He came to fame playing pranks on unsuspecting victims in Trigger Happy TV, but behind the scenes, Dom Joly was close to breaking point.
The first series of the hit Channel 4 show sparked a return of the anxiety attacks he’d suffered on and off since his late teens.
“I was filming stuff while dressed as a ludicrous Dutch tourist,” recalls the 47-year-old, of the moment things came to a head. “I was wearing shorts, a red mac and a tall Union Jack hat. The joke involved me just approaching people and asking nonsensical questions using a dodgy phrase book.”
Soon, Joly was engulfed by a massive anxiety attack.
“It was a difficult experience to describe, a sort of floaty feeling, almost a disassociation with reality, an out-of-body experience. It was like having a really bad, paranoid trip but without having taken any drugs.
“It was frightening and I just wanted to get away, to run away and hide in my flat where I felt safe.”
Once home, he didn’t get out of bed for days and couldn’t talk to anyone. A doctor diagnosed clinical depression and advised him to go to a hospital.
“Trust me, there is nothing guaranteed to depress you more than being diagnosed as having clinical depression,” he writes in his memoir Here Comes The Clown, which takes up his story from the start of Trigger Happy in 2000.
He refused to go to hospital, however (“I just wanted to go home and hide from the world”), so the doctor gave him some pills instead.
Joly was off for two weeks – but he was told that if he was off for more than another week, the show would be cancelled. The day the plug was to be pulled, he dragged himself into work.
The show went on and became a mammoth hit, as frontman Joly shouted into 5ft-long mobile phones at chamber concerts and slapped parking tickets on drivers who stopped at zebra crossings, frequently dressing up in animal costumes for his madcap stunts.
Today, he reflects that he hasn’t had an anxiety attack since those early Trigger Happy days and the experience has made him stronger, although he is still on antidepressants.
“If I can defeat stuff going on in my own head then I can take on anything that the big, bad world throws at me. I strongly believe that a touch of madness is necessary for good comedy.”
Travel is now his main passion and he’s forged a dual career as travel writer and TV entertainer. “Comedy pays the bills so I can go off travelling.”
After Trigger Happy’s success, he landed a contract at the BBC, but says he hated the four years he was there.
“I hated the BBC, I hated every moment of it. I’m an outsider and I think I work best when I’m on the outside, and when Trigger Happy happened, I was suddenly a celebrity and successful within the establishment, and it’s very difficult to have a go and take the Mickey out of the establishment when you’re part of it.”
When he left, he made Dom Joly’s Happy Hour, a round-the-world spoof travel series for Sky One. It was his happiest time, he recalls.
He’s since written two travel books and also writes extensively for newspapers. “I want to be the new Michael Palin, but funnier,” he says. “But I’m not just doing this for the telly, I’m serious about travelling.”
He’s away for around half the year. He takes his wife Stacey, a Canadian graphic designer, and their children – daughter Parker, 14, and 10-year-old son Jackson – with him when he can, but jokes that all his travelling actually “keeps my marriage incredibly happy!”.
It isn’t always easy to slot back into everyday life back home in the Cotswolds, however, after long, frequent absences.
“When I come back, I always feel like a lodger moving into a new flat for a couple of days. My wife has got her life set up, and suddenly there’s this idiot wandering around putting his head in the fridge and turning on her telly. There’s a bit of resentment for three or four days.
“My wife is the complete reason that I’ve been able to keep a career and do what I do,” he continues. “She’s just brilliant. She’s grounded, she’s Canadian, she doesn’t give a damn what I do and I married her before I became famous, so I know she likes me for the right reasons.”
His father, who lived in Lebanon (where Joly was born), died in 2011 when Joly was a week into his first live tour. He travelled home for the funeral but says he had a difficult relationship with his father, who had served in the Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War and then went to Oxford, before settling to run the family business in Beirut.
Joly was sent to boarding school in England in 1975 and ended up staying in the UK. He says he always felt his father was disappointed that his son ended up doing funny TV.
“I was doing what my father would rather not have me do – like dressing up as a squirrel – but my dad had to take over the family company when he really wanted to be a writer, and in those days you just did what you were supposed to do.
“He did really well in the business but I think that deep down, he really resented that he couldn’t do what he wanted to. The fact that I did what I wanted subconsciously really p***ed him off, although he never said it.
“He was a very tricky man, he’d fought in the war, was emotionally British and old school, while I was dressed as a Goth and wandering around doing my own things.
“The term emotional cripple was absolutely made for my dad. By the time he died, I’d mourned him 10 years before.”
He says his father was uncommunicative, and he’s determined not to be like that with his own children.
“I never wanted kids, I had no interest in kids, but from the moment they were born they became the best thing that has ever happened to me. I’m a very huggy, full-on, fun dad. It really annoys my wife because she has to do all the proper, serious mum stuff and when I come back, it’s, ‘Let’s go and play!’”
Joly now hopes to pursue his career in the US.
“The problem in the UK is that I’m just the ‘big phone guy’. I’m a prankster, and no matter how hard I try to tell people I’m much more interested in travel and I’ve been doing that for 10 years, people think, ‘But why should we put the squirrel guy on a travel show?’.”
He’s hoping to do a travel show in the US based on his book The Dark Tourist: Sightseeing In The World’s Most Unlikely Destinations.
“I’m going to the States where I’m known for Trigger Happy, but I’m not pigeonholed by it,” he says. “America’s a lot more exciting, and it’s big.”
• Here Comes The Clown is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £18.99.