Weird ’90s – Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends

louis theroux's weird weekends

Weird 90s

Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends

Graham Williamson returns to discuss a staple of 90s television weirdness (and even weirder subjects) in Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends...

Part of what characterises the Weird ’90s is the attitude that extremism, paranoia and other aberrant beliefs are there primarily for us to raise a knowing eyebrow at. It’s an attitude you’d imagine ended with 9/11, and yet one of its chief practitioners has spent the 21st century becoming more and more beloved.

It’s Louis Theroux, whose first solo series Weird Weekends began in January 1998, and who now commands a near-Attenborough level of fondness across the many divided tribes of modern Britain. Yet the young Theroux was an outsider, not quite British but not quite American, a regular at the legendary Kim’s Video and Music store in Manhattan. In his recent, larkily-titled autobiography Gotta Get Theroux This, Louis goes into a near-Proustian recollection of the rare documentaries he rented from Kim’s: documentaries about NAMBLA, about paparazzi, grisly attempted suicides and GG Allin.

It’s possible to view Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends as a toned-down version of his rental list, albeit not massively toned-down. BBC iPlayer has a discriminatory language warning before the first season finale, Head for the Hills, and few viewers will find it unwarranted. The first series of Weird Weekends is a four-part crash-course in Weird ’90s preoccupations: pornography, racism, religious fanaticism, alien abductions, apocalypse prophecies and, of course, cults.

Indeed, watching the first two episodes – ‘Christianity’ and ‘UFOs’ – you might wonder if there was any corner of America that didn’t have its own bespoke cult in the run-up to the Millennium. ‘Christianity’ begins with Louis talking to only mildly wacky televangelists and ends with him tagging along with the Family International, asking them questions about their history of “flirty fishing”.

“Flirty fishing” was the name given by the Family’s founder David Berg to the group’s practice of sending attractive women out to seduce men into the faith. Berg regarded most sexual acts as part of God’s love, up to and including incest and child abuse. He informally adopted his “spiritual leader” Karen Zerby’s son Ricky Rodriguez and circulated stomach-churning photographic documents of his molestation among cult members, offering it as an example of the ideal loving family. Seven years after the Family appeared on Weird Weekends, Rodriguez killed one of the women who Berg had pictured abusing him, then killed himself.

The Family International, for what it’s worth, claim such practices are no longer part of their doctrine, but it’s still jarring to see them being treated as harmless kooks. Segments like this might be why Theroux sometimes expresses regret at how ‘faux-naive and undoubtedly mickey-taking’ [1] Weird Weekends could get, but that humour is undoubtedly a major part of the show’s appeal. Furthermore, the initial four shows are extremely useful case studies of where ’90s weirdness came from, and where it went once the decade was over.

Both ‘Christianity‘ and ‘Head to the Hills‘ feature Theroux encountering the aftermath of the 1960s counterculture. He is surprised at how many of the survivalists in the latter episode have roots in the hippie movement, and – despite the massive sartorial differences – the buttoned-up conservative Christians in episode one have a similar lineage. The writer T.M. Luhrmann described the late 1960s evangelical hippie movement as ‘one of the most important and least studied in American religious history’, [2] fuelled by people disillusioned with the Age of Aquarius finding a new dream to follow in Christian youth movements. In the process, they elevated hitherto-fringe pursuits like speaking in tongues, anti-abortion activism and Rapture prophecies into central planks of American evangelism.

It’s that same question – where was the fringe located before, and where is it now? – that keeps coming to mind when you watch Head to the Hills today. Each episode of Weird Weekends begins with a pre-credits sequence, the theme music (Juan García Esquivel’s ‘Mini Skirt’, another example of the Weird ’90s fascination with the kitsch and easy listening of previous eras) kicking in at a particularly outrageous moment. In ‘Head to the Hills’, that happens when Jerry Grudl, the far-right preacher with a memorable fondness for Are You Being Served? (BBC, 1972-85), describes the BBC as ‘the enemy’ [3] – a view that would nowadays be right at home in the mouth of a front-bench MP, or a mainstream newspaper columnist.

The observation that once-fringe beliefs are increasingly central to right-wing politics is rapidly becoming a cliche. Still, it’s chilling to realise how many of the interviewees in Theroux’s examination of the survivalist movement sound like the most recent Republican President. They, too, believe America is besieged – by immigrants, by non-Christians, by a global Communist plot to destroy the Constitution – apart from one: ‘Mike Oehler, who lived underground and whose political views were relatively mainstream, other than thinking society was on the verge of collapse’. [4] Over twenty years on, that view also appears mainstream, albeit for different reasons; does anyone think society looks particularly sturdy right now?

Other episodes prompt similar reflections. Episode three, ‘Porn’, is a snapshot of the American pornography industry that now presents an interesting time capsule of British attitudes in the late ’90s. It was a brief moment when pornography was the subject of no particular moral anxiety: previously it was regarded as disturbingly underground, today it’s disturbingly unavoidable. Back then it was often treated as an amusing relic of the 1970s, all wah-wah guitars and faded 16mm film.

