Pie in the eye: ‘the ultimate social leveller’

Projectile patisserie: “I need a good drycleaner before I leave Perth,” said the Qantas CEO.

What connects Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates, and now the boss of Australian airline Qantas? They have all fallen victim to a public “flanning”. What’s the history behind this edible activism?

Alan Joyce is the chief executive of Qantas, Australia’s largest airline. Yesterday, as he spoke at a business breakfast in Perth, he was approached on stage by a man in a suit. To the audience’s astonishment, the 67-year-old calmly pushed a cream pie into Joyce’s face and walked away.

Joyce laughed the incident off. Returning to stage after being cleaned up, he joked: “If there are any more pies can you get it over with now?” Later, he confirmed that he did not know the flavour of the pastry in question, as “it was mostly on my glasses.”

The filling flinging appears to have been a protest against gay marriage in Australia, which Joyce supports. He now says he will press charges.

Throwing pies in people’s faces — or l’entartage as the French call it — is a time-honoured tradition dating back over a century.

It began in the silent movie era, when slapstick comedy — which did not require sound — was king. The first known instance appeared in 1909, as a gag in the film Mr Flip. The pie was used to punish the film’s antagonist, a pompous and sexist shop manager.

By 1916, the joke was so common that Charlie Chaplin’s Behind the Screen showed several actors throwing pies at each other backstage with the ironic intertitle “The comedy department — Rehearsing a new idea.”

However, this did not stop Laurel and Hardy taking the joke to its extreme in 1927’s The Battle of the Century, during which over 3,000 baked goods were hurled (“filling and all”, insisted Laurie years later).

But it was in 1970 that pie throwing went from a cinematic stunt to an act of political protest. It started with Thomas King Forcade, who testified during a government meeting on obscenity, before throwing a pie at the commission’s chairman. The idea spread. Between the 1970s and 1990s, Aron Kay — known as the “Yippie Pie Thrower” — pied everyone from the artist Andy Warhol to one of Richard Nixon’s Watergate conspirators.

Cream and punishment

How childish, say some. Pie throwing sounds funny, but ultimately it is an act of violence, intended to silence someone you disagree with. Surely we should have moved on from petty pastry protest to a more civilised form of debate? Words are what you need to win arguments, not whipped cream.

Lighten up, say others. Pie throwing does not hurt anyone, and it is the perfect antidote to pomposity. As Belgian anarchist and tart terrorist Noel Godin put it: “A cream pie is an uncannily precise barometer of human nature.” In the moments that follow, good-humoured people (like Alan Joyce yesterday) come out looking quite well. But others (like the philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, pied five times by Godin) react violently. Their true colours are revealed.

You Decide

  1. How would you react if someone threw a pie at your face?
  2. Is pie throwing a useful form of protest, or a childish prank?

Activities

  1. Noel Godin is now retired from pie throwing, but he once said that “every victim has to be thoroughly justified”. He usually targeted pompous people without a sense of humour. With this in mind, which three current public figures would you ask him to pie next?
  2. Write a scene for a film which revives the silent movie pie-throwing tradition for the modern age.

Some People Say...

“What better enforcer of the democratic dogma? A gooey face is an instant social equalizer.”

Rex Weiner, former pie protester

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The last public pie throwing to hit the headlines was Rupert Murdoch in 2011, as he testified over the phone hacking scandal in the House of Commons. The perpetrator was comedian and activist Jonathan May-Bowles. He used shaving foam and spent six weeks in jail.
What do we not know?
Whether Overheu, who pied Alan Joyce, will be convicted for the act. He says that he has emailed Joyce to apologise for his “very serious action”. It is also uncertain whether, in this age of political polarisation, pie throwing will make a comeback.
What do people believe?
The Australian minister for immigration, Peter Dutton, tweeted: “The attack on Alan Joyce today was a disgrace. The person should be ashamed. The threats any of us receive is unacceptable #wordsnotviolence.”

Word Watch

Yippie
A nickname for “young politically active hippies”, generally used in the 1960s and 70s. The “Youth International Party” was formed in 1967 as part of the free speech and anti-war demonstrations taking place in the USA at the time.
Andy Warhol
The artist, particularly popular during the 1960s, is most famous for his pop art. His work included images of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s tomato soup cans.
Watergate
During the 1972 presidential election, Richard Nixon’s campaign team was involved in a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, at the Watergate complex. Nixon himself was then involved in covering up the incident. It eventually led to his resignation as president in 1974.
Noel Godin
Godin became famous for his pie throwing over around 25 years. He reached his peak in 1998, when he pied Bill Gates. Afterwards he reportedly said: “My work is done here.”
Bernard-Henri Levy
The philosopher was the only person to be targeted by Godin more than once. If he could only “respond with humour… he would immediately defuse the process,” said Godin. It was not to be.

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