-by Ken Plume
Long before Comedy Central’s The Daily Show was a glimmer in creator Lizz Winstead’s eye, there was another program that brilliantly satirized programs like 60 Minutes and 20/20 - it was Michael Moore’s TV Nation. One of the TV Nation correspondents was a Brit by the name of Louis Theroux, whose segments included memorable visits with the “new” Klu Klux Klan and NRA rocker Ted Nugent.
In fact, it was exactly those profiles of subculture and celebrity that Theroux would explore with his post-TV Nation series Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, which originally aired on Bravo in the US and the BBC in the UK. In it, Louis traveled around America, seeking out and trying to make sense of fascinatingly oddball American subcultures such as professional wrestling, rappers, swingers, UFO enthusiasts, etc. In addition, he’s spent face-to-face time with various unique, somewhat eccentric celebrities in his series When Louis Met….
Sadly, the Best of Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends volumes available in the UK have not made their way to the US yet, but his recent companion book thankfully has.
The Call of the Weird: Travels In American Subcultures (Da Capo Press) finds Theroux following up on some of the subjects of those Weird Weekends, and it’s a positively wonderful read. Here’s hoping that a network in the US sees fit to begin airing his work Stateside - particularly as he’s just begun a brand new series of specials for the BBC, the first of which took him to Las Vegas in an effort to understand the siren call of gambling.
KP: Right off the bat, let me say that I’ve been a fan of yours since the TV Nation days…
KP: Is if you look back over the past 13 years, do you see anything different about what you’re doing now, compared to what your interests were then, as far as subject matter?
THEROUX: That’s a good question. In terms of subject matter, my interests are very much in the same area. I’m still interested in people whose choices seem, to me, in some way strange. And people who are in some kind of a gray area, perhaps morally, as far as what they do goes. The first segment I ever did for TV Nation was called “Millennium.” It wasn’t the first one that ever went out, but it was the first one I taped when I was 23 in 1994, and it was about different groups that think the end of the world is happening and is about to take place, and the ways in which they saw those prophecies being fulfilled. Over here in London right now, I’m editing a show that we just finished taping - tomorrow’s the last day of the edit - and it’s about the Phelps family, who are a religious group of Christians who basically think we’re in the last of the last days. It probably would have fit fairly comfortably in that original TV Nation segment. So there’s a sense in which I’m still plowing the same furrows, 13 years later. But I think the approach itself has changed a little bit.
KP: How would you define the approach, for a typical TV Nation segment? Or for your early Weird Weekends?
THEROUX: Back in the TV Nation days… I don’t want to distance myself from anything I’ve done, because they were all things that I had to go through. And some of that stuff still holds up. In those days, really, I was making short segments - six, seven, eight minute segments - and it was about making some jokes, eliciting some outrageous or ludicrous comments from the people that you’re with, thereby to make their beliefs seem strange or ridiculous, and get out. So occasionally it might seem that they could be… when I look at myself in some of them, I was perhaps a little bit callow, a little bit… let me think. Not in all of them, but in a couple of them perhaps, I don’t think maybe I totally leveled with the people I was with, and perhaps I didn’t… maybe, again, it was the notion of it being a shorter segment, but I was facing…
KP: Would you say you went in - you used the word “illicit” - almost with an agenda?
THEROUX: I don’t want to… any journalist, you could argue, has an agenda of some kind. I don’t mean to be reductive, but I suppose in an eight or nine minute segment in a program that is supposed to really be a comedy program, you don’t really have a chance to show people in different moods. And especially you don’t have a moment of, say, pathos for example. And maybe I didn’t always… you know, I’ve done stuff… like, I did a segment on the Ku Klux Klan, where it was really just… I was just trying to make the people… show them to be the poisonous, nasty people that many of those people really are.
KP: This was the segment on the new Klan?
THEROUX: The new Klan, yes. It was about outing them - like, they’re just as bad as the old Klan. And I think that’s valid. And that segment is still, I think, quite funny. But we did a thing more recently about neo-Nazis in California. Similar subject area, but it was at a greater length. It was an hour long documentary. For the new one, we were able to get to show a moment of pathos and bring out how in many respects these marginal, angry people are also victimizing themselves. Their rage comes out of a sense of impotence. And that they are more to be pitied than to be feared, by and large.
KP: Would you say then that the TV Nation pieces weren’t about doing a documentary portrait of these people?
