Some documentary makers choose to remain off-screen and let their subjects do the talking. Louis Theroux has made a career out of appearing in his own documentaries, more often than not seeming awkward, uncomfortable or – when dealing with certain members of the Westboro Baptist Church, for example – threatened. Part of his schtick is documenting his reaction to the people he's talking to and their reactions to him. He "brings out the weird," as Ryan Tubridy tells him. The pandemic has meant that Theroux hasn’t been able to travel and make documentaries, so instead he’s become a podcaster and spent a lot of time drinking and annoying his wife. These revelations are contained in Louis’s book, Theroux the Keyhole: Diaries of a Grounded Documentary Maker. The book is based on actual diaries he started keeping in March 2020, although, he told Ryan, he edited them down for clarity and to avoid repetition:
"A lot of stuff I took out was like, I don’t think we need another account of me drinking too much and my wife saying, 'Are you drunk?’ And me saying, ‘Well, I’ve had a couple, but I wouldn’t say I’m drunk.’ And then she’d say, ‘Well why are you slurring your words then?’ Or, ‘You’re doing that thing with your eyes.’ Which is sometimes she catches me watching TV with one eye closed, which is a bit of a tell."
Although he’s happy enough to share these scenes of domestic bliss with us, Louis is keen to emphasise to Ryan that he’s not trying to portray himself as some sort of Oliver Reed-type alcohol-dependent "professional lush". Rather, he saw his over-indulgence in booze as more of a happy by-product of lockdown:
"I definitely was drinking too much, but not out of a sense, I don’t think, of loss of control, really just as a – it was one of the pleasures of lockdown, you know? We’d been robbed of so many pleasures when we were all cooped up and also, a lot of stress going on, so I would just find that it was something I enjoyed doing. And the next morning, I would generally be doing Joe Wicks workouts, so I sort of told myself, well, it’s kind of balancing out in the end."
Theroux has documented the opioid crisis in the US, he made a pre-Netflix programme about Joe Exotic and he’s made two documentaries about Jimmy Savile, so he knows what addiction and self-delusion look like. But his wife Nancy was also triggered by Louis doing Joe Wicks workshops because he was taking time for himself, leaving her to look after everything going on in a lockdown house with three children. It’s a fair point.
"I think the sight of me in my underpants – ‘cos I generally do it without a shirt on, because you sweat, right? – so I’m in my socks and underpants, leaping around and sweating onto the carpet and, I could understand, she found that annoying."
That is eminently understandable. When the conversation turns to Joe Exotic and the Netflix documentary series Tiger King, Louis doesn’t try to claim bragging rights for being first to make a programme about the former zookeeper who was convicted of attempting to hire two men to murder big cat rival Carole Baskin in 2018. Instead, while he admits that Exotic’s appearance on America’s Most Dangerous Pets in 2011 more or less missed the story, the story, well, hadn’t actually happened at that point:
"People say, ‘Well, do you feel like you missed the story?’ I’m like – not to sort of be defensive about it, but technically speaking, the story hadn’t happened because, yeah, he was an outlandish, larger-than-life and rather unscrupulous and negligent zoo owner, but he was not the subject of multiple charges of murder for hire."
Theroux did return to the topic of the Tiger King this year with the documentary Shooting Joe Exotic. You can hear the full conversation between Ryan and Louis Theroux – including brief touches on topics like billionaires in space, Trump and the insurrection in the US and facing climate change in Australia – by going here.
Theroux the Keyhole: Diaries of a Grounded Documentary Maker by Louis Theroux is published by Macmillan.