When a cult decides to gather – irrational and devotional as they are – not even a wet, miserable Melbourne evening can dent their enthusiasm. So it was on Monday night, that thousands of people flocked to Jeff’s Shed to listen to their leader, Louis Theroux, sermonise on all things weird and wacky. People were walking around in t-shirts and carrying tote bags with his face plastered on them. I was shocked, I must admit, to see just how many people this lanky Brit had seemingly seduced. He is, after all, about the most uncharismatic person on television.
For those unfamiliar with his work, Theroux is a kind of middlebrow Slavoj Zizek sans the Ideology – all shtick before substance. He made a name for himself with his BBC series Weird Weekends, in which he travels across America – and, in later series, other parts of the world – interviewing society’s fringe-dwellers: UFO truthers; survivalists; off-off Broadway actors; western men looking for Thai brides and the like. Most of his subsequent work has been a variation on this theme: When Louis Met… has him follow around a different British celebrity each episode, the best-known – and now most notorious – being Jimmy Savile. He’s also tackled some less gimmicky topics – like the neo-nazi movement, the Westbro Baptist Church and several episodes on law and order – in a number of special programs. These are far superior to anything else in his oeuvre.
But, generally speaking, his subjects are people consumed by the irrational world that, more often than not, consumes every minute of their life. They are pathetic, sad people who’ve built a world for themselves that’s inexplicable in its dislocation from reality. They are society’s detritus and there are serious questions to be asked about how a culture spits out so many alienated people that feel the need to seek, say, self-fulfillment through life coaches and hypnosis or enlightenment via eastern mysticism. But Theroux appears to be largely uninterested in exploring these complexities in any real way. He prefers, instead, to double-down on their eccentricities; his greatest skill as an interviewer is to ask the most basic, sensible of questions and sit back as his subject makes a fool of himself. He then stands there with a crestfallen look as the uncomfortable silence has the viewer shifting in his seat. This technique works well on wackos and loonies, but roll it out against an ordinary person of average intelligence and the results are predictably underwhelming.
Take it from me, I saw it in action: half-way through the show on Monday night, Louis trotted off stage, where he was being interviewed by Julia Zemiro, to do what he does best – talk to people. After his first foray with a look-a-like, which was clearly staged, he approached a lady who worked in management at a university (wisely unspecified). He asked her something to the effect of: ‘If I made a show about your workplace what would be the weird thing that I’d focus on?’ Predictably, the unsuspecting subject didn’t reveal that members of the arts faculty are party to a foot fetish social club that meets ever Thursday over martinis that enjoy perusing sites like tubev.sex for their next foot to find sexy. It was an inversion of the standard Theroux technique: it was awkward and cringe-worthy, but this time it seemed that he – not his subject – was oblivious to just how hard to watch this whole charade was. But people still laughed because, I guess, that’s the kind of hold cult leaders have over their transfixed followers.
In fact, people laughed and clapped at all the parts of the show that they were meant to, despite most of it being unwarranted. I’m not sure whether he was meant to be smart-funny or funny-smart, but everyone seemed to think he was one of the two, except for me that is, who found him dull and humourless. Not to mention that the whole show was so scripted that the interplay between him and Zemiro could have been better performed by a pair of off-off Broadway actors whose biggest roles to date have been as extras in a commercial that airs while the country sleeps. But still, the crowd soaked it up – they appeared to love every minute of it.
But he could have said almost anything (not quite Trumpesque, but near enough to) and got the same response because people don’t love Louis for Louis, they love him for what he allows them to think about themselves. It doesn’t matter how insecure one is about one’s own life, at least one’s not stupid enough to believe one can channel aliens, or desperate enough to fuck overweight truck drivers at a Nevada brothel, or racist enough to get a swastika tattoo, or deluded enough to think one can make it as a professional wrestler despite having no discernible talent or athleticism. Louis Theroux’s documentaries are popular because they provide the validation people are looking for in their own lives.
What’s remarkable about them – for such a large body of work – is just how un-insightful they are: as social commentary (and that is, in part, what they masquerade as) they tell us almost nothing about our contemporary culture: how we wound up mostly accepting – even embracing – our miserable, wretched existences. That his viewers are looking for and find an escape from this world in his shows is evidence of just how far he is from capturing its essence.