THEROUX: You can’t really do a documentary portrait in eight or nine minutes. So no, they were just sort of… I suppose they were really just comical encounters between a bumbling English person that I was playing, and these offbeat weird Americans that I was interviewing. And so you can sort of take them for what their worth. I think the Ted Nugent one - that one still holds up pretty well, because you do get a sense of him giving me a hard time. He gets pretty angry with me. He calls me a lying sack of shit at one point. And I think that helps, actually.
KP: Would you consider that the first subject that you ever had that was combative in any way?
THEROUX: I’m trying to think. To begin with, I thought it was about sneaking under the radar, almost Borat style, and scoring hits against people. But actually, fairly quickly I learned that if people think they know what you’re up to, or if they just… if you just have a ding dong with someone, where they call you on what they think you’re doing and you go back and forth, it actually can be more powerful and it certainly is a more satisfying way of working.
KP: When you were in your early 20s at that point, and really going out and putting yourself out on a limb for the first time in those situations, with the only safety net being a small crew around even though you’re still out front, was there any point where you had a sort of learning curve in how to deal with those situations?
THEROUX: I’m wary of making it sound as though I was out there risking life and limb. Because certainly in the broad scheme of things, compared with sort of journalists in war zones or reporting from Rwanda or Grozny or somewhere like that, what I do and what I was doing then was very small potatoes. It was really… it was very… I don’t think in those early TV Nation days, I don’t think I ever felt like I was putting my neck on the line at all. I used to get nervous just because I was nervous. I was more nervous of getting in front of the camera, to be honest with you. Because I felt quite shy about… I never thought of myself as a performer, and I got a bit shy about… I don’t know, about stepping in front of the crew and saying things. It was a big step for me because, until then, I had only really done print journalism. I hadn’t even done that for very long. So I felt a little bit illegitimate.
KP: Do you think if TV Nation hadn’t come along you would have just continued down the path of print journalism?
THEROUX: I sometimes wonder about that. I suspect I probably would have. It’s really hard to know, but I think maybe I would have. I owe Michael Moore a debt of gratitude on that, big time.
KP: When you made that transition out of TV Nation… did you only do the first season?
THEROUX: No, I did the second one, as well. The second one I did a few. The Ted Nugent one…
KP: Okay, so that was for the Fox period…
THEROUX: I didn’t make the transition to when TV Nation reincarnated as The Awful Truth. I wasn’t around for that.
KP: At what point were you presented with the idea of doing the Weird Weekends?
THEROUX: The BBC had been partners in making the TV Nation shows, and they used to have a guy who’d come over called David Mortimer, and he was the BBC’s man in New York who would help produce the show a little bit. He approached me during the second season and said, “We’d love to do something with you if and when the time comes.” When the second season of TV Nation wasn’t picked up, he said, “We’d like to offer you a development deal.” And that’s what I did. I think it was a three month deal where I had to come up with ideas, and one of those ideas was Weird Weekends. Which was really just the idea of covering TV Nation type subjects, or the sorts of subjects I’d been covering at TV Nation, but in greater length and in more depth.
KP: Was that the idea that immediately came to the fore, or were there other ones that you juggled…
THEROUX: There were some other ideas, but I don’t think… I suppose nothing very exciting. I remember saying… this was in 1995 that I was signed to the deal, so I remember the millennium being a big thing at the time, so I had an idea to make a series that would be themed around the idea of millennial type weirdness. And then I had another idea that we did about traveling to dangerous places. The idea I came up with, the only one I thought was really doable, was the Weird Weekends one.
KP: I felt it interesting, having read the UK version of the book, that you wrote an introduction in the American edition distancing yourself from the word “weird”…
THEROUX: I feel like the word “weird” is a word that I’ve had an ambivalent relationship with almost from the inception of the show. It wasn’t my title. It was the title that was given to me by David Mortimer, this BBC guy. He came up with the title Weird Weekends. And the trouble with the word is that… what makes it work and also what makes it difficult is that it’s a pejorative word. Not for everyone, but most people don’t want to be weird and they don’t want to be considered weird. Also, as a critical instrument, the word is not very subtle, and it really more describes a subjective reaction to a phenomenon rather than the phenomenon itself. And I think that was something when I came to write the book I grappled with, too.
KP: It almost pre-packages the material you’re presenting as, “It’s all going to fall under this category…”
THEROUX: That’s right. I mean what else can you do, because how do you describe… you can’t call them Louis Theroux’s Interesting Weekends. Too vague.
