When political candidates appear on comedy shows, they nearly always win. Mad Chapman asks Guy Williams who he thought won in his New Zealand Today segment with Leo Molloy.
During the 2016 US election campaign, Donald Trump said something ridiculous and or offensive seemingly every other day. The remarks would be written about and criticised around the world, and then he’d say something else. It was a cycle that, in hindsight, worked effectively as a publicity campaign for a candidate who was looking for the votes of the exact people who loved the offensive remarks. But there was one moment, as the election results filtered in and Trump was confirmed as president, that stuck out for its inadvertent endorsement of a polarising candidate.
When Trump appeared on The Tonight Show and Jimmy Fallon tousled his hair.
On the latest episode of New Zealand Today, Guy Williams dedicated more than half of a 22-minute episode to Leo Molloy and his Auckland mayoralty campaign. Williams didn’t tousle Molloy’s hair but he may as well have.
Molloy appeared on Williams’ show and spent a large portion of the time being ridiculous and offensive. That’s not new: Molloy has developed a personal brand out of being abrasive, offensive and, at times yes, a little bit funny. On New Zealand Today, he was able to be his most outrageous self. There’s an interview segment where he repeatedly refers to “soft cock” past mayors and calls Williams an ableist slur. If the segment had ended there, perhaps we would have ended with a net neutral: fans of Molloy loving his callousness and detractors being reminded of his reputation.
Instead the segment continues. Williams’ dad makes an appearance in support of Molloy, followed by vox pops with members of the public (at least half of whom appear visibly drunk, which is not uncommon for subjects of New Zealand Today and a whole other issue) who voice either supportive or ambivalent views of Molloy. At one point Williams’ ponders whether he is in fact helping Molloy by featuring him on the show. And then the segment continues.
Williams agrees to fight Molloy in a caricatured boxing match. “If you win, I’ll help you with your political campaign,” he says. “If I win, you’ve got to give up your mayoral campaign.” By that point, 11 minutes into what looked like a genuine, albeit combative, collaboration between the two men, Molloy had already won.
The segment continues. The two men fight, Williams loses – providing lovely visuals for Molloy as someone who can “knock out” an opponent – and a reluctant endorsement of Leo Molloy for Auckland mayor runs.
Nearly 14 minutes of prime-time television dedicated to one mayoral candidate. It was jarring to watch, because I genuinely couldn’t decipher what is Guy Williams trying to do?
This isn’t the first time Williams has interviewed a polarising figure on New Zealand Today. He’s spoken to anti-vaxxers, anti-abortionists, white supremacists and more in his show with the tagline: “Volunteer journalist Guy Williams visits small-town New Zealand to investigate what he thinks are the most interesting stories in New Zealand today.” In season two, Williams attempted to “rehabilitate” the Christchurch Wizard who had lost favour with the public after sexist remarks. Williams allowed him to say more sexist things only to then attempt to rebuild his image through a series of convoluted gags.
Williams is the host of a comedy show airing on prime-time television, and I watched his segment with Molloy genuinely unsure what his aim was in filming it. At one point in the segment, Williams himself ponders, “Am I actually helping him?” I was wondering the same thing. So I asked him.
“I thought it was clear in this story that I was very anti Leo Molloy and I think the interview reflects badly on him,” Williams said over the phone. I suggested that it could be viewed as the two of them being in on the joke together, given the multiple settings and Molloy filming scripted elements.
“I just thought the interview was so wild that that would be viewed on its own merits. And I’m pretty proud of the interview but if the rest of the story doesn’t condemn him enough- I don’t know if that’s my job and maybe I shouldn’t have platformed him but I watched it last night and I was pretty happy with the story.”
Molloy’s opponents have since condemned his appearance on the show, to which Molloy responded: “I’ve known Guy’s father for more 40 years. The show was theatrical, I played up as instructed, all in good humour. Guy remains a friend and in fact visited our campaign HQ last week.”
Last year, David Farrier expressed his regret about interviewing then-Conservative Party leader Colin Craig in a sauna in 2015. The segment was funny and Craig said some outrageous things, and then went on to be revealed as a particularly bad person.
Farrier referred to himself as having done to Craig “what Jimmy Fallon did to Donald Trump. Fallon, ruffling Trump’s hair. Me, topless, joking around with Colin. It was an image that instantly excused all that bad shit.”
Balancing comedy and satire with political journalism is near impossible to execute. Farrier is a journalist but his sauna series was decidedly comedic, and that’s largely where it fell down. Williams is a self-proclaimed “volunteer journalist” hosting a comedy show. Any political figures appearing on a comedy show would automatically fall into the “soft media” pile unless something extraordinary happens. Rarely does something extraordinary happen.
But Williams was insistent that the segment would have a negative impact on Molloy’s campaign, as he intended. “I don’t think he’s a serious candidate,” he said. “I think the people who vote in Auckland mayoral campaigns are old and quite conservative. I would be shocked if this was a huge boost to his campaign.
“I don’t think that people who follow me will like Leo Molloy or like the way Leo comes out of the story. Even my editor was going ‘I think this will end his campaign’.”
As of writing, there are already hundreds of comments on media Facebook posts about the interview. The vast majority of them are positive towards Molloy, with a number of people proclaiming to want to vote for him specifically because of the segment. Many viewers noted that it was “a satirical skit” and therefore simply there for a laugh.
To my suggestion that Williams may have inadvertently aired a 13-minute promotional video for Molloy, Williams was unconvinced.
“It’s interesting how we view things. Did you come out of it thinking you liked Leo after that?”
“No,” I replied. “I didn’t come out thinking I liked him, I came out of it thinking you liked him.”
He paused for a second. “Damn, you got me there good.”
Williams was clear in his stance against Molloy, but didn’t connect the good optics of a comedy show appearance, no matter how combative, for a mayoral candidate. Molloy himself said on the show that “as long as you’re talking about me, and they’re talking about me, I’m winning”. Since this morning there have been half a dozen news articles about the segment (and now this).
The season has been filmed already and no other candidates will feature. We went back and forth on how a segment on a show that rates well and regularly gets hundreds of thousands of views on Youtube and social media may impact a local election campaign. Williams was pleasant throughout and defended his decision (“no one made me do that segment”). As we wrapped up, he made a polite observation.
“I think you did a really good job of putting me on the back foot a little bit, yeah, that’s your job as a journalist and a reporter, right?”
He’s right. Watching the New Zealand Today segment, Molloy never looked on the back foot. Whatever Williams’ intention was in featuring Molloy on his show, the outcome is that Molloy won, in every sense. And may yet win again.