Interview: Dom Joly
Dom Joly’s path into comedy has been far from conventional; but then Dom Joly is not your average comedian. The son of English parents of Swiss extraction, Joly was raised in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War; he attended the same school as Osama Bin Laden (though they were twelve years apart) and graduated with a degree in Arabic from SOAS, going on to work as a diplomat, management consultant and political researcher.
It doesn’t immediately put one in mind of the kind of surreal and irreverent sketches he made famous in ‘Trigger Happy TV’, in which animal-suited actors attack each other on the streets or perform surgery in costume; lure members of the public into helping him with cartoonish “robberies” or perform KGB-style “deals”. Furthermore, since the second series came to an end, Joly’s TV has only become more bizarre. He is particularly proud of being paid to “drink [his] way around the world”, “dress up as a giant penis” and “travel to Nicaragua to ski down a volcano”. Despite award-winning travel columns and a string of TV successes, Joly confesses he still “[wakes] up every day wondering how [he] blagged it”.
His latest show, ‘Welcome to wherever I am’ is about “asking how I got here”. It details his travels to exotic and secretive corners of the earth – places that “very few other people make it to”. Visits to North Korea, Chernobyl and Iran provide some of Joly’s more fantastic anecdotes. In North Korea, Joly was struck by the “dancing traffic martials” who direct “non-existent traffic” along the street, beside lawns that are “clipped with nail scissors”. As part of the tour, Joly presents his “impressive holiday snaps”: some 10,000 photographs through which he tells “bizarre” stories he has picked up on his journeys.
Yet he is adamant that even the most surreal encounters point up the “normality” of people’s lives. He reminisces at length about friends he made in Iran who “took [him] skiing and got [him] drunk”, as though these two things are the cornerstone of everyday life. Drinking is evidently rather close to Joly’s heart (he persuaded Sky to pay him to make a programme about drinking all over the world).
If it all sounds a bit too much like “fun”, it is intriguing that Joly can offer some decidedly sober thoughts as to where this brand of comedy originates. He cites his upbringing as one source: growing up with his “feet in two very different worlds”, he absorbed some “really hybrid” ideas. A lot of his early reading was “French stuff” and he sees something “very European” about the “surreal” comedy he is now known for. There is an underlying sense of “pointlessness” to it which is rather “Continental”; more than this, it is “pointless things which are funny”.
He tells me about a long and arduous journey to the Arctic, travelling for days “only to bash a pair of cymbals behind an Eskimo’s head and then go all the way home”. Reflecting on what it is that makes “funny stuff” worth doing, Joly offers: “I like doing stuff for the sake of it”. Yet his answer seems defiant rather than simple. In conversation he has veered dramatically from self-consciously clipped responses to elaborate, almost endless ones within the space of a few minutes. I’m left wondering whether it is an act – designed, perhaps, to show that he won’t be drawn out on anything unless he enjoys it.
Asked if he ever felt like an outsider, he replies without a moment’s hesitation: “always”. “In England, being Lebanese; in Lebanon, being English […] I’ve never fitted in”. Yet there’s not a hint of melancholy- in fact, Joly seems to relish his “difference”. He laughs light-heartedly at his own remark that his “neighbours in the Cotswolds hate [him]”.
Joly has a gift for attracting abuse. Aled Jones called him a “knob” after appearing on television with him, and his twitter feed is awash with four-letter word insults from absolute strangers. He is so frequently criticised by celebrities and viewers alike that one almost feels sorry for him, but then he takes extraordinary delight in returning the insults. It’s hard not to believe him when he says “I love the haters”.
Joly acquired many of his ‘haters’ from Trigger Happy TV’s willingness to implicate passers-by in uncomfortable settings. In one sketch, Joly dresses up as a robber (complete with bag labelled ‘swag’) asks a stranger for help with a ‘burglary’ and leaves yelling “me and him just burgled this house!” When I suggest there might be something lazy about comedy that relies so heavily upon the look on a stranger’s face (rather than any particular verbal brilliance on Joly’s part), he seems not to hear the criticism. Nor can he comprehend why people would call it “mean-spirited” to showcase passer-bys’ confusion in his comedy.
He deflects the question by explaining that his real interest is “pathos”. It feels for a moment as though I’m being thrown a clever word as a piece of bait, to distract me from criticism. But Joly is too sharp for tricks, and goes on to explain that he’s not interested in “pranks”, nor are his sketches about “violence”: it is simply part and parcel of comedy to “unsettle” people and “freak them out”.
Why, then, would an unconventional and successful comic choose to participate in ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get me out of here’; a programme where careers seem to go to die. Joly himself called it “the death of hope”, yet he has also called it “the greatest show on TV” and rather proudly adds, “they asked me every year” even though he always said no. But with a movie deal, a book deal and a TV deal in the pipeline, Joly went on the show because “I didn’t need it at all”. After living in the jungle, stripped of familiar items like wristwatches and telephones, enduring the “unusual” ordeal of eating out of Gillian McKeith’s pants, Joly is deeply “glad” he did it. In fact, he “lost so much weight that it was genuinely good for me”.
Having visited some of the most secluded spots on earth, imagine my surprise when the continent-hopping Joly says he has visited Durham. Durham in England, I ask? (Cue withering put-down from Joly). In fact, Joly met his first girlfriend on the train up to his interview; she also had a place to read Arabic at St. Aidans. Although Joly “loved” Durham, he was obviously rather keener on his girlfriend, who gained a place at SOAS and Joly dutifully “followed her there”. Asked for his reflections on University life, Joly pauses – a rare interruption – and sombrely offers, “Never do anything just for a girlfriend”.