KP: What was the title that you originally presented to the subject? Was it Louis Theroux’s America? Or American Adventure?
THEROUX: I think Louis Theroux’s America, yeah. We used it as a working title and I tried to come up with… you know, Weird Weekends had been mooted, and I said, “You know, let’s try and think of something else.” And everything I came up with was shot down. Having said that, let me just say that the documentaries we do, we’re still making, are no longer called Weird Weekends. They’re specials and they just come out as Louis Theroux: Gambling in Las Vegas or Louis Theroux: The Most Hated Family in America.
KP: I enjoyed the gambling special a great deal, by the way…
THEROUX: How did you get to see that?
KP: That’s the beauty of the internet.
THEROUX: That’s good.
KP: Are there any plans for further DVD releases?
THEROUX: It is not in the pipeline at the moment, but I think perhaps in the next year or so we’ll start getting it together. Why not, right? What’s the overhead? You can stick in on a disc and you can sell it from a website or something.
KP: Well, obviously the demand is out there. There are regular requests for your material out on the ‘net…
THEROUX: Well, that’s encouraging. Thank you very much.
KP: It was interesting to see… I guess that transition away from just categorizing them as Weird Weekends really occurred when you started doing the When Louis Met series, right?
THEROUX: Well, that certainly was when we stopped using the Weird Weekends title and rubric. It’s all part of an evolution, if you will, and I certainly feel that there’s a greater subtlety of tone in the Weird Weekends versus the segments that I was doing at TV Nation, and that that kind of has continued onto this day, so we hopefully put more emotional complexity, in terms of the more recent stuff, as well. But yeah, the word “weird” was dropped in the When Louis Met series.
KP: Was it a clear decision on your part to distance yourself from that label being attached to the work you were doing?
THEROUX: Well no, we just changed the title, really. It was more a case of… it wasn’t, “Well, we’re going to stop being weird now.” It just felt like the next thing. I suppose it would have been more odd to try to keep the word “weird” in there without it being warranted. The fact was we did a special about a UK celebrity called Jimmy Savile just before the third series of Weird Weekends went out, and enjoyed doing it, and it got a great reaction. So after the end of the third series of Weird Weekends it was just, “Well, let’s try making more of these UK celebrity type stories.”
KP: What do you find is the clear difference in tackling a celebrity subject as opposed to your average subject, as it were?
THEROUX: What is the difference? I mean certainly…
KP: Do you find your approach is different in actually approaching them, as people?
THEROUX: There’s a couple of things I’d say on that. One is, with Weird Weekends, and with a subject where there’s an activity or lifestyle involved, of which gambling would be one, you can structure a story which involves me participating at some point. And so that’s the first thing that makes it… I guess you’ve got something to fall back on in terms of creating your story. And the other thing, again with a subculture or lifestyle type story, you’ve got a reservoir of people you can draw on who are all representing… you know, if you get turned down by one casino - they won’t film with you - you try another one. And if one gambler doesn’t work out, you try another one. Obviously with a celebrity, once you’ve signed up to doing something with them, you sort of have to make it work. The story is more about charting your relationship with that person over the course of several days or a couple of weeks. So there’s no involvement of a more obviously participatory kind. Having said that, because these are people in the UK who most people will have heard of, there is a sort of immediacy to it that people really react to. Seeing intimate moments with people that they’ve only seen on TV in formal settings.
KP: I thought it was interesting. I’ve never seen you work so hard, and I mean that as a compliment, as you did in the Jimmy Savile piece…
KP: You can actually see the sweat, of trying to crack that shell.
THEROUX: That’s right. And I think… you know, that’s one of my favorites, and I think one of the reasons it’s interesting is because he really… what can I say? He’s working as hard, if not harder, than I am. He’d obviously been thinking about making the documentary, about being elusive and trying to keep things moving and evading my questions and coming back at me with stuff and saying, “Next, next, next,” and all this kind of thing. And I think because that really made a big difference, and I think it’s one of those ones where, because you’re watching it thinking, “What’s going on with this eccentric character, and is he going to give anything away?” It really sustains the story, I think.
KP: He’s made you the focus of his documentary…
THEROUX: That’s right.
