Arts: Shooting fish in a barrel
Louis Theroux is the latest television presenter to achieve success by poking fun at Johnny Foreigner. In his second series of Weird Weekends he returns to American oddballs. But is the interviewer any less strange than his subjects?
Tuesday 11 May 1999
As he had started with the satirist Michael Moore on TV Nation, so Theroux continued in Weird Weekends, politely standing to one side while the arrogant and the bigoted built petards by which to hoist themselves. Much like Jon Ronson, his closest broadcasting cousin, Theroux (back tomorrow with Weird Weekends for a second series) may bring the downright nutty to our screens in the name of factual enquiry. But where does the documentary end and the cheap laugh begin?
Theroux's boyish fascination with all things bonkers appears genuine enough. Throughout our meeting, he thrusts mementoes of his travels at me: scrawled manifestoes detailing the very real threat of alien invasion, a Y2K survival guide and the Win Gym, the brainchild of the new series's first star, Dr Win Paris.
"It's a `global fitness revolution' - that's what Win Paris says. No actually, it's a bicycle pump that bends in the middle," Theroux points out to me.
The new series appears to have retreated from the wildest frontiers of weird explored in the first. Occupational rather than inherent strangeness is the theme this time round, claims Theroux: infomercials, demolition derbys, swinging and the like.
"The weird thing about the swingers in the States is how conservative they are, how republican-voting. The music's on very quietly; everyone brings a food dish. It's like a Conservative Sunday barbecue, except everyone's stripped off and there's hardcore pornography playing on the TV."
Now that he's moved on to the part-time crazies, won't he find it harder than ever to dismiss the claim that he's tormenting harmless eccentrics merely for his and our enjoyment? Theroux admits that though he personally doesn't like making idiots out of the general public, he finds that style of comedy very funny.
"But the reason I don't think I do it is that these are vulnerable, sensitive people who've chosen for one reason or another to be in the margins. And the last thing they need is for someone to come from the mainstream and humiliate them."
Lest you think that Theroux is merely rejigging Mysteries with Carol Vorderman for a BBC2 audience, tune in to the first show to catch his encounter with Dr Win Paris. His apartment walls daubed with idiosyncratic business maxims ("Fitnotize the World", "Have a Super Exciting Goal"), the ageing, self-styled guru declares he has the potential to be bigger than Bill Gates. Theroux is open-mouthed with both shock and admiration. It a priceless scene, neither cruel nor deferential.
Endearingly, Theroux seems at a loss when it comes to defining Weird Weekends at its best. It's documentary in one comment, comedy in the next; a celebration of difference and then a character study.
Theroux's screen persona is another point of contention among his critics. Surely no one is that earnest, that unflappable? In person, he's far sharper but no less engaging, which isn't to say he hasn't capitalised on his innate ability to put his subjects off their guard. "It's pretty much who I am," Theroux insists. "Which is slightly depressing to me because I'd like to think that when this gets old, I'll do a David Bowie and develop a new character." To what extent, if any, Theroux's ingenuousness is a put-up is hard to say.
For our hour in his BBC office, he's attentiveness itself, proffering tea, biscuits, videos, photocopies and fretting about the well-being of his past contributors ("Anne thinks God wrote her a letter telling her to meet a man called Padilla. Randy James is having operations which freaks me out").
In answer to those who wonder how much responsibility he really feels for the likes of Thor Templar and Dr Paris, Theroux recounts an experience he had after the last series. "I sent one of the neo-Nazis - the one who said he liked Are You Being Served? - copies of all the shows just as a prank. He absolutely hated them. But he made a reasonably cogent critique of the ethics of the programme that actually left me feeling a bit wounded. I was like, `But he is a neo-Nazi... keep it in perspective.' " In one small but significant way, Theroux does signal his fidelity to his subjects: he never looks at the camera. Just as he rarely prompts those he films to exaggerate their eccentricity, so Theroux bucks that ugliest of contemporary broadcasting trends and refuses to cast conspiratorial glances at his audience.
"It's not a decision, it just doesn't feel comfortable. It feels like quite an intimate space when I'm with the person. I'm aware of the camera but how can you be aware of however many million people are watching? That'd be like looking into the abyss." And however silly his subjects appear, Theroux somehow makes it up to them by making himself look as ridiculous. It's an affecting revival of that old-fashioned British archetype, the good sport, and one which he took to an extreme in the first series when he stripped off alongside one of his contributors to audition for a porn film.
Theroux readily confesses he doesn't get it right all the time, though.
Weird Christmas, in which he invited four very disparate subjects from the first series to spend Christmas with him, he candidly judges a failure.
"Weird Christmas is tough to justify morally. I'm not sure if I'd do that again. I can't figure out if I'm being horrible or not, which probably means I am." Next up is Israel for Millennium eve which Theroux reckons will be overrun with apocalypse loons. There's also a trip to North Korea in the offing he says, telling a story about a satellite the North Koreans apparently launched to play revolutionary songs in space. "How weird is that!" But do you abandon your Weird Weekends friends, as he calls them?
"Oh, I stay in touch. I wouldn't say every week, but every couple of months. Like one guy, Mike Oehler. Y2K has vindicated the last 25 years of his existence. On the phone, he was like, `Louis, if you do nothing else, get out of the city on January 1st.' I said, `You really think it's going to be that bad?' `Minimum: global depression. And it could be the collapse of civilization.' Which I thought was quite nice."
`Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends' starts tomorrow at 9.30pm
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