A large group of fans have surrounded Jordan Shanks after his live show in North Melbourne’s Lithuanian Club. Most are men, undergraduate age; some edge forward, egged on by mates, while others hang back shyly.
Jordan Shanks (AKA Friendlyjordies) stands with his back to a wall beneath an antique map of the Baltic state. In his late twenties, he is boyishly handsome and tall but out here he seems even younger than in his videos. There is an adolescent nerdiness to him; his posture is hunched and when he guffaws at a fan’s quip, he brings his arms in and doubles over.
One fan waits back. Maybe he is old enough to drink. He has red hair, and his thumbs hooked into the straps of a blue backpack. He seems nervous as he waits for a one on one.
Who is Friendlyjordies?
Jordan Shanks is the creator and star of the Friendlyjordies YouTube channel that has clocked more than 50 million views. The earliest uploads, shot six years ago, are skits with the same shaky production values of a family outing caught on camcorder. As time progressed, production values improved and Shanks began to find a voice — and a huge audience.
Two years later his three videos on the Stereosonic music festival, Australians acting like slobs in Bali and 21st birthdays in Australia all broke 500,000 views. Shanks plays multiple characters donning wigs and affecting voices. They are as anarchic and frenetic as The Young Ones and as absurd and banal as Tim and Eric Awesome Show. Fake vomit flows freely.
These uploads became archetypes of the Friendlyjordies brand — a merciless, satirical attack on mainstream Australia in an unashamedly superior tone. With them a typical Friendlyjordies fan emerged too: a tertiary educated, nerdy and moderately progressive young man that feels excluded both from the sport-obsessed national mainstream and identity politics. Those in the foyer of his show told me they connect with Jordies’ cultish outsider status as well as his humour.
Although not everyone is a fan. Some question his motives (more on that later). Others find him smug to the point of alienating. I was fully prepared for him to be a jerk in real life, but was surprised to see him chat to fans with gratitude and lightness.
Late last year, he switched to a vlogger style: him wigless and without face paint, at a microphone intercut with memes. He says this is due to time constraints. The subject matter has shifted too — he is now more reliably political, developing coherent theses with recurring themes and targets. He hunts bigger game like BuzzFeed, the Liberal Party and the ABC.
This echoes through his live shows too. On his previous tour Jordan played Malcolm Turnbull as a powdered dandy, effete and ever on the verge of fainting. His show tonight, John Howard Really Sucked, was rawer and less theatrical; an attack on the Liberal article of faith that Howard was a great economic manager. His only aid was a slideshow that projected both memes and hard economic data like historic interest rates and GDP.
Back in the foyer of the Lithuanian club, the fans around Jordie are thinning out. Soon the boy with the backpack comes forward. Jordan’s face breaks into a cautious smile.
“You know, man,” the red haired boy begins stammering, “like, your stuff got me through some really tough times… my girlfriend broke up with me and you know when you get betrayed…”
Jordan tilts his head and nods sincerely. The boy catches himself.
“Well now I’m making an album… I’ll send it to you.”
“Great!” Jordan says.
“But yeah I’d just like to say ‘thanks man’ and I’m like you in that if I don’t make something I think I could die.”
Concern flashes crosses Jordan’s face and he listens earnestly but he has been getting the wind up by the venue.
“Look that’s so good. Thanks so much for coming, whatever you’re doing keep doing it.”
The boy nods and rushes out, flustered but smiling.
“And please send me that album!” Jordan calls after him.
“That’s because of the self-help stuff I’ve done,” he tells me after. Recently, Jordan did a video series where he distilled years of reading self-help. It’s struck a different, more earnest, chord then his usual work.
Getting the message
Chatting with fans after the show Shanks was buoyant and relaxed but now, in the pub across the road, he is serious to the point of brooding — as if he has aged 15 years by crossing the street. When I ask him if he wasn’t doing comedy if he would be ranting into the microphone like Alex Jones he agrees without smiling.
Jordan demurs that something in his comedy has changed. “Comedy should be used as a tool to convey messages. And it shits me to no end when they blunt satire; when it’s comedians sitting ’round talking about lame stories about their lives.” Jordan drinks slowly and talks in a way that is both weary and matter-of-fact, as if his worldview is a necessary burden.
“Politicians all lie but then you realise they are captives to the media.”
The failure of the Australian media is a central pillar of Friendlyjordies’ dogma. “You can’t compete with the tsunami of the mainstream media message. There’s too many outlets,” he says. But the truth is that he actually can — his highest rating video received 1.3 million views, about the same as the most watched news program for any given week.
Shanks’ rise occurs at a moment when news audiences are fragmenting worldwide, and he knows it. “There’s no way I’m gonna talk to 80-year-olds in Penrith but if I can just get those young kids — at least you can inoculate a certain demographic against it [the mainstream media].”
He is no more generous to the online youth media than to the mainstream. They are, in his mind, false prophets corrupted by corporate sponsorship. The ABC is just a Liberal Party mouthpiece. “I just see it as a propaganda network because anyone that works for it is a propagandist. It’s the same with BuzzFeed, it’s the same with Vice, and they’re failing as a result because it’s so easy to see through.”
Perhaps the source of this ire was a 2016 BuzzFeed article, which includes an email from Jordan trying to drum up paid commissions from progressive organisations.
His passionate support of the Labor Party has led many to wonder if he’s on the take. There was a moment tonight when he stood astride the Labor logo unironically emblazoned behind him. Although he has done a few commissioned videos for the ACTU and GetUp, he strenuously denies he is paid regularly by anyone but his fans. “I make my money from stand-up,” he tells me flatly. I ask him why he doesn’t support the Greens. “They are not viable they don’t have a political machine behind them. I support Labor because I read.”
Behind me the bell rings for last drinks. The shrillness breaks the moment for me, but Jordan doesn’t notice. His brow remains furrowed as he continues his attack on the Australian media. I try to anticipate what he’s thinking, and ask if there are limits to comedy.
“It shows that it doesn’t matter if people are watching it for jokes, eventually, the message sinks in. And it is a relatively simple message: one party — even though they say they’re stopping the boats and how good they are at the economy — at the end of the day they are serving the interests of huge multinational corporations and that is it.”