Louis Theroux is the new Mo Rocca

LouisTheroux Thanks to Steve Portigal's comment last week, I now know of someone called Louis Theroux. 

Thanks to the influence of Leora Kornfeld, this blog has a keen interest in figures who like to jab contemporary culture with a stick.  

We have followed the careers of Tom Green and Sasha Baron Cohen, and even Steve-O with interest.

Theroux walks the line beautifully.  An Englishman, he comes to America with ridicule in mind.  But he is ever so careful not to let us catch him in the act…of jabbing culture with a stick, I mean.

No, he prefers English understatement.  And often he engages with an America so over-the-top that, understatement is plenty. Any framing or comment would be gratuitous.  

Happily, this strategy gives Theroux's journalism the qualities most prized by Anthropology: deep curiosity and real dispassion.  (And if I am wrong about Mr. Theroux's secret motives, I apologize.) 

Here's a fine, revelational moment.  Theroux (LT) is interviewing Brian Danzig (sp?) about the AIWF (American Independent Wrestling Federation), a sports franchise Danzig (BD) appears to run out of the back of a truck.   

LT: "Would you ever wrestle for the WCW, for one of the really big [wrestling federations]?  (5:46 in the YouTube clip)

BD: No, I wouldn't have as much control.

Dean Puckett (sp?): They would be his monster (sic).  He wants to be his own monster.

BD: Yeah, I'd be a made-for-TV monster.  

There are moments in an anthropological interview where, if we're lucky, the world turns inside out.  You know that the last 50 words are worth 2 hours of talking.  If you can only "unpack" these terms, you'll go home in triumph.  

"He wants to be his own monster." Oh please, just shoot me.  This can take us into the heart of American culture, and its difference from the English one.  This is ethnographic treasure.

But no.  Theroux does not follow up or dig in.  Instead, we cut to Theroux getting a splinter in his finger.  

To be fair, no one said Theroux is an anthropologist or that he should act like one.  Still if your difference from Rooney and Rocca is that you get closer, then it makes sense not refuse these ethnographic moments. 

American culture is still waiting for someone to take up the Charles Kerault "trip across America" project.  And personally, I think, were it not for the Manhattan hauteur, Anthony Bourdain and his "No Reservations" would be very nearly there.  Why not Louis Theroux?  If our best early ethnographer was a Frenchman, why shouldn't the present one be an Englishman.  


See the Theroux interview segment on YouTube here.

7 thoughts on “Louis Theroux is the new Mo Rocca

  1. peter

    Grant — Although raised in Britain, Louis Theroux is the son of novelist Paul Theroux, which would perhaps make him half-American.

  2. botogol

    Oh Grant, I should have told you about him before – it should have been obvious that you would be interested in him

    Yes, he’s very good, and not only in America he’s also made som great documentaries here in the UK.

    In the US check out a programme he made in a Federal Prison (San Quentin probably) which was classic. He appraoches the hardest, imaginable tattooed american criminals and asks them ‘What are you in for?’ ‘Rape, eh? That’s not very nice’ and ‘Why do all the white prisoners keep separate from the black ones’

    His USP is a kind of round-eyed naivity or haplessness that enables him to ask direct questions in a simple and unexpected way, and soemtimes yields some quite unexpected honesty from the interviewee.

    I think that one embedded disadvantage of this method is that quick, sharp follow-ups are impossible: there would be a serious danger dropping the mask, stepping out-of-character and bursting the bubble that he has carefully created. He has to follow up sideways, and come back back to things later.

    Theroux’s method is like this great quote from ‘Special Topics in Calamity Physics’ by Marisha Pessl

    “one had to proceed as unobtrusively as possible when questioning a patient, because truth and secrets were cranes, dazzling in size yet notoriously shy and wary; if one made too much noise, they’d disappear into the sky, never to be seen again”

  3. Jeremy

    Theroux is very much the innocent abroad, and the wonder of it is that, like Ali G in the early, people continue to allow him free reign. Two absolute classics were his programmes on Sir Jimmy Savile, a British disk jockey, and Paul Daniels, a magician. In both, the public is well aware of rumours about the subjects, and Theroux brilliantly skirts around these topics while making it clear that he knows that they know etc etc.

    The two clips that come top in Google searches are not the best parts of the programmes, but they are good.

  4. dboy

    Late to the discussion here, and first time making a comment. Hello 🙂

    Reckon it’s worth pointing out that the most recently aired program by LT in the UK was actually quite hard hitting. Usually his programs are put together to entertain, leave us gobsmacked by eccentricity. Even subjects like racism and religion, whilst always hitting ‘the mark’, are executed with Louis providing lighter touches through his approach and mannerisms which have been covered in previous comments.

    However, in Law and Disorder in Philadelphia (another to be aired this weekend about South Africa), the tone is very and Theroux almost takes a complete backseat as the pictures and people take centre stage. Once or twice the ‘innocent abroad’ character comes out – but it’s used in a very different context – far more sombre.

    Hope you get to see it


  5. david

    Louis Theroux is one of the most annoying ‘Pinko’ I have never had the pleasure to meet!!!
    Why is his pathetic opinion so right?(TV)

    What is wrong with white traditions that you want to embrace everyone else!
    You are anti white obviously WHY?

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