Robbie Nicol is the ‘white man behind a desk’, delivering a show on YouTube and Facebook in the style of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, providing New Zealand with its own unique commentary on the social and political climate.
The show is hitting a chord with audiences – raking up around 10k views on YouTube alone for each of the shows on the Auckland housing market, climate change and money and the media.
The show is written and performed by Robbie, and filmed and uploaded with the help of Elsie and Sally Bollinger of the CandleWasters.
We talked to Robbie about his fabulous hit online show.
Tell us about your background and your acting career?
I’m a born and bred Wellingtonian, ex-Onslow student, and University of Auckland alum. I did a bunch of theatre with Sarah Delahunty’s First Gear Productions in Wellington and worked with the wonderful Bedlam Theatre Company in Edinburgh.
I’ve done Shakespeare, contemporary theatre, musicals, and combinations of the three – but secretly I’ve always wanted to tell jokes behind a desk.
And tell us about the connection with the Candle Wasters?
(You’re in their vlog series Lovely Little Losers – and some of the Candle Wasters are working on WMBAD?)
Yep, that’s the one! I met Sally Bollinger through the SGCNZ Young Shakespeare Company, and then I met Elsie Bollinger when we all did the 48 Hour Film Festival.
Unfortunately, when the Candle Wasters created Nothing Much To Do (which everyone should watch!) I was in Edinburgh, so I couldn’t be a part of it. But then they did Lovely Little Losers and I got to meet the rest of the Wasters, Claris Jacobs and Minnie Grace.
I’m completely in love with my LLL character, but I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything about him. It’s all very hush, hush.
But yes! After all that, I asked Sally and Elsie if they’d help me do a Daily Show type thing, and they very kindly said yes.
What inspired you to make the WMBAD videos? And the format of sitting in front of a desk and talking to the camera?
I’ve been a fan of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart since I was a tween. Even as a kid, I remember we had a medieval dress-up day at primary school and I was determined to be the court jester. And that’s exactly what Jon Stewart is – he’s the court jester.
There’s just something really thrilling to me about that role, and we’re lucky enough to live in a society where you’re allowed to play it. You can make stupid jokes about powerful people, and nobody stops you. I think that’s fantastic.
As for the format; it just seems to be the cleanest way to tell jokes quickly. The graphics help explain the topic and the set is inexpensive (in our case, very inexpensive). We might play with the format in the future as we start to find our own voice, but for now this just seems the simplest way to do what we wanna do.
And what was your purpose for the videos? A call for change?
I don’t entirely know what the purpose is. I don’t think we’re changing the world. I mean, I don’t think we’re hurting – we’re probably making things better rather than worse – but this definitely isn’t the most helpful thing we could be doing. It’s cool to think we might be getting young people to engage with New Zealand politics, but we’re just having fun. Sometimes we make ourselves laugh and sometimes we feel like we’re being a little bit subversive, and there’s definitely a buzz you get from that.
How long does it take to write and produce each episode? (You do one take?)
I wish we only did one take, but I generally stuff it up at least a couple of times.
And it takes a while to write the script. It’s just me doing the research and the writing and I’m working in my spare time. But once it’s written, Elsie and Sally come round and we do a rehearsal, and then we film it in a morning – and spend about a day or two editing it and putting together the graphics and then we throw it out there.
Then we just hope it’s good enough for people to want to share it, and so far people have been extremely supportive.
Can you tell us about the equipment you’re using? And where you’re filming?
We record sound on a Zoom 4, the camera is a Canon 5D Mark 3, and the lighting is a single softbox and natural light. We have the Zoom set up on a tripod just out of shot.
The entire thing is filmed in my messy bedroom and the antique microphone is for aesthetic purposes only – but it’s from the General Store on Aro Street and we think it’s lovely.
What action do you want your audiences to take after watching your videos?
We hope that they take the immediate action of laughing. Then we hope they Google the issue and find a journalist to explain it to them properly.
What’s the future for your YouTube channel for partners and sponsors? And you’re also uploading videos directly to Facebook which has no monetisation yet?
We’re not partnered with anyone at the moment and we don’t have any plans to be partnered with anyone in the near future. We would happily take on sponsors, so long as they don’t do anything stupid or evil.
We’re not committed to YouTube, and we’d be happy to explore other platforms in the future.
At the moment, we’re not making any money from YouTube, so we’re happy to upload our videos to Facebook where they get more exposure.
Have you promoted the series – or is it growing organically (with fans like Russell Brown)?
We haven’t spent a dime on promotion yet, and we’ve been very lucky with the organic growth of our brand. Russell Brown has been a real champion of our work, so we’re seriously indebted to him. Once someone with a strong following like that starts promoting your stuff, it’s hard not to get a few views.
Tweeting John Campbell was also a big deal for us. I’m still excited about that. We spent an embarrassingly long amount of time drafting our replies to his tweets.
Why do you think the series has been an instant hit? You’ve struck a chord with audiences, especially in media circles?
After we did our ‘Money and the Media’ video we realised that if you want the media to talk about you, all you have to do is talk about the media. It doesn’t matter if you’re aggressively criticising their entire finance model; they’re just thrilled to get to talk about themselves. So that would be our advice to any aspiring YouTubers who want to get into the media: talk about the media.
As for why non-media types have taken to us so quickly – I think there’s a vacuum of content that’s intelligent, Aotearoa-focused, and interesting for young people. And while I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer – we are young and I do say New Zealand a lot. So, two out of three is pretty good.
What’s the future overall for you and the series? Will you run out of topics to cover?
The future is a complete unknown. We’ve been approached by a few people about collaborative projects, and we’re very excited about those.
The ultimate dream is to get paid to come up with creative ways to make fun of powerful people. For the moment, we just want to get out a full series of episodes we’re proud of, and then we’ll take stock of what we want to do next.
I don’t think we’re going to run out of topics any time soon. People are always forgetting that politics is the way we change laws to make people happier – as long as people keep forgetting that, we’ll have plenty of material to work with.
Watch White Man Behind a Desk at http://webshowcentral.tv/watch/white-man-behind-a-desk/