Whether they’re reporting from a bunker underneath “Jackie’s Market” in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, or at a Donald Trump rally in New Hampshire, Travis Harmon and Jonathan Shockley are always ready to be in character.
Harmon and Shockley, known by their alter egos Jackie Broyles (Harmon) and Dunlap (Shockley), have become bona fide “political pundits” with almost 25,000 YouTube subscribers since launching “Red State Update,” a satirical video series and podcast, in 2005.
Harmon and Shockley were both raised in the South — Harmon grew up in Murfreesboro and Shockley attended Middle Tennessee State University in the mid-’90s — and even though they launched “Red State Update” after relocating to Los Angeles 15 years ago, they decided to establish the “RSU” universe in Murfreesboro. The characters, Harmon says, are a product of the people they encountered in Middle Tennessee.
“I wouldn’t say either character is based off one particular person,” Harmon says during a phone interview. “It’s more of a combination of family, friends and the kind of people you run into at Kroger.”
Although, for awhile, he says, many viewers believed their outlandish personas were the real deal.
“In our minds, (Jackie Broyles and Dunlap) are pretty much Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny,” he continues, “but there was a time when people thought these were real characters.”
For the last 10 years, the political junkies have provided commentary on presidential elections, became regulars on CNN to discuss the 2008 election and published a book in 2011 called “Let There Be Facebook: Status Updates from God, Gaga and Everyone In Between.” Last summer, they raised almost $12,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to leave their usual video setup in front of an American flag and red Solo cups to cover the 2016 election.
“We’re basically doing this all for the folks who were kind enough to give us money to get us out of the house,” Harmon says.
“Out of the house … and into a Trump rally,” Shockley continues.
The theatrics that go into making “Red State Update” stem from Harmon and Shockley’s theater days in local productions, which included plays at MTSU’s theater department, where they met around 1995. For a short time, they went on to produce “The Travis and Jonathan Show,” a quirky morning show that aired both in Murfreesboro and on Nashville’s public access channel.
Because of the Kickstarter campaign, Travis and Jonathan were able to travel to New Hampshire to report on the primaries. While in New Hampshire, they attended a “Puppy Bowl” viewing party hosted by presidential candidate Jim Gilmore and then braved a blizzard to cover Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump rallies on the same day.
“(Jonathan) and I are obviously political junkies to some degree, and we wouldn’t be doing this otherwise,” Harmon says. “At the same time it feels depressing … again, did I mention we were at a Trump rally last night?”
“We also went to a Bernie Sanders rally, and you see a lot of kids talk about voting,” Shockley says jokingly. “You know, when they get our age they’ll be disillusioned, but it’s nice to see them happy in a small moment in time. Let them enjoy themselves.”
“Red State Update” has fans from all over the world, but some of their most faithful viewers stem from Tennessee. William Dean, a 31-year-old from Cookeville, Tennessee, says he’s been following the podcast for more than five years, but he’s watching it more regularly now to keep up with “the theatrics of this election season.”
“I don’t have cable, so I find myself watching a lot of things online,” Dean said. “I’m not big on politics, but I think most people like when you mix politics and comedy.’”
Shockley and Harmon aren’t alone in their satirical endeavors. From prominent figures like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to accessible “Saturday Night Live” sketches, finding humor through politics appeals to registered voters.
According to a 2012 Pew Research study, 66 percent of registered voters who used the Internet, which included 55 percent of all registered voters, went online during the 2012 election season to watch videos related to the election campaign or political issues.
Of those voters, 37 percent watched humorous or parody videos online dealing with political issues.
“At least the funny shows are coming at you with a point of view,” Shockley says. “I mean, in a way, Jon Stewart had more on the line than Anderson Cooper. … They have to have some substance on the satirical shows, but they’ll get called out on it more than the news.”
Over the years, the podcast’s version of Murfreesboro has become a surreal place with strange businesses and bizarre characters, Shockley said. It’s becomes so unusual at times that Jonathan admits they have to read their own Wikipedia page to keep up with what’s going on in the characters’ world.
“Just because we live in Los Angeles doesn’t mean we don’t think about Murfreesboro all the time,” he says “It’s just a different Murfreesboro … a make-believe Murfreesboro.”
This piece is brought to you by Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University, launched in January 2015. The Studio M project is made possible through generous grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.