called “Invading Iraq | White Man Behind A Desk” started getting views and shares around Facebook and YouTube. In the video the presenter, an unshaven twenty-one year-old in a brown-grey suit and tie, doesn’t even introduce himself before launching into a list of current New Zealand troop deployments, including “South Lebanon, South Sudan, South Korea, and southest of all, Antarctica.” In later videos he would open with an introduction and we’d learn his name, Robbie Nicol, but the comic mould was, remarkably, laid down from the start of that first video. In line with the modern newsy satire format pioneered by Jon Stewart, and then freeze-dried by John Oliver, WMBAD (it rhymes with “Sinbad”) spins the delivery of real, important issues into entertainment, mocking the boring reverence that “the news” is usually treated with. Watching the video that May, the most shocking thing for me was not learning about New Zealand’s involvement in so many international conflict zones, it was how honestly and truly funny the clip was. The Antarctica joke is dropped ten seconds into the video, and is delivered with the timing and perfect camera-friendliness of a natural. New Zealand broadcasting has struggled for so long with the filming of actual comedy (i.e. stuff that can be laughed at without a quiet, patriotic lowering of chuckle-thresholds, and that has only really been achieved by the effortless talent of Waititi and Wells, with the odd moment of bizarre brilliance captured on tape by the Moon TV gang—none of whom have ever been treated with the regard they deserve by people who matter, e.g. TV commissioning editors, et al.) as NZ on Air constantly reminds us with that steaming heap of lame comedies that it keeps shoving millions of tax dollars into, but here WMBAD was making it look criminally easy. On the lowest of budgets WMBAD sat at a desk in his house, looked down the barrel of a DSLR, and proved singlehandedly that there is hope for the future of New Zealand TV. Soon after that he became, in the opinion of Grant Robertson, “a scruffy, somewhat oddly lit, shining light in the desert of political satire in NZ,” and in the words of my dad’s mate Steve, “Honestly… the funniest person in the land.”

“He’s not a character like ‘Stephen Colbert’ from the Colbert Report,” Robbie told me, “but he isn’t me. He’s cleverer, and a lot more certain of his opinions.” Alongside the comedy of the character, much of what is really engaging about the series is that not only do you get WMBAD’s opinion on the issues at hand, you also get his journey up to arriving at those opinions. The videos often begin with strong assertions (see the “Prison” episode: “The New Zealand prison system is fucked,” or the “The Auckland Housing Bubble” episode: “Auckland is totally fucked,” etc.), which are then broken down into their constituent parts—the who / what / why / etc. That “certainty of opinion” is crucial to the success of the series, because it provides something that we hardly see in the modern media in its pure form: bias. We are now well used to the blinkered tirades of Mike Hosking or Paul Henry or whoever, and they have done their fair share to dirty the name of bias, but English writer Alain de Botton has a more optimistic view of it. Bias, he writes in his book, The News: A User’s Manual, “is a pair of lenses that slide over reality and aim to bring it more clearly into focus. Bias strives to explain what events mean and introduces a scale of values by which to judge ideas and events.” When people disengage from world events as the news presents them, de Botton argues that it’s not necessarily the fault of a “shallow or nasty” audience, “but instead simply that the news isn’t being presented to us in a compelling enough way.” Fiction writers never assume the unearned engagement of their readers but, for some reason, newscasters do—and then they’re surprised when people don’t end up caring about however many people were killed in a remote African town as much as they care about the imminent royal wedding. Because people, it turns out, love stories. And if you can make sense of complex issues by contextualising them into stories, with characters and motivations and wants and needs (and the real trick: doing it with purity of intent), then you can easily get tens of thousands of views on the video you post to YouTube about “tax and spend” government. (Obviously there’s a whole other article to be written about the abuse of storification, but there is a balance to be struck between the current state of our monotonous, super-dry news and that kind of overwrought, slow-motion footage overlaid with a swelling string section to make a political point, or to sell cellphone plans or whatever. Campbell & co. usually do a pretty good job of finding a middle ground somewhere.) And Robbie knows that he’s navigating tricky territory. In a White Man Behind a Desk-expositional episode he pleads, with honest vulnerability: “This show is about politics but you should watch it anyway. I don’t like political news anymore than you do. They make the whole thing seem like a complicated competitive sport, but it’s not. It’s the way we change laws to make people’s lives better.” His mission is clear then: to get as many people as possible somehow caring about politics.

In the episode about Auckland housing, WMBAD addresses non-Aucklanders’ concerns early on. “‘Woah there Robbie’, I hear you say,” he says, “‘I don’t live in Auckland and I don’t give a fuck about the Auckland housing market’.” What follows in the video is a great example of de Botton-esque “intelligent bias” being used to make sense, and relevance, of a complicated and widely disputed issue, the end result being a much more well-informed “giving a fuck” of at least one viewer. After describing the current state of Auckland housing, WMBAD goes on. “As you’d expect, crazy left-wingers have been pushing the National government to do something. People have said ‘home ownership is now only for the privileged few’, but of course David Seymour would say that because the ACT Party are a bunch of communists.” While displaying a article that quotes ACT saying “Home ownership now for privileged few.” The point is made: this isn’t an issue of left vs. right, it’s an issue of weak government policy. The distinction is important. As Robbie told me: “When people who care about politics become more partisan, they turn other people away from politics. They don’t know who to trust, and they become disenfranchised, which is obviously a bit of a blow to the whole democracy thing.” Next in the firing line is Housing Minister Nick Smith, who WMBAD gets into an argument with about the real solution to the problem: reforming the capital gains tax or the RMA. Then after noting that “National believes that What We Don’t Know Can’t Hurt Us is a valid basis for economic policy,” he takes aim at the Labour Party for the whole “Chinese-sounding names” fiasco. Because “as it turns out,” WMBAD says, explaining Labour’s dodgy numbers, “racism’s bad and it fucks up your maths.” Their ideas might sometimes be confused and their methods poorly thought out but, for Robbie, politicians aren’t bad people. “I’m not entirely sure at what point we decided public servants are evil, but I don’t think they are,” he told me. “They’re doing a really hard job to pass laws that they think will make your life better. I’m sure a lot of them are wrong, but most of them really do think they’re helping. If we keep spreading the idea that politics is a job for bastards, we’re only going to get more bastards in politics.” And as for the media, he reckons that they and politicians “serve different functions, but they’re on the same team. They’re both trying to make the country better, so the media should hold politicians to account without being dicks.”

Robbie was surprised when White Man Behind a Desk took off. “It’s really not what I imagined,” he told me. “I really didn’t think people would share it around, but they did. And that’s everything for webseries. Do people share it? Then it’s a success. I don’t think that’s a great metric, because not everything that’s good is shareable, and vice versa, but we’re very grateful to the people who shared our early videos.” When the first episode of the show’s second season was released last month, it got nearly fourteen thousand views on Facebook within twenty-four hours, with over two hundred shares. And while it’s great to have a loyal, growing audience, maybe an even better metric of success is the degree to which your political webseries riles up politicians. When I got in touch with David Seymour, the ACT Party leader, for this piece, he told me that while he respects the responsibility of satire to “bring uncomfortable truths into the public view,” he regretted that “unfortunately White Man behind a Desk is not part of the truth seeking movement. He quotes me saying ‘housing is for the privileged few’ when I have never said that, but I always say the opposite. What a pity that that a guy with some talent is not committed to the honest exchange of political ideas.” [sic]

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