The breathless anticipation with which I awaited Louis Theroux’s first-time-in-Australia gig was rivalled only by the Ira Glass equivalent. Both are lions in the televisual and radio storytelling domains, and both have in recent years come to Australia to speak about their trades.
Glass, of course, is famous for the game-changing podcasts This American Life and Serial, while son of travel writer Paul Theroux Louis has broken the TV and book moulds with his awkward but endlessly fascinating ventures into subcultures that include survivalists, neo-Nazis, scientologists, brothel workers, and religious fanatics such as the Westboro Church.
Brisbane’s QPAC theatre foyer was packed on Saturday night with Theroux fans who politely queued up to purchase tote bags and mugs adorned with Theroux’s endearingly geeky moniker. And then we all eagerly filed in to the theatre itself to witness Theroux part present and part be interviewed across a two-hour format with interval.
It wasn’t until I was minutes away from the event’s start that I realised I had no idea what to expect. For the most part I was pleasantly surprised, barring a terrifying few minutes where Theroux stalked the aisles to select unwilling interviewees.
For example, the normally dead pre-show and interval times were filled with snippets of segments from Theroux’s shows over the years, which was an excellent touch and one I wish more shows featured. And the show itself opened with a spotlit Theroux telling a story about his beginnings before being joined on stage by Julia Zemiro, whom we know from, among other things, her hosting role of RocKwiz.
What was striking about Theroux in person, although probably shouldn’t have been, was how utterly unintimidating he was. I mean that in a heartening way. In a conversation that ranged from how he got his break, how he navigates the topics he investigates, and how—despite what his wife says—there’s only one way to stack a dishwasher, he showed us an unassuming guy who finished uni and didn’t know what to do with his life. Studying history, as many of us have discovered, doesn’t exactly qualify you for lots of jobs.
Via a brief stint working in a glass factory in the US, Theroux chanced upon Michael Moore needing a British correspondent for TV Nation.
‘What Michael (Moore) saw in me—as much as I’d like to see a suave, kind of interrogating intelligence, it was the opposite of that,’ Theroux said. ‘He saw my gangliness and my slight awkwardness as an asset…just being myself, but being sent out into these rather weird and wild fringes of American society where I was very out of place.’
Either way, what transpired was an apprenticeship of sorts that led to Theroux developing his own style and being offered his own show.
I could bandy around terms like ‘gangly’ and ‘unassuming’ and ‘relatable’, but what I really want to say is that although Theroux is undeniably talented and charming, what struck me during the show was how he is the quintessential example of a creative who carves out his own niche, making the kind of TV and writing the kind books he himself desired. And that in and of itself is probably invaluable inspiration for creatives the world round.
I’m not a big TV watcher, but I came to Theroux via his documentaries. They’re the kind that are so fascinatingly watchable that they find their way even to non-TV-watchers like me. Many of the documentaries have etched a permanent pop culture mark, not least the Jimmy Saville iteration, which Theroux has apparently just revisited in the form of visiting survivors of Saville’s sexual assaults.
While Theroux never claims to be objective in his approach, he does try to understand or at least unpack his subjects’ thoughts and motivations. As he accurately puts it: ‘There is always a little bit of a logic—sometimes it’s a crazy logic—but (the survivalists) feel they didn’t sign up at birth to taxes, federal government, drivers’ licences.’
But while I think I’ve seen all of Theroux’s documentaries barring the game-hunting one (I’m vegan and no matter how sensitively he portrays the topic, it’s guaranteed to distress me), what I haven’t embarked on is reading his books. Which is, frankly, a bit ass about for my overarching book-first, TV-second philosophy.
I’ve bought one—Call of the Weird—but it’s high time I get around to reading it. I will, presumably, have Theroux’s voice and mannerisms in my head as I plough through it just as I do with Jon Ronson’s books. Either way, it was a privilege to see Theroux in the country and I can only hope he’ll return soon to cast his TV show-making and book-writing eye to some of Australia’s subcultures and social issues.Save