KP: How genuine do you feel that the revelation he made was? For someone who had shown himself to be so much playing this game of cat and mouse with you, when he makes this major revelation in that late night conversation…
THEROUX: Oh, I’m convinced that he didn’t realize the camera was rolling, and that he sort of dropped his guard, thinking that because I’d gone to bed, there was no way that we could possibly be filming. Because he never showed that side of him ever again in anything else I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen him in that mode, where he’s swearing and simply relaxed. So I don’t feel as though that was part of his master strategy, I just think that was him in an unguarded moment.
KP: How difficult was it for you to essentially have the cameras turned on you during the Hamilton piece [NOTE: In When Louis Met The Hamiltons, his subjects - disgraced Tory MP Neil Hamilton and his wife Christine - had charges of a sexual nature brought against them while Louis was filming, which meant he was captured on camera in most of the news footage documenting the proceedings.] ?
THEROUX: That was pretty awkward, actually. I’ve come to realize in making these documentaries that one of the things I enjoy about being in worlds that are different from the one I inhabit is a kind of invisibility. And that I can escape from my normal life, my day-to-day existence, and just sort of inhabit a parallel existence, whether it’s in a mega casino in Vegas or in a strange religious group in Topeka, Kansas. But when we were making the Hamiltons program suddenly I was in the spotlight. Instead of invisibility I was more exposed. People began writing articles about, “What is Louis Theroux doing in there,” and, “Who is this geeky character in the margins and why is he making a documentary.” And so that part of it was uncomfortable for me.
KP: At certain times there almost seemed to be a point where the Hamiltons were pulling you in front of them like a human shield.
THEROUX: That’s right. I don’t quite know what that was about, except that I think they were a little lost at sea as well, and maybe they felt that perhaps… I mean, I know they’d had a rough ride in the press, and maybe they felt that I could deflect some of the hostility a little bit? I’m really not sure.
KP: It almost seemed to me that you were the human version of when she was debating whether or not to walk out with the flowers in hand to the press conference.
THEROUX: That’s right. I think I was maybe a prop, a little bit. A talking point. And a way of maybe distracting people.
KP: How do you believe that, particularly the celebrity subjects, view participating in a “Louis Theroux” piece? You’ve done enough of them now that they certainly can anticipate what they’re in store for…
THEROUX: I think it varies from person to person. I think as people… there are celebrities who would feel that it would be a great thing for them to do, and it could help to reveal a side of them that they haven’t been able to show before. I think there are other celebrities who cultivate more of a low profile. They try to keep a low profile, and for them it would be less appropriate. I do know that the shows that we’ve done about celebrities, almost all of them, the subjects themselves have come out at the end feeling they did well out of it. That it was a good thing for them to have done.
KP: Who do you think had the clearest sense of agenda about doing the piece?
THEROUX: I would say maybe… because everyone has some kind of an agenda, even if it’s just raising their profile or casting themselves in a better light. Max Clifford, who’s a celebrity publicist over here, who represents celebrities - among them Simon Cowell, I think - and he helps them hurdle the media. He obviously had an agenda - which was to try to show how he could manipulate me and reveal me and sort of beat me at my own game kind of thing. So his was the one where…
KP: He almost seemed vindictive.
THEROUX: He seemed kind of… with Jimmy Savile, you felt like he was battling me, and trying to manipulate me and manipulate the process a bit and, as it were, produce events that showed him in a different light. And that was all fine. It was a lot of fun. With Max Clifford, he did it in a different way. He planted stories about me in the papers and arranged for journalists and paparazzi to be around wherever we were about to turn up and film. And so that was more uncomfortable, definitely.
KP: It almost seemed like he was trying to teach you a lesson.
THEROUX: I think he was trying to teach me a lesson. I think he felt as though I wasn’t playing ball. I wasn’t playing the Max Clifford game. He had a certain way of operating, and I think he must have felt as though I wasn’t cooperating. And so I think he decided, as you say, to teach me a lesson by showing me… just giving me a taste of… well, bad publicity, really.
KP: Looking at that, what do you think the shape of a When Louis Met Louis would take?
THEROUX: That’s an interesting question. I’ve been asked that before. I really don’t think I’d be a great subject for When Louis Met Louis.
KP: Essentially what Clifford was trying to do, and Savile would try, and turn it around on you…
THEROUX: To be fair, with Jimmy Savile, I don’t think he was really interested in exposing me or finding out about me. I think he was just interested in battling me and frustrating me and throwing up smokescreens.
