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Published April 7, 2018

Comedian, YouTuber and part-time inspirational speaker Jordan Shanks is one of those people you have to describe as ‘no stranger to controversy’. His channel, friendlyjordies, is one of the loosest units on the Australian internet, and features Jordan in the role of multiple characters – media talking heads, people on the street, his own hyper-partisan persona – addressing austere topics like economic and environmental policy in between shrill, extremely funny impersonations of deadshit bogans, daytime TV viewers, politicians, internet partisans, ravers et al.

I spoke with Jordan about his upcoming Melbourne International Comedy Festival show A Life: MT – where he plays the role of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – and asked him what he thinks about the state of internet politics today.

Jordan Shanks

Your Malcolm Turnbull character is this over-the-top, screeching aristocrat who always seems about two seconds away from the guillotine. Now, where on earth did you find the inspiration for that?

I bumped into Malcolm Turnbull once. He guffawed at the fact that a commoner dared touch him. That made me realise that’s that man’s soul: he’s the reincarnation of someone who was guillotined in the French Revolution. He does not like mingling with the common man. Which I think is hilarious – not even that “aw, he’s a snob”, he’s just a really funny character.

It’s very difficult to unsee your impression in Turnbull now – there’s a weird layer of hygiene to the way he talks. So how does it fit into the format of the live show?

Well pretty much the whole thing is I’ve read a bunch of biographies of Malcolm Turnbull, and it’s just that character telling you the life story of Malcolm Turnbull. Like I read Anabelle Crabb’s book – what was that called? Like The Life and Times, or like The Musical Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull? I began writing the show over a year ago, the details are all very blurry.

Last year’s ‘Chin Up Stooge’ was based on your experience devouring self-help books and helping people turn their lives around. Is there any through-line between that show and this?

Just the fact that’s it’s basically like “I read a bunch of books and here’s what I learned.” That’s pretty much it, the only through-line. But there’s no self-help to this at all. This is just a story that – and you know what else, actually? It’s not a very interesting story. I’ve gotta say. I’ve read a lot about Malcolm Turnbull’s life now – it was really boring. To become Prime Minister, you just have to sit at a desk for 50 years. That’s your life’s path. He doesn’t have any good tales, it’s not like reading Kurt’s Cobain life story or something, it’s like a public servant’s story or like a wealthy businessman’s story.

Yeah like, “overcame no obstacles except a couple of, like, generic emotional obstacles”.

“Yeah, my wife and I felt like having a divorce for a while, but ah, we thought better of it, and we didn’t.” All I’ve gotta say is thank God I’ve got that character to zhush it up, because otherwise… It’s still kind of cool to know the origins of it – the thing that’s interesting about Malcolm Turnbull is how he develops his philosophy to life, I guess. But that’s pretty much it. I’m drawing a long bow here.

So it’s interesting – Lawrence Mooney does a Turnbull too, and he approaches it from sort of the other direction, where his is a lot more naturalistic, and yours is somewhat less so.

Yeah, his is more of a classic parody, of copying someone’s mannerisms and expressions.

Whereas you’ve sort of approached it from the outside and drilled in to the character?

Yeah, there’s nothing truthful in – actually no, I’d say the exact opposite. I’d say that Lawrence Mooney’s is like a factual account of how Turnbull is, and mine’s a more truthful account.

There’s a wickedly-funny layer of empathy to your bogan characters on the channel, especially when they start accidentally confronting harsh truths about themselves at musical festivals. When did you decide that character-work would be such a big part of your schtick?

This is pretty much what you learn as a comedian after a while, so like first of all you start copying your influence. Everyone does – any artist does, they’re lying to themselves if they don’t. Then after a while you realise “that’s not what made them good”. There’s no formula to unlock, outside of some basic joke work that I guess you could work on, but the essence of what makes you funny, that’s unique to you. And the thing at our high school, the thing that made all of us laugh was stupid voices. That’s as simple as it gets. So after a while I realised that, you shouldn’t be stifling that if it works for you.

