Politicians back in website's sights

CHARLIE GATES
Last updated 05:00 15/03/2014

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The Civilian is back.

New Zealand's most popular satirical website has returned after a four-month hiatus.

The site, which skewers New Zealand's media and politicians of every political persuasion, has not been updated regularly since November.

The site's creator, 22-year-old University of Canterbury graduate Ben Uffindell, took an unplanned break from the website after struggling with creative burnout.

Now he has relaunched the website and is ready again to satirise New Zealand's political and media landscape.

Uffindell started the website in March last year on a whim and was shocked when his first stories went viral, attracting tens of thousands of hits and catapulting him into the national conciousness.

Since then, he has been nominated for New Zealander of the Year, received legal threats from Conservative Party leader Colin Craig and launched The Civilian political party, which will be on the ballot at September's general election.

Uffindell said he has missed satirising current events.

"There have been so many times where I feel like I've had things to say in the last three months, but I haven't been up and running to do it," he said.

"I haven't had the space to do it.

"Some of those things I will catch up on, some of them are still in the public conciousness. Colin Craig is not going to get away. That's an ongoing thing. It is something very dear to my heart," he said.

The Civilian political party will campaign under the slogan, "Upwards towards the future like a moth to a flame".

"The party is an experiment. We will see how it goes," he said.

"That's the weird and wonderful thing about this – it could go to hilarious places or it could fade into obscurity."

ALL VERY  CIVIL

New Zealand's biggest satire website is run from a small bedroom in suburban Christchurch. CHARLIE GATES talks to the creator of The Civilian about why the site has been so quiet lately and his planned comeback. 

Success can be harder to handle than failure.

When 22-year-old Ben Uffindell set up satirical website The Civilian a year ago this week, he had no idea it would become an instant smash. Since then, the website has attracted a strong national following, but Uffindell has struggled to make the site financially and creatively sustainable.

Now, after a four-month hiatus to overcome creative burnout, he is ready to relaunch the website and his new satirical political party.

One of his first posts back in March last year, and one of the first pieces of satire he had ever written, was a story about Prime Minister John Key explaining to shocked journalists that if North Korea launched a nuclear attack on New Zealand there was nothing we could do.

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"When asked by a frightened TV3 reporter about North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un's claim that he could turn Auckland into ‘a sea of flames', Key replied ‘Yeah, he probably could'."

The story went viral and was read by about 92,000 people in just one day. A popular news story on The Press website would get about 10,000 hits.

Uffindell, who had recently graduated from the University of Canterbury with a political science degree, put his job hunt on hold and decided to see if he could make a living from the website. It felt like a real opportunity after a year working as an English tutor and writing a novel.

The website took off, getting about 25,000 hits a day and soon gaining more than 28,000 likes on its Facebook page. Uffindell was then catapulted into the national consciousness just weeks after launch when Conservative Party leader Colin Craig threatened legal action over a satirical story on the site.

In just the first few months, Uffindell appeared on current affairs shows, was nominated for New Zealander of the Year and won praise from critics and politicians alike as New Zealand's answer to US satire website The Onion.

He was also offered opportunities to turn the website into a television show or write for comedy shows, but he turned them down to focus solely on the website.

Creatively, he was on fire, churning out one funny story after another, day after day. The headlines give you an idea of the site's eclectic mix of satire and whimsy: " ‘What if kiwi are just tiny moa?' asks biologist"; "Government to sell Peter Dunne"; "Bob Parker contemplating return to space"; "John Kerry asks New Zealand to ‘stay put, don't touch anything' "; "Prime Minister eats kiwi, just to make sure we're not missing out on anything."

But, with all the national success and exposure, he was still living in his parents' house and struggling to make a living from the website. He has recently moved into a shared house and says advertising revenue from the website earns him "the minimum wage", which is about $30,000 a year before tax.

"I'm living on a shoestring, but I'm happy with that. If I can live on a shoestring and do something I want to do that makes me happy, which I am doing, then things will come later," he says.

"It hasn't been the best financial decision in the world. It feels ludicrous with what I'm doing and the attention I get that I should earn minimum wage, but that's the reality of the advertising industry."

"I don't have a choice. This is what I want to do, this is what everyone wants me to do. I will find some way to fund this. It would be the biggest shame in the world if I went and did something more menial just to earn money."

T he Civilian is a national success run from a box room in a shared house in suburban Christchurch. The room contains a single bed, a wardrobe, a computer on a desk and a chest of drawers.

The only decoration is a laminated picture of Pope Benedict XVI, put up on his bedroom wall as a joke in 2005 but now a fixture.

On the chest of drawers there are a range of souvenirs and novelty ornaments. A bobble head Barack Obama, a sponge figurine of President Bush and a small American flag on a stick. He describes it as his "desk of sentimentality".

When the site is active, Uffindell spends his days alone in this room, writing about two satirical stories for the website every day. He often paces around as he works on stories, reading them aloud to himself. His only regular company is a recent addition - a small, brown kitten called Lord Nelson. He often wears a Civilian-branded polo shirt that was a gift from his parents.