KP: With Savile it almost seemed like that was his way of dealing with anybody, was sort of, “Well, here’s how we’re going to define the relationship…”
THEROUX: Yeah. And I think he just enjoyed being tricky, and being mysterious. With Max Clifford, he was just… I think what he was doing was, as I said, trying to make me uncomfortable and showing me that he could make life difficult for me and that it wasn’t going to be sort of a one way street. You know, the paradox in documentary making is that - certainly in the kind that I do - is that the more awkward and difficult it gets for me, the more interesting it tends to be for the program itself. So the difficult and the more challenging subjects tend to be the most rewarding ones. And that’s definitely true of both Jimmy Savile and Max Clifford. For me as a person, I like to think I’m fairly normal. I’m not a natural interviewee in a sense that I don’t really like talking about myself, my private life, how I live, my choices, my opinions. So When Louis Met Louis, I think I’d find myself pretty frustrating, and perhaps not in a good way. At some level, a good subject has to enjoy the spotlight. They have to feel like, “This is my moment to shine and to show everyone how the world really is and how I really am.” I don’t feel particularly… I don’t feel any great urge to do that.
KP: I found it fascinating, those brief glimpses of yourself that you gave during the introduction to the American edition to the book…
THEROUX: Oh, well, that’s interesting. It’s not something I normally do. I was encouraged to do that by my US publisher - just to say, “Look, it’s different in the UK. You’ve got more of a profile. Over here people won’t know anything about you, so just let people in a little bit.” I always worry if I talk too much about myself I’ll sort of become less interesting as a character in the programs themselves.
KP: I don’t know. I think the few slices that we have seen have always proved fascinating. I mean, obviously, speaking personally, you’ve been interesting to me from the very start with the TV Nation pieces. It’s interesting you brought up, as one of the subject points to try and introduce the American book, the dual nature of your personality, with the combination of the UK and US influences.
THEROUX: Well, that’s true, you know. I definitely feel more American than I come across. I think I say that in the introduction. My dad has had such an impression on me in terms of forming my character and my outlook, that people sometimes assume that I’m more British… and perhaps I’m being more critical, that I’m more distanced from the world that I investigate than I really am. I’ve even been accused in one review of being anti-American. Which really shocked me because I think of myself, if anything, as the opposite. I think of myself as someone who celebrates the American outlook, and celebrates the spirit of can-do, of openness and un-self-consciousness that I find in America.
KP: Do you feel if you tackled these same subjects just in a UK arena that you’d be seen as anti-British?
THEROUX: Well, I don’t think…
KP: I mean, these obsessive personality types are in some ways archetypes…
THEROUX: They wouldn’t exist in Britain in quite the same way. Certainly, I think people in Britain are a bit more careful not to be seen to celebrate themselves and their world in quite the same ways. I think I could do similar stories in Britain, and as you know I’ve done profiles of intriguing British people. But I think it’s a less rich canvas for me. And I think that’s just because of the nature of the culture in America. It’s more open.
KP: It’s interesting that you only attempted to do a US personality once. It was a great documentary, but it failed miserably in actually attaining the person you were going after.
THEROUX: That’s right. And in fact we attempted to do one with Ike Turner, of course. And that’s a chapter in the book where I describe why it didn’t come to fruition. That maybe wasn’t cultural, but it was more the nature of his personality. That was when I wanted him to do a When Louis Met an American celebrity.
KP: In the introduction to the book, you mentioned the idea that your father (famed author and world traveler Paul Theroux) made sure you and your brother would have these sojourns to the US to combat, or to put in the mixture to complement, the Britishness that you were picking up living in the UK…
THEROUX: To deprogram us, you know? Because he even said, at one point, “I want to put you in an American high school for a year, or a junior high for a year,” when I was about 12. I said, “Oh, I don’t think so.” Changing schools is such a wrench. Later on he told me it was because he thought my brother and I were becoming too British. But it kind of did work, I think. At the annual American sojourns that we took, every summer we’d spend a few months on Cape Cod… Spent time with our family and went kayaking and sculpted wax and went camping and stuff like that. Whether or not it was those activities specifically or just… you know, because my mum wouldn’t come over, or she’d come over for a week or two weeks. But just having our dad there for the whole time. There was a touch of Mosquito Coast about the whole thing.
