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The price of being Joly

28 September 2017

After a nomadic career making chat shows, travel programmes and one of the most anarchic comedy shows on television, Dom Joly has rediscovered the joy of a hidden camera.

Expecting a comedian to be funny during an interview is like hoping an accountant will do your taxes over dinner.

Humour is hard work, and most comedians save their jokes for people who buy tickets. Thankfully, Dom Joly isn’t your typical comedian, as anybody who watched Trigger Happy TV – Joly’s world-conquering hidden-camera show – will attest. Having started a conversation about fame, he’s now telling me a story about an awkward plane journey, which ends – as they often seem to – with Joly becoming the punchline of his own joke.

“I was boarding a flight once, and a guy comes up and asks if I’m Dom Joly,” he explains. “I was like [with accent], ‘No Dom Joly, Portuguese,’ and then I get on the flight and he’s sat next to me. I had to pretend to be Portuguese for 14 hours, even watching Portuguese movies. Halfway through, I just thought, ‘What am I doing? I should just come clean.’”

From anybody else, I’d affix 17 incredulous question marks to the end of this story, but Joly is sincere in his buffoonery. He’s made a career out of it. In the original Trigger Happy TV, which aired from 2000 to 2003, he crawled across a busy road in a snail suit while drivers watched on bemused; he answered a huge mobile phone in a restaurant, bellowing about how rubbish the food was; and slipped briefcases to strangers on park benches while dressed like a stereotypical Russian spy. It sold all over the world, shifting millions of DVDs, and turning Joly into the “funniest man in Britain”, according to the LA Times.

The acclaim almost broke him.

“Everyone always assumes I stopped Trigger because I was recognised, and it wasn’t that at all,” he says. “I was totally exhausted; I was close to a nervous breakdown. It was two years, I’d just had kids, it was so tiring to make that show. The fame was very weird. I’d just had enough. In hindsight, what I should have done was go away for two months, and seen what I felt like.”

Instead he went away for 15 years, making chat shows and travel programmes on his way to a very showbiz revelation. “My problem was that classic comedian thing: if somebody had told me 10 years prior that I’d make Trigger Happy, I’d be, ‘OK, that’s great,’ but once it happens you think, ‘But I want people to know that I’m serious, I’m an artist, I don’t just want to be known as the squirrel man.’ Eventually I realised, ‘You’re lucky to be genuinely good at one thing, go and do it again.’ I came back and everything had changed. I love being the squirrel man.”

Which is not to say the new Trigger’s a series of dusty old sketches stitched together and jolted into life with a few familiar catchphrases. Only one of the classic characters returns – something Joly was strict on – and even that’s in a new guise. Episodes are shorter and were released all at once online, appeasing the binge-watching generation. In fact, technology sizzles and sparks right through this revival.

“We film a lot on iPhone, because nobody notices them, but that works both ways,” he says. “Many times, we were doing something and I’d notice three or four people filming it. I used to get annoyed, but they never get the whole story. In fact, there’s actually been three things we’ve done this time where we’ve actually stopped and said, ‘Can we have your footage?’”

Humility isn’t something you expect from Joly – an impression that’s somehow completely his own fault and, yet, not entirely his own doing. After the success of Trigger Happy TV, the BBC handed him free rein to do whatever he liked, resulting in This Is Dom Joly, a spoof of those ego-driven chat shows where the hosts are constantly trying to overshadow their guests. Every week, a larger than life character – who just happened to be called Dom Joly – bullied, bantered and mocked his guests, proving himself a world-class idiot at every possible turn.

“For me it was really clear: I was playing a character because I was wearing glasses, and I don’t wear glasses normally,” he says. “I wanted 80 per cent of people to think ‘that’s funny’ and 20 per cent of people to think ‘it’s a car crash’. I think 80 per cent of people believed that was actually me. My wife said, ‘Call it Jom Doly, that’s all you have to do,’ but I was like, ‘No, no, I want to play it straight.’” He played it so straight that an entire country managed to mistake Dom Joly for his fictional, bespectacled counterpart, earning him a wholly unearned reputation for being brash, gauche and very pleased with himself.

“I could feel it all going pear shaped,” he admits, ruefully. “And, also, I didn’t listen to people. It’s funny, I’m at a stage now where I’m confident enough with my comedy that if somebody tells me something I take it on board, but when I went to the BBC I was so insecure that if any producer tried to tell me anything, I’d take it as ‘you’re not funny’ and react against it. It’s just what you learn.”

More shows followed, but his career at the BBC soured until he turned up one day to find his keycard didn’t work any more, signalling his final day – a bureaucratic kick in the backside if ever there was one. An equally unhappy stint at ITV followed, and yet, away from the bright lights of Saturday evening primetime, Joly’s been doing really interesting things, including reality shows, writing a couple of travel books, and hosting a wonderful travel show in which he drank his way around the world with a mate.

And now he’s come full circle.

“We were talking the other day about what iTrigger Happy really is, and we decided it was going to a really extreme length to do something pointless, but it’s what makes me laugh,” he says. “I get an adrenaline kick out of doing it. I’m a show off. That’s the worse thing about coming back. I’m 50 next year, I shouldn’t still be dressing as a squirrel, but what can I do? It’s what I’m good at.”

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