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'It's just a sh*tfest. You can't parody the man': Waterford Whispers and satire after Trump

Waterford Whispers founder Colm Williamson spoke to TheJournal.ie about the publication’s fifth annual book.

Image: Olivier Douliery/PA Images

“THERESA MAY FINALLY admits ‘we’re making a right balls of this’.”

“Genius minister finally solves housing crisis by building houses.”

“Skyscraper in the shape of Michael Collins gets go ahead in Cork.”

Few escape the crosshairs of Waterford Whispers – the almost decade-old publication that started off sharing parody articles to social media from its website online, and now encompasses live shows and a Christmas annual.

The online publisher has a huge following on social media and, with its fifth Christmas annual publishing recently, founder Colm Williamson told TheJournal.ie that the operation is now a finely-tuned one.

“This is a kind of best of with about 40% new material,” he said. “We try and chip away at it during the year. We’d have a bank of content, and stories we think would suit the book. The first couple of books were hard, but we’ve a good template we work from now.”

Under the radar

So how do Williamson and the small team at Waterford Whispers create their stories?

Part of it often arises in response to topical news stories – prior to Budget 2019, it ran “Government buys calculator with loads of buttons on it ahead of Budget” – but popular stories can often come from the more abstract.

One that stuck out and went viral “Miracle teenager survives on his own for almost six hours with no WiFi.”

This generated hundreds of thousands of views and reached millions. 

“We’ve a nice little system,” Williamson said. “We would know what stories to hit on.”

Using data to see what kind of things have done well previously, the team is guided to what they should be writing about. 

“We have analytical stuff there, and we would actively pick the stories that matter and some that may have gone under the radar,” he said. “There’d roughly be seven stories a day – three in the morning, three in the evening time as a target. 

We work together to pitch headlines, and meet at 10-11am everyday so we know what we’re doing that day.

Beyond parody

Poking fun at those in charge has been a staple of Waterford Whispers since its inception – “Taoiseach treated for severe criticism in Dublin Hospital” – but the emergence of Donald Trump onto the biggest political stage in recent years has created a challenge for those seeking to satirise world leaders.

Waterford Whispers is the uniquely Irish version of sites such as The Onion and the Flipside that have made a name for themselves by twisting the news with a humorous edge. 

In an age of fake news, these sites are not looking to convince people of something that isn’t true, but simply make them laugh or make them think.

Williamson said: “When Trump was elected, we said ‘right, we’d seen the trend’. People here are sick of Trump. We’d already done a lot of American politics.

We find with Trump, it’s just a shitfest. You can’t parody the man. Whatever you say, people will actually believe. If he starts doing it then, it’s not ‘fake news’ then. What’s the point?

That doesn’t mean that America is off limits for the site – far from it. 

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The site still regularly satirises aspects of US culture and the Trump administration but often steers away from the man, himself. 

“We’ve no choice sometimes,” he said.

 10 years on (almost)

Next year will mark 10 years since Colm Williamson, who wasn’t working at the time, started Waterford Whispers in a small apartment in Tramore.

There are already plans afoot to celebrate the anniversary to add to the live shows that they’ve already performed in the likes of Dublin’s Vicar Street.

This may include podcasts, a special edition of the annual book and festival appearances, but nothing is finalised yet.

Christmas marks the only time of the year when Williamson and co can take a proper break.

“It’s the only time I can take two weeks off,” he said. “We have a big bank of stuff from over the years that can carry us into January.

I didn’t expect it to do as well as it did. I started off unemployed… and help from local authority schemes helped. It’s hard work, and I don’t turn off. But I can’t complain. 

About the author:

Sean Murray

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