Tutors at the University of Manchester who remember him dropping out of his degree might not have viewed him as High Table material, but in the study of modern miscellany Dave Gorman is the equivalent of a professor emeritus.
He has built a career from it, selling out nationwide lecture tours where people queue to see his PowerPoint presentations and strange experiments. He has written best-sellers on the oddities of contemporary living and hosted a succession of television shows bearing his name. Gorman is not so much a stand-up comedian as the funniest teacher fans never had.
His latest series, Dave Gorman’s Modern Life is Goodish, attempts to decode some of the misinformation of the so-called information age. He picks apart techniques of the news media and highlights hypocrisies of apparently ethical social media advertising and public relations campaigns.
In tomorrow evening’s episode, he examines the phenomenon of the Daily Mail’s internet incarnation Mail Online, the most successful English-language news site in the world. Gorman has found numerous examples of paparazzi shots being presented as news stories because the subjects are supposedly wearing “matching outfits” – even when evidently they are not. “It’s bonkers,” says Gorman over breakfast in London’s Soho. “If you look at the comments they are full of people saying ‘They are not matching outfits, what are you on about?’”
In one of his examples, a snatched shot of Sharon Osbourne is justified by a headline noting that she and her daughter Aimee are both dressed in “jeans”. He is not accusing Mail Online – he suggests there must be a “metric” that shows such headlines drive traffic. “Page impressions, that’s their goal. And they will do it by scaring you, by comforting you, by titillating you, by any stimulation that will increase their ad revenue.”
Despite his lecturing style, he holds back from telling his audience what to think. “If you start explaining things very didactically it starts to feel preachy,” he says. “I don’t want this to sound like an anti-Mail tirade because actually they have understood the architecture of the internet better than every other paper. But that’s just sort of evil genius isn’t it?”
He is angrier about supposedly well-meaning charity fundraising being used as a ruse for exploiting social media users as unwitting participants in public relations campaigns. His example is the modern practice of a large corporation deploying the device of a “public vote” to generate publicity for what is supposedly a charitable donation. “The nominated charities have no choice but to go mental in social media mobilising their armies of supporters to encourage people to vote for them and say nice things about the corporation,” says Gorman. “You’re left with members of the public looking at websites saying ‘Do I vote for this one that works with starving children or this other one that works with starving children?’ That’s a horrible thing to force people to do.”
Gorman, 42, is the first to admit he can do nothing much about this. “I don’t want to change the world and I’m not foolish enough to believe that I have the power to.”
Since he quit that maths degree to become a stand-up comedian and then exchanged that for a career based largely on setting himself eccentric challenges, he has been on a journey of exploration. Are You Dave Gorman?, his breakthrough project, saw him searching for people who shared his name. It seems appropriate that, after several series on the BBC, his current show is on the eponymous channel Dave. His presentational tone is not so much hectoring as conveying and open-mouthed astonishment at the weirdness and ridiculousness of the world.
But he is certainly not tech-phobic. He was, after all, touring with Dave Gorman’s Googlewhack Adventure (named after a game to find Google searches with only one hit) a decade ago, took the show to America and turned it into a best-selling book and a DVD. But neither does he wish to be seen as some kind of geek, arguing that Google (and the internet as a whole) is now as ingrained in most people’s lives as “going for a walk”.
He does argue, however, that when we go online our personalities tend to change. “Comments can be like Alan Bennett monologues or the opinions of bar room barristers,” he says. “Everyone turns into Cliff Clavin from Cheers – they know everything and yet they know nothing. There’s that pomposity and I know it’s in me as well. On Twitter people end up tweeting things as if they are Chinese proverbs when they are little observations about their breakfast. There’s a sense of I have spoken and it is thus.”
Though the internet has been with us for a long time, “it is changing so rapidly that no etiquette or rules have been established,” he says. “What is the real-life equivalent of that online situation? If it’s a bunch of people talking in a pub, the person barging in and shouting about their own micro-issue is the one who the bouncers would ask to leave or everyone would ask to calm down.” Not that he is angry about this, he finds it all “fascinating”.
He positively enjoys online marketing, when it’s done with panache. His favourite example was when Gamestation.co.uk wrote “terms and conditions” that asked users to “surrender their immortal souls” unless they ticked an opt-out (and were rewarded with a money voucher for their vigilance). More than 7,000 signed up and the company was able to publicise its stunt. “That to me is good marketing,” says Gorman. “They were making a point, they showed generosity, they were bound to get in the papers and well done them. I understand that’s the game we are playing.”
Gorman is an alternative comedian in the most literal sense. There’s no one else quite like him. But agitprop militancy is not his thing – because he thinks everything is quite good. Ish.
Dave did it: The Shows
Are You Dave Gorman?
He tracks down 54 people who share his name, beginning with the assistant manager of East Fife Football Club.
Dave Gorman’s Important Astrology Experiment
He attempts, during the course of a television series, to ascertain whether the ancient system of divination actually works.
Dave Gorman’s Googlewhack Adventure
He goes in search of authors of Googlewhacks (Google searches involving two words that return one hit), and has a nervous breakdown.
America Unchained: A Freewheeling Roadtrip In Search of Non-Corporate USA
He attempts to cross the United States without spending money at any corporate businesses.
Sit Down, Pedal, Pedal, Stop and Stand Up
He cycles to 32 destinations, including the most southerly, northerly, easterly and westerly points on the British mainland, to perform comedy.