You’ve got a great ear for suburban Queensland, and the obscene challenges that a young progressive faces just even existing and growing up in that state. Do you think that’s shaped the way you do political comedy? It seems like something the Sydney-siders don’t necessarily get.

You see these snob types that like grew up – cunts from the ABC, that got their job because of their connections and not because of their talent, and then they aren’t good comedians regardless, and they’re always saying “This is elitist!” It’s like dude, you grew up in the North Shore, and you moved to fucking Newtown because it’s trendy to be poor now? It’s not a fucking laugh. It’s a lifestyle for you, and then you get to sit there and talk about what’s elitist and what isn’t.

It’s a very warped definition of elite, isn’t it?

Yeah it’s elitists telling other people what’s elitist.

So in the age of Trump, the fault-lines between liberal progressives and hard left socialism are the biggest story. And I feel like the ‘friendlyjordies culture wars’ that we’re having are like the palest possible imitation of that. Like another thing that we’ve imported uncritically, like “oh do we need problematic progressives, oh do we need to have that discussion about whether a progressive can be probbo or not”.

Yes. And the other thing as well is that idea always comes from the worst type of human being you could possibly imagine. Like, I personally like the Australian more than I like the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, because at least it’s just like “Yeah fuck you, tax cuts are mad”, you know? They’re really honest and upfront about what their worldview is. But then you’ve got this new type, this real surface-level bullshit that they push out, and they say that they’re progressive because of that. And it’s like, well look at their coverage of tax cuts for instance, or dividend imputation, or like the funding of Gonski, they push that stuff.

I’ve got a conspiracy theory about it, because that’s like the face of the left now, just people saying “I can’t believe that’s problematic” and stuff. But these people are funded by massive corporations. They don’t share the view of the general population. The general population does not think like these people think. The general population just want hospitals properly funded. But they never talk about that. They talk about bullshit things like Kendrick Lamar saying ‘bitch’ too much – that’s their big problem in life.

And so every time I walk past some lollipop crossing guy and I talk to him, and he says to me “I know you, you’re a fuckin leftie, aren’t ya?” – his idea of what a leftie is that, like the Kendrick Lamar stuff, it’s not like the guy who’s protecting your wages. He doesn’t think of that person now.

 

And it’s that sort of ‘follow the money’ argument that’s a really good rejoinder to the Vices and the Buzzfeeds, right? Particularly if they don’t respond to it.

As soon as you point out who their donors are, they shut up every time. Because they know they’re gonna lose the argument – they’re morally indefensible organisations. And again you look at it – Murdoch funds Vice. Who funds Pedestrian? Channel Nine. Who funds Junkee? Westpac and Qantas and shit. These are not good companies. I don’t know, you can see it in their comments and their viewership, it’s just gone down since they brought social politics into it, identity politics.

Chomsky was talking about this years ago – you know after the Global Financial Crisis, how like the big catchphrase was “It’s the one percent’s fault”? And then you started seeing this stuff about privilege emerging? It was a distractionary thing to make everybody move into groups and just start blaming like ‘groups of society’. This is corporate-funded news.

And because like the “one percent” claim is accurate, but then there’s suddenly all of these similar-sounding discourses about privilege, but they’re actually sort of running interference on the hard-line economic claim?

Yeah, and it’s a lighter version. And something that made me even more scared the other day, I talked to this guy who used to work at Pedestrian. And he said that like in 2016, this woman came in who called herself the ‘PC police’, and she was a marketing strategist, and her objective… She came in and made a staff meeting and said “Identity politics is the way of the future”. And the reason is that emotions run really high during that, and when something’s got high emotions to it, if you add a brand to its name, you start relaying those intense emotions to the brand. So they’d run these fucking bullshit articles, not just because it’s a distraction, but it’s also really profitable for companies like ANZ.

