Michael Spicer has been trying – mostly failing – to make it as a comedian for the best part of two decades. As a teenager, Spicer amassed enough rejection letters to wallpaper the spare bedroom of his family home. (He was a precocious teenager.) Spicer kept plugging away at comedy writing throughout his 20s and 30s, pitching to TV commissioners but receiving unending rejections. “A lot of the stuff I wrote wasn’t quite good enough,” he admits. It wasn’t that Spicer wasn’t getting anywhere at all – “I would always touch the surface of success,” he says – but he certainly wasn’t getting anywhere fast.
Parts in BBC satirical comedy The Mash Report, hosted by Nish Kumar, and the Diane Morgan sitcom Mandy were promising, but they weren’t enough to make ends meet, so Spicer took a job writing copy for a shipping company. His mother couldn’t understand why his career never seemed to take off.
“She’d say to me,” Spicer chuckles, “‘but there’s so much rubbish on TV. How can there not be room for you?’” He watched his comedy peers, like Morgan and Kumar, break through into the mainstream. “They became household names,” he says, “while I was playing characters like ‘Tosser Number 1’, or ‘Man on the Street’. It was hard in a way, although I felt nothing but good things for them, because I knew how talented they were.”
And then, in June 2019, Spicer was scrolling through Twitter while at work at the shipping firm. He saw a viral clip of Boris Johnson being interviewed by Talk Radio during the Tory leadership race. The interviewer asked Johnson what he did to relax. “You could see that he was really struggling for an answer,” Spicer says. “The two sides of his brain were literally fighting each other: do I tell the truth, or lie?” As Johnson stared into the distance, stalling for time, Spicer observed that it looked like he was waiting for advice to be fed into his ear.
When Spicer got home that evening, he filmed a minute-long video in which he pretended to be Johnson’s adviser, feeding him lines through a headpiece. “Say something, you vase of wank!” Spicer urges, sitting behind a pile of box-binders and notes. The video cuts back to Johnson being interviewed. “Buses...I make models of buses,” says Johnson. Spicer uploaded the video to Twitter around 10pm, then went to bed. He woke up to find that his social media feed had exploded. The video changed everything for him. “It was completely surreal,” he says. “It felt like a fever dream.”
Since that day, Spicer has spun off his harried political aide character into series The Room Next Door, which features the comedian attempting to avert some of the most unbelievable moments in recent political discourse. (There have been many.) Such is the success of The Room Next Door – which he uploads to Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, and has amassed 50m views – that Spicer has appeared on James Corden’s The Late Late Show, has a 10-date live tour booked for next year, and a book coming out in October. (The Secret Political Adviser is a collection of emails, texts, memos and documents collated by Spicer’s fictitious political adviser spanning the period 2016-2020 – ie when everything started going wrong in the world.)
Spicer is 43. All the doors he’s been knocking on for years have suddenly swung open; suited attendants wait to take his coat and offer him a drink. The career he’s been working towards since he was a teenager is finally here. “It would have been nice to have a career in comedy without this constant narrative of horror behind it,” he observes. “But here we are.”
Spicer represents the new vanguard of comedians satirising the political quagmire we’ve become embroiled in since the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. We are living in the age of political gaffes: there are so many of them, and they come so thick and fast, that what would once have led the news agenda for 24 hours gets forgotten in minutes. Trump regularly says things so extreme that they are barely legal – in 2020 alone, he has touted bleach injections as a cure for coronavirus, encouraged police to shoot civilians, defended armed vigilantes, and suggested that he won’t accept the election result – and yet the world keeps turning. Outrage can only sustain itself for so long.
In this age of howlers so big you can see them from outer space – the gulf of guff, the ocean of lies – the role of the comedian is to remind us that the times we are living in are not normal, no matter how desensitised we have become to the cringing failures and mendacious distortions of our elected leaders.
“Usually, the writers of political satire would impersonate a president and do scripted lines,” says Dr Dannagal Young, a political humour expert at the University of Delaware. “Their role is to reframe situations or digest them down to their most absurd. But what’s different about this new wave of comedy is that the words being satirised are the actual words being spoken by elites, and the role that’s played by someone like Michael Spicer is to be the foil: the person who comes in and highlights the ridiculousness of everything being said.”
Spicer’s political adviser in The Room Next Door is the proverbial adult in the room: the person to articulate the “OMG WTF?” many of us have felt as we contemplate the state of political discourse in this country with abject despair. A generation ago, Spicer and his peers would have written jokes about Johnson: now they simply show us Johnson in his own words.
“Back in the day,” says Spicer, “we used to watch Spitting Image puppets. Now we are being led by the puppets. How could you create any more of a caricature of Trump, with his tan, and hair, and the things he says? My character is reacting to that nonsense. It chimed with people. That’s why I’m as popular as I am.”
One of Spicer’s Room Next Door sketches features him watching in disbelief as home secretary Priti Patel pledges that the government will go after “counter-terrorists” with the full force of the law not once, not twice, but seven times. “Priti, please listen,” Spicer’s political adviser begs in the sketch. “Counter-terrorism offenders is not a thing. That’s like saying ‘anti-fox hunting fox-hunters’, or ‘decency advocate Priti Patel.’” It’s a very funny video, albeit a depressing one: nothing Spicer came up with could be funnier than the reality of Patel’s bungling incompetence. “Imagine being a comedy writer,” observes Spicer of Patel, “and 70% of your material is already written, it’s all gold, and your co-writer doesn’t want any credit.”