KP: That was the one thing that came my mind when reading the intro, I was like, “So, hacking brush away and such combats Britishness…”
THEROUX: He never took us down to Central America, but there was a little bit of that.
KP: A sort of “Boy’s Own Adventure” deal. What do you feel was the American influence he was trying to impart?
THEROUX: I don’t know that he consciously had an agenda or a checklist of traits that he was attempting to instill in us, but I do think he had a general sense that the boyhood that had formed him - which he was an Eagle Scout, a keen marksman with a gun, a camper…. He listened to outward bound type stuff. All those sorts of activities were things that he felt would be… he was into rowing as well. An oarsman. He felt those would be beneficial to us. I think he felt, perhaps… he wanted to give us a taste of the childhood that he had growing up in Boston in the 50s. 40s, 50s. And just sort of… my dad is a can-do guy. He’s a travel writer. He travels by himself. He’s an independent spirit. He believes in going out and doing things on your own and he doesn’t have a lot of time for people he regards as supine or insufficiently self starting. So I think it was just that kind of spirit of independence and self-sufficiency that he was trying to teach us about.
KP: Which he felt that the British influence would not have delivered properly?
THEROUX: Partly it’s the nature of the environment. If you’re in south London… you know what I mean?
KP: Yes… it’s not exactly the outward bound environment.
THEROUX: It’s not outward bound. You know, you can walk around on Richmond Common, but that’s about it. I think there’s a part egalitarian… from the age of 10 he sent us to a private school in London, which was quite a small-minded little school. It was in some ways out of the 1930s.
KP: Very Tomkinson’s Schooldays…
THEROUX: Class riddled and sort of status obsessed, and wasn’t very nice. And inevitably that had an effect on us as kids. We internalized some of that. And I think he wanted us to learn a little about the more egalitarian part of American culture. Which may or may not be a myth. I know there’s a debate, “Is America a classless society,” but definitely there’s a sort of… I think a salutary myth that anyone can be the president, and we’re all equal under the Constitution. And I think part of that was something that he wanted us to learn about.
KP: The ability to embrace the illusion of a classless society?
THEROUX: He wouldn’t have phrased it like that, and it’s not something he every explicitly said, but I think he just felt like… he just didn’t want us to be snobs. It’s as simple as that, really.
KP: Do you ever feel an encroaching snobbishness?
THEROUX: The school that we went to at that time was a snobby little school. All I can say is, I think the trips over to America in the summer were very enjoyable and it was fun… although I didn’t realize it at the time, I think it has more of an effect on me than I knew.
KP: You live in Britain primarily, but you still make these, almost for the same span of time, trips to the U.S. …
THEROUX: That’s true. Although I don’t go over in the summer for two or three months, but I go back and forth quite a bit.
KP: It’s almost like an inoculation, it seems.
THEROUX: Well, that’s one way of looking at it… I don’t know. I have to be careful that I don’t romanticize it. I lived in America for five or six years in the 90s, and any time I go back I tend to really enjoy it. So I have to be careful I don’t sort of overdo it, because I know I find American Anglophiles sometimes… I’m a bit suspicious. I feel like you’re not seeing the whole picture. So I don’t want to go overboard. You’ve got to take the good with the bad, haven’t you?
KP: I would think so. It goes back to your discussion about doing fuller portraits…
THEROUX: That’s right. But I do. I like to go back… whenever I go back I feel like it’s a shot in the arm, really.
KP: Is it the people you encounter, or just the society in general? What do you find is the thing that energizes you when you make that journey, whenever you do?
THEROUX: That’s a good question. I think basically… inevitably, the view is colored by the fact that I’m doing a story. So I’ll be immersed in an interesting world. Whenever I’m traveling for work, I’m plunged into an environment that is in some way unusual and interesting. Having said that, there’s something more which I think is just the sense that life is being lived at a high pitch. The news stories tend to be big. The country itself is big. There’s a sense of scale to the way that life is lived there. So I’ll pick up a New York Times, and in any copy there’ll be three or four stories I’m fascinated by. It’s really hard to put my finger on. I think the other thing is just a sense of… like I was referring to earlier, there’s a sense of invisibility. Whereas in Britain, wherever you go, your accent tends to mark you as being from a certain class and a certain place. In America, I’m invisible because I’m just someone from Britain. I’m an outsider. And people don’t tend to be… there’s a certain level of… people in America aren’t… to make a generalization, but there’s a lot of Americans who aren’t terribly informed about the outside world. So you’re invisible in that way, too. That people don’t tend to know much about where I’m from. I think the other thing is - I think I mentioned this in my introduction - the prejudices that exist in America about British people tend to be very positive ones, by and large.
