“Fucking Buzzfeed.” Jordan Shanks – the face of Friendlyjordies – slouches into Yen’s Vietnamese on Botany Road, Redfern. He’s frustrated with the media fallout after an April 6 Buzzfeed article ‘revealed’ his videos are funded by unions, GetUp, Greenpeace, and other left-wing organisations. His YouTube channel has achieved notoriety amongst young Australian men1 for its fast-paced blend of hyperbolic character assassinations, punchy facts and fury at the Liberal Party.
He orders a noodle soup and pours some tea for both of us. He talks just as he does on YouTube, his speech peppered with vocal impersonations of his targets of ridicule, and punctuated by rolling his head back with sharp, barking laughter. Much of his humour, he admits, comes from his performance as this or that character. He says he isn’t “someone like Dave Hughes or Greg Fleet, who have a naturally hilarious presence”.
The Friendlyjordies YouTube channel began in 2013, after he graduated from the University of New South Wales, where he had learned the ropes of comedy and video editing through his involvement in stand-up comedy shows, revues, and the UNSW ARC podcast. The channel went viral after he produced satirical videos around the 2013 election. Jordan believes his following developed “because there’s no real satire in Australia. There is [satire], but it’s really safe. It’s not appealing to a certain market, it’s aiming for seven and seventy year olds”. He thinks it dawned on Generation Y that “holy shit, there’s a lot of old people that we never speak to who live on the Central Coast who are going to vote for this guy [Tony Abbott]”.
But Friendlyjordies isn’t just Jordan. There’s a team of editors, researchers, and producers behind the scenes. Jordan works with a core group of four people (producer, cameraman, editor and social media manager), and occasionally they take on another editor and researcher. The team came about after the 2013 election, when Jordan’s producer pushed him to keep on creating content and “build the Friendlyjordies machine”. Three years later, they bring in enough revenue in advertising, merchandise and donations for Jordan and his team to make a living.
Some of that income, as ‘revealed’ by Buzzfeed, is derived from sponsorships from unions and other left-wing organisations. A recent video encouraging youth to enrol to vote contained an authorisation from Dave Oliver, the Secretary of the ACTU, which is the peak body for Australian unions. Another video hammering the Liberal Party for planning to deregulate the TAFE system is tied to a petition website set up by the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union.
But these sponsorships do not represent an uninterrupted income stream. Jordan says he maintains 100% editorial control and “because they believe in the cause and want to keep the channel going, they chip in money here or there. Essentially, it is a donation for what I was going to do anyway”. An email, written by necessity in the soulless style of a research grant, is sent out to left-wing organisations ahead of the release of a new video to solicit funding and keep the machine running.
To Jordan, his work is online activism, with his videos acting as “virtual protests of two hundred thousand people”.2 He sees satire as a “gateway drug” for political engagement. People think politics is complex, he says, but it’s actually “pretty fucking simple. Liberals will always vote in the interests of corporations – that’s all you need to know. Labor will compromise with corporations to get a better deal for workers and the average Australian, and the Greens will take the moral high ground. That’s the gist of it. I think that’s the power of satire: it can get people interested in [politics] who otherwise wouldn’t be.”
It’s (young) (male) Australians and their grassroots disaffection with the Liberal Party that Friendlyjordies has tapped into and now relies upon for success. Some of them are now bothered by his apparent contradiction: being a grassroots voice, but also taking money from established political organisations. I ask myself – if I were offered money by unions to produce a satirical video with views I endorsed, would I take the money? Jordan’s views after sponsorship are the same as they were before: his politics have remained solidly pro-union and anti-corporate. In conversation, he maintains a prominent streak of pragmatism: while the “values of the Greens are obviously correct, they are an activist party whereas Labor is a governing party”. There is largely no difficulty in identifying his sentiments from the videos he produces. But his pragmatism doesn’t tend to go to air.
He defends, for example, offshore refugee detention centres (despite opposing them being “obviously correct”) as a necessary concession made to ‘Gosford’ – what he calls average Australia. I question him on his tone of disdain for ‘Gosford’ and he backtracks a little, saying: “I like them, they’re alright people. Australia’s just got this lazy underdog mentality – it’s very likable. And at the same time very frustrating. They do agree with that general Liberal Party gist: ‘Well, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.’ They never want to aspire to anything greater; they just want everything to remain exactly the same.” He pauses. “So, yeah, some little disdain.” In essence, it’s his belief that there’s only so much that can be done to shift people’s views – and compromise is necessary.
Jordan sums his politics up best: “The Liberal Party are evil, while the Labor Party are just a party that [the Left] have disagreements with”. I disagree with him, and I disagree with his preference for politics of compromise over politics of mass social movements – but, at the end of the day, having a Liberal-bashing political satirist is better than not. Plus, at his best, he’s fucking funny.
1. 85% of his audience is men. Specifically “nerds or hipsters”. He likes nerds—perhaps not in real life—and hates hipsters, though he self-identifies as one.
2. In fact, he believes activists should “be like [him] and just be computer geeks.”