"I need creative space and privacy because I talk to myself a lot. I just pace around talking to myself. Everything I have ever written has a voice and is written like I'm speaking it to someone. They are written like a TV news article."

"I will walk around talking to myself. I'm not ashamed of it at all, but it would be very awkward if someone was to show up."

But the creative pressure of producing so many funny stories every week took its toll. After eight months of writing about 10 stories a week from March to November, he took a short break that grew into a four-month hiatus.

There were other pressures. He wanted to enlist comedy writers to help with the workload, but struggled to find people that understood the tone of The Civilian.

University friend Sebastian Boyle chips in with the odd story and headline idea, but submissions from prospective writers have not been up to his "perfectionist" standards.

"I'm very picky."

"Sebastian is the only one that gets it."

Uffindell was also struggling under the administrative demands of creating a new political party, The Civilian Party. It turns out that forming a new political party is harder than it looks.

He won't talk about the details, but it was clearly a difficult time in his personal life as well.

"A lot of it I don't want to talk about it because it's personal. I went through a lot of changes in the last year in my personal life. All sorts of things. I had a lot to worry about, basically. A lot of my creative energy started to feel a bit sapped. I was under a lot of pressure to set up the party.

"I felt like if I was ever going to get the party done, then I would have to take a break from the newspaper for a while. That short break spiralled into a long break because I had more and more to deal with.

"I was lacking in creative purpose and rationale. Some call it writer's block, I would say you burn out after a while. The amount of content I produced from March to November, I must have written more than the rest of my life combined.

"I wrote 300 articles. But I don't just write an article, I'm a bit of a perfectionist with it."

He is reluctant to talk about his personal life or even leave a trace of himself in The Civilian stories.

"I separate myself so utterly from what I do in a way that people don't understand. People are fishing through The Civilian for my political leanings all the time and I don't think they will find them.

"For me, it is about finding the best joke that will make a funny article and make people think. I don't care if I agree with it or not, I care if it is funny or provocative."

The hiatus has given him the first chance to think about where he wants to take the website.

"It happened so fast, and I wrote so much, that it wasn't until I stopped that I had a chance to sit back and think: ‘Where do I go now?'.

"I didn't have a moment to reflect. I struggled with the success of it. I had to learn how to say no. I think everyone saw a shiny thing and wanted to capitalise on it. You can't work that way. I can't do a TV show when I don't even know what the website is yet."

With his creative energy restored and a clear direction for the website, Uffindell is relaunching The Civilian, along with his satirical political party that will be on the ballot at the September elections.

The party's slogan best captures the spirit of the enterprise: "Upwards towards the future like a moth to a flame."

One policy proposal is to change the national anthem to the theme from the 1996 film Space Jam, which starred basketball legend Michael Jordan alongside a host of Looney Tunes characters.

The party has some very funny policies, but Uffindell's intentions are serious.

"We want it to be another wing of The Civilian, we satirise the media with the website and satirise politics with the party."

"I want votes. I want people to express their desire for a satirical political party through the ballot and I think that's a completely legitimate use of our democracy. It does say something. I'm not 100 per cent sure what it says, but someone is making a statement when they vote for a joke political party."

"Democracy is not just about the majority coming together to find the best solution. It's about everyone being represented and feeling like we are involved in some way. Some voices in our society are stupid and contrary and ironic. And that's what The Civilian Party is, it represents people whose perspective is less hung up and serious."

"People ask me what's the best case scenario for the party and my answer is 64 seats. Realistically, 52."

What would he do if he won a seat?

"I would do it. It's really dishonest not to. If I'm elected to do that, they voted for that. It's only right and fair that I give the people what they voted for. I'm not going to go serious on them all of a sudden.

"I'm committed. If the absurd and miraculous happens, which it almost certainly can't, then I will go ahead."

"An even better way to satirise a party than being one is to be one in Parliament."

And if he became a kingmaker?

"We would have one demand - icecream for everybody.

"It's one of those things that you could actually get. You could get that if you were in a bargaining position and National or Labour needed you, they would do it."

The political party and the satirical website are a good fit for Uffindell, who has been passionate about politics since watching September 11 unfold on live television at the age of 10. He also grew up reading US satire website The Onion during its creative peak at the turn of the millennium.

"I was glued to the television on September 11. It was the first time in my life that I cared about the news.

"There was Diana before that, But I didn't get it and didn't care. As a staunch republican I still don't.

"I wanted to know more about this and I wanted to understand. I don't think I would be as interested in politics without that happening.

"The old Onion is the benchmark for me. It's the pinnacle. That is stuff that I can legitimately claim was an inspiration for me."

He also takes cues from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and Right-wing blowhard parody Stephen Colbert.

He is looking to television as a possible creative model for The Civilian. He is thinking of the period from March to November as the first season of The Civilian and, after a break to recharge, the second season is about to start. He wants to write for the website right through the election and into the end of the year.

On a recent trip to New York, Uffindell watched Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert record their respective television shows live.

"For Stewart, it felt like a job, but for Colbert it was his passion. That is how I have always wanted The Civilian to be. I never want it to be just a job."


- The Press

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