KP: Perhaps being more intelligent than most…
THEROUX: Yeah. The idea goes that you’re maybe a little more gentlemanly, courteous, maybe well educated. All of which may or may not be true, but that seems to be the prejudice.
KP: It seems like the opinions about Americans are tending to get worse within the UK. Of course, especially if you listen to people like Jeremy Clarkson (laughing)…
THEROUX: That’s right. I don’t know, you may be right about that.
KP: Do you feel an American could come over and do a similar thing in the UK?
THEROUX: That’s a good question. I don’t think the stories are big enough, somehow.
KP: Have you ever mooted the idea of doing, not a celebrity-based, but just a story-based piece within the UK? Like going up to Blackpool to do the gambling special…
THEROUX: We have talked a little bit about that, and there may be a way of doing a show like that, but it would be a different kind of show. I think part of what people, certainly in Britain, enjoy about the show is a sense of discovery and a sense of the exotic. That these are places they’d like to go to. They’re worlds that they’d like to investigate if they had the money or the time or the opportunity. And you wouldn’t get that to the same extent here. Britain is well known to British people, by and large. So I think there would be less appeal, in that sense.
KP: I was speaking with Neil Innes a few months back…
THEROUX: Right, from the Rutles…
KP: We were talking about a tour he’d done in the US the year before last. He and his wife went across the country. He hadn’t realized how long the distances were. What seemed like it would be, “Oh, this will be a couple of hours and we’ll be here…” turned into a day and a half. That America was like the Tardis, to Brits.
THEROUX: That’s true, isn’t it?
KP: That until you’re actually on the ground, it doesn’t seem like it should be as large as it does to traverse these distances.
THEROUX: That’s really true, and that’s one of the great things… the scale of America, the size of it. I think that’s one of the reasons I do like Vegas. As vulgar as it can be and as commercial and money obsessed, you just have to go up to the 25th floor of any of the big hotels and you’ve got a view out to these barren mountains that ring the city and you feel so… I don’t know. There’s something really liberating about it. And however wrong your life went, you have somewhere you could go and hide. I know that’s a slightly weird way of looking at it, but there’s something very comforting in that.
KP: Almost a sense of disconnectedness by means of the sheer vastness of the areas?
THEROUX: Yeah, and also a chance of a second… that you have a second chance in your life to reinvent yourself. I suppose that’s the other part of the American ideal…
KP: That’s sort of a British boyhood dream in many ways, isn’t it? I mean, about going off and remaking yourself as a higher class?
THEROUX: Definitely a higher class, or whatever it is. Even that’s what The Great Gatsby is about, in a sense. This guy, James Gatz, who goes off and sort of reinvents himself as this blue blood multimillionaire.
KP: And having the distance to pull it off and being completely cut off just by means of that distance from anyone who might know the old you.
THEROUX: That’s right. That’s very appealing, I think, in some ways.
KP: You’ve just signed a deal for, what, ten more specials for the BBC?
THEROUX: I’ve got to make ten shows, of which the first one was kind of a compilation show that went out a few weeks ago. And then the second one was the Vegas one. And these are specials, so we just sort of put them out when they’re ready. The one we’re editing at the moment, I mentioned, is about the Phelps family in Topeka, Kansas, who as you may or may not know picket soldiers’ funerals with anti-gay slogans and placards with words like “God Hates Fags” and so on. And after that we’re not really sure. We’ve got a few things bubbling under. And maybe some things outside America, too.
KP: Is there any topic that’s been elusive for you over the years?
THEROUX: That’s an interesting one. You know there’s one… For a long time we wanted to do something on - one of the first ideas I had was to do something on gangsta rap. And then it wasn’t until the third series of Weird Weekends that we sort of got that together and figured out that it would work well if we did it in the American south. You know, there’s a lot of people who I’ve been fascinated to do something with. Personalities I’d love to make documentaries about. Mike Tyson is a name that has come up quite a few times. I would love to get a couple of weeks just to film with him and find out about his life. It’s just a question of trying to build the trust and get the access.
KP: I thought you’ve already done Chris Eubank (laughing)…
THEROUX: We did Chris Eubank, that’s right.