It reminds me of when marketing firms get found out for something, like the Facebook marketing people, they always say “Oh people are smarter than that, marketing doesn’t ‘change’ minds…”

They invest hundreds of billions of dollars in it! I can’t believe that they say that. The reason that these issues are at the forefront now is not because they’re remotely important, they’re extremely unimportant, they’re just their because companies are funding that stuff to be at the forefront. People don’t actually think about that stuff day to day. It’s an implanted idea into your head! I know it sounds conspiracy theory, but it’s that thing – the money’s there.

Why do you suppose that is? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the Buzzfeed people are good people, under the sway of horrible ideas that they can’t quite see, what’s it going to take to shift them beyond it?

Well basically it’s the same with Bernie Sanders, right? Essentially Bernie won the last election, if it was a contest between him and Trump it would’ve been a landslide. And he was just not in the same leagues as Republican candidates and Hillary, he did not have the budget. But he just pointed out what everyone knows, and he just said to reaffirm to everyone, he shifted the conversation by saying “That’s a load of crap, we need to focus on the fact that wages have been stagnant for 40 years.”

There was a time in my life where I could comfortably watch The Drum, how about you?

This is one of the things of having a conservative government in power. They make the ABC really shit on purpose. And they put the most worst human beings you can think of at the forefront of it, and the ones making decisions about programming, about what gets aired and what doesn’t. And then everyone gets pissed off at them, like, that’s your taxpayer money going things that are offensively bad. And then you start calling for it to be privatised! I don’t want it privatised, but I do want the Labor party to come in and cut a third of its funding to scare the crap out of it.

I think to round it out we should do like a fair and balanced twist, so a question that came to mind – what do you think happened to Mark Latham? Like, what actually happened to him?

I think with Mark – because look, politics is a brutal blood game, I’ve got nothing but respect for anybody that enters it. I think that it’s a really good thing that there’s people that have a conscience, want to do things to the public benefit. Because these are smart, educated people most of the time, most of the time they go in there with a sense of duty or how they want to see Australia, and that’s a good thing. But then over time, because of the pure brutality of it, because of the competition in it, all the factional things, it just happened that he got ground down by that process in the Labor Party. It’s savage in there – the seats are at a premium, if you want to get to the frontbench it’s even more savage, and if you’re Opposition Leader it’s just …

He would’ve quit in disbelief, he would’ve been really resentful of it – that’s when he started doing his tour of like “you shouldn’t join the Labor Party, it’s fash!” and he starts spilling the beans on the process. And I think over time he would have just gotten more and more bitter about his reception in the media, and because he was putting shit on the Labor Party, Rupert Murdoch’s over there going “this guy’s alright!” And he starts cultivating him, because it’s profitable to have him talk about it. And then he’s just got this real like 360 middle-finger attitude to everyone now, he’s kind of just out there to throw spanners in the works, I think that’s like his goal in life now.

Agent of Chaos?

That’s what he is! He’s a fallen angel! That’s my personal working theory about Mark. You have to have either like extreme sense of duty or be a sociopath to get through in that environment. It’s kind of like the corporate world. Look, I think Mark was kind of… I don’t think he had either of those to begin with. Again, honestly, I reckon if I were to enter politics, I think I’d turn out like Mark Latham. Hands down. It’s not a job I’d wish on anybody.

So the political paradigms are shifting – where do you see the Labor Party now versus, say, five years ago?

If you’re a major party, you don’t have the position of being morally superior. Gough Whitlam had the best quote about it, which is that “there’s nothing moral about being in opposition”, and the other one that he had is “only the inept are pure”. And I do really believe that. I do think the world would be in a better position if they understood that like, it’s a fucking complicated business, yeah, but are they going to be doing things that are moving in the national interest? Especially with the Labor Party when people go “oh it was so right-wing in the eighties” – the fucking world was going into fucking globalisation, into neoliberalism, all you can do in that situation as a Prime Minister is essentially be, I don’t know, like a janitor?

 

A Life: MT is showing at the Lithuanian Club on Friday 6th and Sunday 8th April this week, and Thursday 12th – Sunday 15th next week, as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Tickets can be purchased here.

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