What happens when you cross Morrissey with a much-maligned Minister for Work and Pensions? The answer is one of YouTube’s strangest phenomena: political parody songs. Jonny and Garry, the men behind The Iain Duncan Smiths, speak to Punching Up about the strange success of their channel and the importance of hard-hitting satire in the current political climate.
Where on earth did the idea for the name and channel come from? It seems so out of left field!
Jonny: It really was just a pun that suddenly occurred one day and seemed to work too well not to implement. Iain Duncan Smith was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions at the time, and a bloody sadistic one at that, so we wanted to give him a kicking and basically every Smiths hit seemed ripe for ‘Iainduncansmithifying’ – ‘I was looking for a job and then I found a job’, and so on.
Garry: It got a bit of attention when The Huffington Post did a piece about The Iain Duncan Smiths, and then we had our first viral when the story came out about David Cameron putting his penis into a dead pig (‘Pig Mouth Strikes Again’). All subsequent pun-based parody songs spiralled on from those IDS-centric origins, as he thankfully became less relevant but other, equally awful politicians came to the fore.
What’s the process of making each video like, what the hell goes through your minds?
Garry: I’ve asked myself this so many times. I’m sure the neighbours have too, when they’ve heard me recording the vocals. Videos generally take a couple of hours to make unless they’re particularly elaborate – in the past they were usually reacting to unfurling events, so we’d try to get them out as quickly as possible to hit trending topics. Probably not the best approach, looking back on it, as this resulted in some real duds.
Jonny: In terms of how they’re made, it’s incredibly amateurish – I record a karaoke track on an app on my phone, sing over the top, email myself the vocal parts and put it all together along with the visuals on a video editor called NCH Videopad. I’m sure there are much better ways of doing it but that’s the first way I found that worked, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to learn another way now.
Political song parodies are a curious art as they date back to the early days of YouTube but have really gained popularity in recent years. You’re a bit different to others as rather than splicing clips together (as popular channels such as Cassetteboy and PoliticsJOE do), doing all the vocals yourself. Why?
Jonny: (laughs) Ah, that’s because the clip-splicing thing looks like a lot of effort, and we absolutely can’t be bothered with that. So, crap impressions it is. I’m musical anyway so I like giving the singing a go, doing all the harmony parts, and I even used to play the backing tracks on guitar before I discovered I could just rip them off YouTube. PoliticsJOE really took it to the next level by autotuning the spliced clips into the actual melodies – fair play to them, but I prefer our way. It’s more fun to be honest with you.
What’s your favourite Iain Duncan Smiths video you’ve made and why? In a similar vein, are there any you really haven’t liked and don’t look back on fondly?
Jonny: Favourites are probably the Hypernormalislandisation series of Adam Curtis parodies, because it unfurled into a format where we could do pretty much anything we liked, at least within the confines of extremely amateurish production values. Those were a lot of fun. My favourite music video is probably ‘Nonce in a Lifetime’ by Prince Andrew just because it came out so well – it turns out my David Byrne impression isn’t half bad, albeit a little too ‘televangelist’. Plus, going after the Royals is good fun as not enough people do it!
Garry: ‘TERF, Wind and Fire’, poking fun at the ‘gender critical’ movement, was a good one because of the strife it left in its wake. Owen Jones shared it, resulting in serious pushback from the transphobic community – so, basically every other broadsheet journalist. I think Suzanne Moore (Guardian columnist at the time) got quite pissed off about it, but she’d already blocked us on Twitter so that wasn’t too much of a blow.
Jonny: In terms of ones I don’t look back on fondly – probably most of them, to be honest. They’re hardwired to be ephemeral in terms of subject matter so they don’t age well, and a lot of them were rushed out to try and hit trending topics, so the quality control is not what it should have been.
Garry: Yeah, most of the Boris Johnson and Donald Trump ones are completely unwatchable – I think we were guilty of falling into the trap of relying too much on their inherent comedic aspects for cheap laughs. It’s hard to really know how you’d negotiate satirising them otherwise, and I guess that’s part of what makes them so dangerous – you’re making fun of things about them that other people find engaging or endearing.
You’ve been suspended from YouTube before, notably for the ludicrous crime of essentially ‘cyberbullying’ the Prime Minister. Do you ever worry that the content of your videos could land you in hot water legally or personally?
Jonny: Legally, not really – there’s ‘safety in numbers’, I guess, insofar as we’re likely to be one of many poking fun at these people online, and they can’t sue us all –
Garry: Well, not yet at least!
Jonny: – but personally, yeah, especially when making fun of Tommy Robinson or someone like that, and that’s partly why we don’t like to put our real names and faces to it. It probably wouldn’t be hard to find out who we are with a bit of cursory googling, but we’ve never been important enough for anyone to care too much. In a way, our lack of success is our big asset. Let’s say we planned it that way, why not?
Garry: ‘Cyberbullying’ Boris Johnson was a fun one. I think we managed to get that one overturned just by lodging an appeal explaining that there isn’t much scope for a power dynamic whereby you could bully the literal Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. If he’s not fair game than I’m not sure how you’re meant to ‘punch up’, as you would say. I’ve got no idea who has to sift through these YouTube suspension appeals, but they smiled on us that day. Thanks, to whoever you are.
A lot of your satire goes beyond what is considered ‘safe’ by the mainstream commentariat – who go viral largely because they don’t go as far as you do. Why do you think it’s important that proper satire goes for the jugular and doesn’t hold back?
Jonny: Well, I think the ‘punching up’ element of your brand is so important because most mainstream comedy tends to punch down, or at best, sideways. There’s too much that needs to change in our politics and our media not to go for the jugular, the obvious problem being that you need those institutions to effectively co-opt you if you’re going to make a success out of it. Ian Hislop rolling his eyes while Alexander Armstrong reads an autocued one-liner about (insert bungling minister here), that kind of thing is so much a part of our political culture now that it basically reinforces it. It’s no coincidence that Have I Got News For You launched Boris Johnson to stardom, they’re so much a part of the same ecosystem they’re basically in a symbiotic relationship. I want to see Ian Hislop go full Howard Beale (Peter Finch’s character in the 1976 film Network) and threaten to kill himself live on air.
Garry: We’re deadly serious about that as well. I want to see Ian Hislop have an enormous nervous breakdown and threaten suicide live on TV, as long as it was news-induced and not down to something else going on in his life. And obviously I don’t want to see him actually go through with it, that would be appalling – just to look enough like he means business that everyone starts to panic. Only then can we progress as a society.
Do you happen to know if any politicians have watched your videos, either fans of your work or even targets of the videos?
Jonny: I can’t think of any targets who have definitely seen our videos, though I dearly hope they have! But I’m assured that Stormzy has both watched and laughed at one of our “Shut Up” based videos from a friend whose former colleague lives near him and got to know him while they were both out walking their dogs. I’ll never know for sure though.
Garry: Tim Farron once Twitter-liked one of our videos making fun of Gavin Williamson, but I don’t think that’s the kind of glamour you’re fishing for. A few Labour MPs follow us on Twitter – Clive Lewis, Ian Lavery, Charlotte Nichols. It’s not quite the same but we used to have some fans among Telegraph and Times writers. One of them even came to the ‘Eurosceptic Song Contest’ live show we did at Camden Fringe a few years ago. I do wonder if they didn’t get the joke, and that probably reflects badly on us too!
Finally, if Punching Up were to try our hands at making an Iain Duncan Smiths style of video, what advice would you give?
Jonny (laughing): Don’t!