Such is the ineptitude of this current cohort of politicians, they’re doing the work of comedians for them. “During New Labour,” says Spicer, “there was a well-oiled spin machine making sure that nothing went wrong. Prescott would occasionally fall off the leash, but Blair was a spin doctor’s dream... But what has happened is that there is no machine any more. When Liz Truss goes out and tries to explain Brexit negotiations, then gives up and admits she doesn’t know what’s going on – that would never have happened in the days of New Labour. It means that rather than trying to create a caricature of politicians, comedians are simply reacting to them.”
Spicer is the foil who reflects the absurdity of what’s being said
There was a period at the beginning of Trump’s presidency when media outlets tried to interpret what he was saying, and parse it into some sort of coherent narrative. Those days are past. Now, many media outlets report Trump unfiltered because there is no discernible message, in any traditional sense. Trump is uncontrolled id with a whipped-cream hubris frosting – how to satirise someone so contemptuous of legal, social, and moral norms? “Probably the most jaw-dropping moment of his presidency,” says Spicer, “is when Trump said [in 2019] that he could win the war in Afghanistan in a week if he wanted to, but he doesn’t want to kill 10 million people. But if things were different, he’d be up for genocide.”
Into this logic void has stepped a wave of comedians, who don’t write jokes about the news, so much as literally report it. “Someone like Spicer is the foil who comes in and reflects the absurdity of what’s being said,” says Young. “It invites us to ask how we got into the situation where this person is in this position of power.” Spicer is not the only person to pioneer this type of comedy: US comedian Sarah Cooper, who impersonates Trump using his own words, just scored a Netflix special.
There is another reason Spicer has become so popular. Today’s news cycle moves at a rapacious pace. Yesterday’s exam fiasco becomes today’s screeching U-turn becomes tomorrow’s armed vigilante mob. You can’t keep up. “When I was going back over Trump’s first year in office for the book,” says Spicer, “there was so much stuff that I’d forgotten about. Remember when he banned people from Muslim countries entering the US?”
Comedians can’t develop material based on these mishaps, because by the time they get it on tour, it will have dated – there is simply so much politics these days. Social media offers a space to react to the chaos and absurdity of contemporary political discourse, in real time. “Stand-up comics always have to be aware of burning material,” says comedy agent Corrie McGuire, who represents artists including Ashley Storrie, Myra DuBois and Lolly Jones. “But social media allows people to be creative, and use material that won’t be relevant the next time they tour. Twitter’s great for reacting to funny things that have happened in the news, which won’t be as relevant in three days’ time, because we have such a high turnover of information now.”
Does Spicer owe his career to social media? “100%,” he responds swiftly. “I’m not sure it would have happened without it.” Spicer had been sending scripts to commissioners at the BBC and Channel 4 for years, with no success: “I feel like the BBC, in terms of comedy, is still relying on traditional avenues, like Oxford and Cambridge, as this guarantees you’ll get the best of the best. People at the top are too reliant on those old avenues still working, and ultimately that’s not how you find interesting, diverse and original voices.”
By building an online following, Spicer has been able to circumvent traditional industry gatekeepers. “It used to be that if you couldn’t get on TV, you couldn’t sell enough tickets for a tour,” McGuire says. “Now you can get a big audience without getting on TV. What social media has done is give opportunities to people who wouldn’t have access to traditional channels.”
Comedians like Mo Gilligan and Ashley Storrie started out uploading clips to social media, before coming to the attention of commissioners: Gilligan was given his own Channel 4 show in 2019; Storrie has a radio show on the BBC. Spicer got his recurring guest slot on The Mash Report after the producers trawled social media for new voices. “They took a punt on me,” he says. “I will always be grateful.”
While Twitter, beloved of politicians and political journalists, has traditionally been many comedians’ chosen platform, increasingly, TikTok is becoming an effervescent source of fresh talent. “TikTok is killing sketch comedy,” says Spicer. “Sketch comedy on TV used to be a big deal, but it’s not really any more, and the reason is that people are doing sketches on TikTok, and doing them well. That’s how people consume short-form comedy now. They don’t need the TV any more – they get it from social media.”
Spicer is followed by a number of high-profile politicians, including Keir Starmer, Nicola Sturgeon, Emily Thornberry and Matt Hancock. “Hancock watches my videos,” Spicer says. “I think he enjoys it. He knows it’s not going to harm his career, even though I really want it to.” The Room Next Door has even been name-checked in parliament, during a trade bill debate by Labour MP Bill Esterson. Spicer’s appearance on The Late Late Show came about after Corden made contact over Twitter. “He slid into my DMs,” Spicer laughs. He has now recorded four sketches for the show, all from his family home in Ashford, Kent. “That was a massive career high,” he says.
There is the possibility, of course, that Trump will lose in November, and Johnson in four years, and some grown-ups will be elected to office. Is Spicer worried that will kill The Room Next Door? “I don’t think Biden will be the answer to all our prayers in America,” he says, “and I don’t have that much confidence in Keir Starmer… he seems a bit vanilla.” And besides, we’re a way off Spicer running out of material yet. As I write this interview I have half an eye open on Twitter, where a video of Matt Hancock acknowledging that the former Australian prime minister is a “homophobe and misogynist”, but defending him for being “an expert on trade”, is currently trending.
No doubt that man in The Room Next Door will have something to say about that. Because if you don’t laugh, you may just cry.
The Secret Political Adviser by Michael Spicer (Canongate, £9.99) is published on 1 October. Order a copy for £9.29 from guardianbookshop.com