I have a traffic light system – green means I can do what I want, orange means they’re slightly smarter but I can probably get them, and red means just released from Broadmoor – move away!’ Hearing Dom Joly describing how he decides whether or not to prank his victims is listening to a master deconstruct his craft – the man, for many, is the original prankster. His show, Trigger Happy TV, spanned two seasons and two specials, has been sold to over seventy countries, and even the soundtrack was a bestseller. However, Joly explains the original idea was to make a political satire show.
‘[Trigger Happy] would have been an attack on Cool Britannia, but the woman who was the commissioning editor had just finished doing Brass Eye and basically just couldn’t face any more legal stuff and she just said can you make a really simple show – I don’t want anymore lawyers ringing me up. And actually it was a blessing in disguise because if I’d made the satirical show, it might have been good, but it wouldn’t have got such a wide audience, I don’t think.
’Indeed, it’s hard to imagine an intelligent, pithy political satire on the BBC gaining the worldwide recognition that THTV did – typical sketches include Joly in the role of a park keeper, accusing elderly park goers of misdemeanours from setting of fireworks to pushing people in the pond, or dressed as a traffic warden, ticketing motorists stopped at traffic lights for illegally parking on double yellows. That said, surely some of the socio-political commentary planned for the political satire influenced a show which was, more than a prank show, an observation of Britishness, a facet echoed in its handpicked indie rock soundtrack? No, apparently; ‘I hate things trying to make a point, trying to teach you something – the stuff I make is pointless’. Fair enough. But perhaps the question is really, how did a man now famed for pranking, travel writing and a not-all-that-brief spell in the Celebrity Jungle come to be writing a political satire show in the first place?
After graduating in Politics, Joly first interned for the European Commission as a diplomat in Prague, before returning to the UK to do political television around Westminster. After 6 years of working as a political researcher for ITN, New Statesman and others, he landed a job as the political researcher on the Mark Thomas Comedy Product – a blend of surreal stunts and political journalism that was both satirical and insightful in equal measures in a pre-Brass Eye time. After being asked if he wanted to ‘drive a tank through the McDonald’s Drive Thru’ – ‘yeah, course’ – he started to get into comedy, and in his own words, ‘I haven’t really done a day’s work since then’.
Looking at a rundown of Joly’s activities since then, it would be hard to agree with this. Besides pranking, in World Shut Your Mouth and The Complainers, Joly has written three books, stood in the 1997 general election (for the Teddy Bear Alliance), produced a number of television shows including the well-received Dom Joly’s Happy Hour, came fourth in I’m A Celebrity, and somehow found time to write columns for The Independent, The Mail on Sunday and The Sunday Times. Now he’s off on a live tour, because, quite simply, he’d never done it before.‘Everyone always assumed that I’d done stand up before Trigger Happy, and [the fact that I hadn’t] used to really bug me.
When I did my book and I took it to literary festivals, they just expected me to stand there and read it, which struck me as really dull, so I started, you know, showing my holiday snaps, and stuff, and I really enjoyed it, so I thought fine, I’ll do it bigger.’ The light nature of the show doesn’t stop there – the audience can buy rocks from the foyer to throw at Joly while he performs (presumably not real ones), and during the interval a book is left out for questions from the audience, which Joly answers in the second half of the show. In typical Joly style, the ten tour dates have now become a full seventy, from Berwick to Brighton. So far there haven’t been any instances of mistaken location, despite the confusing fact that, ‘for some reason Warwick University is in Coventry, so I almost said hello to the wrong people… Oxford’s easier’.
Whilst half of my friends knew Dom as ‘that guy who did the stuff with the big phone’, the other half knew him as ‘that guy who does travel columns for The Times,’ and as he admits, Joly has a certain fixation with travel.
‘I’m obsessed with it – I have wanderlust’. The weird offspring of this love of travel, a penchant for a drink or two, and a keenness to ‘take the piss out of Long Way Round’ was Dom Joly’s Happy Hour, in which Joly and his de rigueur ‘idiot friend’ Peter Wilkins explored drinking cultures around the world in a gloriously irreverent spoof on the traditional travel show. When they weren’t drunk (which wasn’t very much of the time), Joly and Wilkins goofed around in what was a mostly improvised show. The most recent equivalent is probably Team Gervais’ An Idiot Abroad (also on Sky One), though Joly is not a fan. ‘I thought it was appalling,’ he said, very matter-of-factly, ‘I quite like Karl Pilkington, and I think he’s funny, but it was just one joke – the bloke doesn’t like going abroad.’
When asked what he thought on recent pranking shows such as Facejacker, Balls of Steel and Olivia Lee, Joly revealed that he doesn’t really watch other comedy shows – ‘I find British comedy a bit dull. I watch Curb Your Enthusiasm and because I’m on tour I’ve got about a thousand Seinfelds.’ I pressed him – surely he must have seen something recently (my extensive iPlayer knowledge, which before had seemed so useful, was suddenly looking like a poor investment). ‘Just recently there’s been some stuff I’ve liked; Campus and Twenty-Twelve,’ he conceded, ‘but I certainly don’t want to watch stuff similar to what I do – either it’s really good and it makes me angry or it’s really bad and it makes me angry.’
He was however, an avid fan of I’m a Celebrity, and jumped at the chance to be on the show last year. ‘Everyone said I shouldn’t do it, and I just thought, ‘I love that show – I’m going to do it’, and I really enjoyed it.’ That said, he found it a lot more ‘hardcore’ than he’d expected; ‘It’s as close as you can get to a hostage situation – you don’t speak to anyone, you’re very reliant on your captors, you get fed tiny amounts, and the boredom is insane. And you’ve just got to deal with it.’
The pop-culture kick didn’t stop at Celebrity – Joly is now a full-time Twitter user, with over 80 thousand followers, with whom he interacts on an hourly basis. He answers questions (with brutal brevity, mind), replies to those who insult him (which is better than Giles Coren, who simply blocked me when I offered a less than favourable review of a video of his), and even runs mini-competitions for his followers to win free tickets to his live show. More than that, he loves its practicality on a global level. ‘When I travel it’s incredible – if I’m in Phnom Penh or somewhere I just say ‘I’m in Phnom Penh ’ and people tell me where to go and so on – I love it.’
After the tour, a hard earned break is in store, before a return to what is an increasingly packed schedule for Joly – round the world in a week for I Newspaper, a television show for ITV, starting work on his new book Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, in which he’ll be looking for mythical beasts in the Congo, and then getting onto the long awaited Trigger Happy film that fans have been waiting on for years now. ‘People are saying it’s the Trigger Happy movie – it’s not,’ Dom insists, ‘It’s the people who made Trigger Happy (Joly and his cameraman Sam Cadman) and it’s hidden camera but it’s got none of the characters. It’s on a huge scale, so I’m calling it the Ben Hur of hidden camera movies.
’With so much work in so many areas, both in the past and in the immediate future, does Joly feel there is a lack of direction to his career? ‘I’m a completely confused idiot – I have no career plans whatsoever, and I’ve just sort of muddled my way through. I guess I get bored really easily […] I normally don’t know what I’m going to do, so when something interesting comes in I can say yes. I just love doing different things – I’ve blagged ten years of doing nothing, pretty much.’ From where I’m standing, far from lacking direction, Dom Joly’s career has one only clear bearing, and that’s up.
Dom is appearing at the Glee Club on the 17th July