Recalling this social context, you realise what a landmark ‘Porn’ was for Theroux. It’s not the best of the first series – I’d nominate ‘Head for the Hills’ – but it’s the one that most clearly displays his talent for finding the sadness and humanity in what begins as a straightforward goof. It also contains the first series’ most direct moral statement. The Weird ’90s now-tragically naive assumption that we were all on the same page with regards to bigotry means the Holocaust deniers and homophobes of ‘Head to the Hills’ are allowed to indict themselves with their own words. ‘Porn’, by contrast, ends with a nauseated Theroux walking off the set of Rob Black’s rape-themed hardcore film Forced Entry.

Four years later, that film – or a later Black film sharing its title – was the subject of a massive federal obscenity trial which nearly destroyed the American porn industry. Theroux’s first book, 2005’s The Call of the Weird, sees him reunited with his former interview subjects, revealing in the process the point at which the Weird ’90s dream ended for them.

For the porn stars, it was the Forced Entry trial. For the evangelical Christians, the tide still hadn’t gone out; with one of their own in the White House, the 2000s may well be remembered as the movement’s golden age. The militia movement splintered more interestingly, in Theroux’s telling. Those who joined out of an interest in survivalism tended to interpret the PATRIOT Act as yet another federal power grab. Those who joined out of an interest in racism started to wonder if the federal government were all that bad, compared to al-Qaeda.

The most robust anti-Bush statement in The Call of the Weird comes from Thor Templar, who damns ‘Adolf Bush’ as a ‘stumblebum moron’. [5] Templar appeared in the second episode of Weird Weekends, ‘UFOs’, in which he declared himself Lord Commander of the Earth Protectorate and showed off the weapons with which he claims to have killed twenty hostile extraterrestrials. I found Templar’s forthrightness refreshing, largely because it chimes with my recollection of what sort of people were discussing UFO conspiracies in the 1990s: Left-to-apolitical wiseacres, who just wanted to talk about secret military experiments without any of that yucky politics getting in the way.

I’m perfectly aware that I’m self-deluding here. Even back in the ’90s, alien conspiracy lore encompassed a strong element of paranoia about one-world government that would have the interviewees in ‘Head to the Hills’ nodding enthusiastically. But there was something harmless-seeming about these theories, an acceptable source of brain candy for the hip set.

It is, perhaps, why Theroux regrets mocking the UFO believers more than he did when he was cajoling Jerry Grudl into quoting Mr. Humphries. ‘UFOs’ is still a fun episode, and it would be hard for anyone to resist a little mockery when faced with Bob Short, who adopts a loud robotic monotone to channel the alien leader Korton. Rather sweetly, Theroux still felt guilty enough to send Short ‘a book about crop circles and a written apology’. [6]

The UFOs episode also contains the first series’ second cult, when one of Louis’s potential contacts turns out to be Heaven’s Gate, responsible for the biggest mass suicide on US soil. Despite only fleetingly appearing in the finished episode, Louis devotes a whole chapter of The Call of the Weird to the sect. His profile of their founder Marshall Applewhite is a sensitive piece of journalism that showcases Theroux’s eye for a heartbreaking detail. Heaven’s Gate members were encouraged to watch science fiction shows but discouraged from watching shows about families. These, Applewhite proclaimed, ‘vibrated on the human level’. [7]

It’s a phrase that unexpectedly encapsulates Theroux’s appeal. Reviewing his pre-Weird Weekends work on Michael Moore’s TV Nation, Theroux realises ‘those segments that worked best were the ones that relied on me forming good-natured relationships with contributors’. [8] This remained the case. Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends isn’t for the patrons of Kim’s Video and Music; there’s too much sensitivity, too little hardcore shit, too much of the presenter mediating between the audience and the freaks. Except once the times changed, and people started regarding paedophiles and attempted suicides not as freaks, but as threats and victims respectively, Theroux’s warm approach to eccentricity, tragedy and difference became an asset.

It’s how he transitioned from making shows about UFO contactees to shows about anorexia patients without changing his essential approach. Louis Theroux thrived when so many of his Weird ’90s stablemates faded away for a very simple reason: his shows vibrate, strongly, on the human level.


Sources:

[1] Theroux, Louis, Gotta Get Theroux This: My Life and Strange Times in Television, 2019, p. 109
[2] Luhrmann, T.M., ‘Blinded by the Right? How hippie Christians begat evangelical conservatives’, Harper’s Magazine, April 2013
[3] Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, season one episode four, ‘Head to the Hills’, 5th February 1998
[4] Gotta Get Theroux This, p. 112
[5] Theroux, Louis, The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures, 2005, p. 35
[6] ibid., p. 31
[7] ibid. p. 215
[8] Gotta Get Theroux This, p. 79

Graham Williamson

Graham Williamson

Graham is a critic and film-maker from Teesside. He's worked for The Geek Show, Byline Times and Second Run DVD, but has never, to his dismay, seen a UFO.

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