Robbie Nicol: The Kiwi John Oliver video

Sunday Star Times

Robbie Nicol dishes the dirt on himself

If ever there was an era when the news needed explaining it's today and Robbie Nicol reckons he is the man for the job. 

Journalism 2015 is snackable and shareable. Cellphones battle newspapers and info-tainment is a word. On television, in place of Campbell Live is a cooking show so bizarre the first episode featured a Hugh Hefner wannabe whose dance partner was a broom (named Broomwyn) with a disembodied head.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, troops are being sent back to Iraq, no one quite understands the TPP negotiations and climate change shows no sign of stopping.

Now there's a sliver of hope.

Robbie Nicol, 21, of Wellington is the face of White Man Behind a Desk – the name's self-explanatory.

He and a couple of mates make five-ish minute monologues - complete with graphs and imagery - about political issues affecting New Zealanders. Nicol's hands flail frequently, his eyebrows are raised constantly. His accent has been described by social media forum Reddit as "pure butchery" with "a bit of Inspector Gadget thrown in". He claims it comes from his overseas comedic influences – he's a pure Kiwi.

Robbie Nicol, the man behind a white desk, in his Wellington home/studio bedroom.
Kevin Stent

Robbie Nicol, the man behind a white desk, in his Wellington home/studio bedroom.

He looks down the barrel of the lens with an antique microphone in hand and sits at a white desk – both found in the treasure trove that is his parents' house.

"It seems like a kitsch New Zealand version of the much grander desks you see in fancy American studios," he says.

"Does the same job but isn't too flashy about it: that seems quite Kiwi to us."

Internationally, Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert and other comedians are using satire in a way that not only reaches those cellphone-wielding audiences with short attention spans, but makes them care.

Last year, four million viewers tuned in to John Oliver's show each week.

In New Zealand his nearest equivalent, Nicol, is living with his parents and knocking out videos in his bedroom  with sisters Elsie and Sally Bollinger (whom Nicol met on web series Lovely Little Losers). But things might not stay like this for much longer.

After four videos Nicol says the average view count on Facebook and You Tube is just over 16,000.

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His latest video, Climate Change, had the highest rating with 23, 761 views.

Nicol is witty, funny, talks quickly and has great delivery. He's a breath of fresh air. More importantly, he's good at what he does – and he is the only one doing it in New Zealand.

In 2009, Nicol's high school teacher assigned him the task of writing a report about a heroic figure.

The then-year 10 student chose Jon Stewart and The Daily show.

Six years later, he's the latest to pick up New Zealand's comedic commentary torch – which Ben Uffindell's The Civilian reignited a couple of years ago.

"One of the main goals is to have more people my age talking about New Zealand politics rather than American politics," says Nicol.

Nicol studied politics for three years at the University of Auckland and has spent time in Edinburgh. He works part-time in educational research and volunteers parliamentary services for Green MP Catherine Delahunty.

"I try and keep those worlds very separate. I intend to mock everybody."

The Climate Change video was prompted by Nicol discovering that 13 per cent of New Zealanders are climate change sceptics. He says "we're moving at the speed of a snail that died several years ago."

In the video: "New Zealand moved so slowly on climate change we've been over-taken by the Catholics. Yes, the Catholics, the only people less progressive than the guys who made Lynx deodorant."

It's alarming, he says.

"We're a clever, progressive country. Already we're feeling the effects of climate change – the floods and droughts are becoming more frequent.

"We're so dependant on agriculture and the industry is under such threat under extreme weather conditions – we should probably be figuring out how to help these farmers and how to diversify our market…Maybe everything will be fine…" he trails off laughing sadly.

He's a man of opinions, in a video about sending troops to Iraq he says "America in Iraq is like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia".

But don't compare what he's doing to comedian Russell Brand's news take-down show, The Trews.

"Sometimes it seems like ranting because it's funny that way, to see someone getting worked up about something," says Nicol.

"That's fine but I hope people can recognise it's also quite carefully written and put together."

Nicol left home for the bright lights of Auckland after high school. Three years of studying politics down, he came back slightly disillusioned and searching for jobs.

"I didn't exactly have the best time at university," he says.

"I loved being in Auckland and Edinburgh but the fees you pay don't exactly turn up in the lecture theatre. By the end of my degree I was pretty gutted and I needed to head back home to Wellington to recharge before figuring out how to be an adult."

Nicol has a recurring joke that he's in love with right-wing blogger Cameron Slater.

"We're pretty diametrically opposed and there's only a handful of funny ways to deal with someone who's your exact opposite.

"Jon Stewart treats (former US Vice President) Dick Cheney like Darth Vader and Stephen Colbert treats (Fox News host) Bill O'Reilly like his idol.

"We thought of treating Cammy Slates as though we loved him. Deeply. We can only assume he loves us back."

Nicol says his politics are boring: "I like evidence-based policy that makes people as joyful as possible. But because the phrase 'evidence-based' is in there, I guess the specific policies I support are changing all the time.

"That's why I'd hate to be an actual politician. They don't seem to be allowed to change their mind."

Comedian Guy Williams believes there is an audience for dissenting comedy but it's hard to translate that to the mainstream.

He's "constantly jealous" of Nicol and reckons his creation is "probably the best political satire in New Zealand right now".

"There should be [more] but we don't really value it and politics is quite an awkward subject, it's becoming more and more partisan. Right now, if you attack the very popular government – which is largely the job of the comedian – you're likely to alienate a large percentage of what's already a tiny New Zealand audience.

"John Key is an easy target, he's plodding around tugging pony tails and saying it's banter so if I ever find myself struggling on stage, getting laughs from his personality is always quite an easy card to play.

"Once you get into actual policy it becomes difficult, even what should be a no-brainer – like attacking the Government's slap down of the food in schools bill is tricky territory on stage.

"Whenever I would do material on it during the Comedy Festival I could feel my rich, white audience becoming divided and some maybe annoyed that I was criticising their mates."

The average New Zealand punter doesn't know or care about politics, says Williams.

It's why Williams' Jono and Ben at Ten material is limited to what's on the 6pm news: we don't have niche comedy channels.

"I like to use satire as a way to vent personal frustrations. As much as I'd like to rage against the TPPA unfortunately it's something that, in my opinion, most Kiwis don't know or care about," he says.

"This is why most New Zealand jokes are limited to the following: John Key pulls ponytails, Winston Peters is racist and appeals to old people, Gerry Brownlee and Kim Dotcom are fat.

"You can't even joke about the Labour Party because they're flying so low most people wouldn't get the joke even if you nailed it!"

Four videos down and already people are calling on media outlets to hire Nicol. The prospect makes Nicol sweat.

"Everyone should just wait and see whether we can keep up. Whenever anyone sees any kind of satire here they get really excited and go 'give this person a TV show – immediately!'"

Williams says Nicol's do-it-yourself mentality is part of what makes White Man Behind A Desk so successful.

"If you screw around waiting for a TV network to take you up you'll die. They've just started doing it which, unfortunately, you don't see enough of in New Zealand and You Tube is probably the way of the future."

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 - Sunday Star Times

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