KP: So are we eventually going to see When Louis Met Michael Moore?
THEROUX: I don’t think we’ll see When Louis Met Michael Moore. I think that documentary’s been made a few times, hasn’t it?
KP: No, not that I’ve seen. Or to the level that I think you would be able to present a portrait of him.
THEROUX: I know a guy made one called Michael Moore Hates America, but I never saw it. Did you?
THEROUX: What was it like?
KP: It’s like if you were to take the Michael Jackson documentary you did, but throw an agenda into it. This person was trying to make it fit into the pre-determined portrait he already had.
KP: So it was more of a, “I’m going to expose Michael Moore” piece.
THEROUX: Oh really?
THEROUX: Interesting. I wonder if that’s available online anywhere.
KP: Yes, it’s available on DVD I believe.
THEROUX: It is?
THEROUX: Oh, I’d like to see that.
KP: It was very much an idea of… It was a conservative piece that pretty much goes in with, “This is going to be our polemic against Michael Moore.”
THEROUX: Interesting. And there were a few other people who talked about doing something like that, including people who worked with him, but I’m not sure they ever came to anything.
KP: As far as I’ve seen, nothing has come down the pike.
THEROUX: Interesting. I’ve really got nothing but good things to say about Michael. One of the surreal aspects of doing my book was that it was sort of the “Year of Michael Moore.” 2004 was when I made the bulk of the trip. Bowling for Columbine had come out the previous year, and then Fahrenheit 9/11 came out that year, if I have my timeline correct. But definitely everywhere I went… in these marginal worlds, he’s really regarded with… I mean, it wasn’t just the mainstream that seemed to be overtaken with him. It was also… his influence permeated every nook and cranny of American culture, so it seemed. So when I did an interview with Richard Butler, who was the Aryan Nation’s ailing leader at that point - he died subsequently - but he even started talking about how much he’d enjoyed Fahrenheit 9/11.
KP: It’s interesting when a person becomes a representative for a belief system. They move beyond being just a person but become a representative of something for someone. Sort of a shorthand to describe something…
THEROUX: That’s right.
KP: And certainly during that period Michael became that.
THEROUX: Have you interviewed him?
KP: Many times. In fact when I was at NYU in ‘95, I would fax into the production office looking for a PA position on TV Nation, not realizing it’d already been cancelled.
THEROUX: Really? How funny.
KP: I remember having dinner with him around the time of The Big One. He was doing a college tour at the time and I’d actually gone up and had dinner with him in Raleigh. It was interesting to see how slowly but surely he’s closed off to the public. Because he was always famous for, you know, “Here’s my email address on AOL. Send me an email, contact me.” I remember having instant messenger chats with him about various things during the mid to late 90s. And then all of a sudden, he just sort of dried up. You couldn’t get to him. There was a layer of people before you could even arrange an interview with him. So eventually I just gave up even trying to get an interview with him.
THEROUX: Well, what can you say? He’s like an icon now.
KP: I can imagine when things started getting hairy during that period of 2004, I can see why you might want to put a bit of a buffer zone.
THEROUX: I mentioned it must be very weird to achieve that level of… not just visibility, but to be so identifiable with a worldview.
KP: To the point when you literally become a puppet in someone’s film in order to represent something.
KP: Well, I can’t tell you how much I look forward to your additional specials down the pike…
THEROUX: Well, I hope you enjoy them. There’s definitely some good stuff coming up.
KP: And I certainly hope that the DVDs make their way out, with the programs that haven’t been released yet.
THEROUX: Yes. Well, we’ll see what we can do on that. There’s definitely some good stuff that needs to come out.
KP: Just the demand from people who are otherwise chasing them down online…
THEROUX: You’d think that would be a good sign, wouldn’t you?
KP: I would hope so! And hopefully there’s another book or two in you. Until then, I’ll just catch whatever’s online… In addition to the gambling special, I also caught you on Jonathan Ross, as well as your episode of The Weakest Link…
THEROUX: My word, they’ve got everything. I’m trying to suppress that stuff! (laughing) No, I’m just joking.
KP: I watched the Weakest Link episode. I can see why. I’ve never seen you more uncomfortable.
THEROUX: I know, it was unbelievable.
KP: Hopefully in the future, we’d definitely love to speak with you again and see where things stand…
THEROUX: Well, I would love that. Thank you so much for your time, Ken. I really appreciate it.
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