Making people laugh made him famous, but in real life, anxiety attacks once threatened Dom Joly’s career. He talks to Hannah Stephenson.
Dom Joly’s arrival onto television screens was big and brash. Trigger Happy TV was the nineties answer to the prank show, but behind the scenes, its star was close to breaking point. The first series sparked a return of the anxiety attacks he’d suffered on and off since his late teens.
“I was filming 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 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 Harley Street 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.
Having refused to go to hospital, the doctor gave him some pills and he took just a couple of weeks of work. The show went on and while Joly hasn’t had an anxiety attack in years, he remains 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. I want to be the new Michael Palin, but funnier,” he says.
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,
“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.”
Family life is vital important to Joly, who had a difficult relationship with his own father, who lived in Lebanon and ran the family business in Beirut. Joly left the country in 1975 to attend boarding school in England and ended up staying in the UK.
His father died in 2011 when Joly was a week into his first live tour and while he travelled home for the funeral he says he had long shouldered his father’s disappointment that his own life hadn’t turned out differently.
“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 hacked him off, although he never said it.
“He was a very tricky man, he’d fought in the Second World War in the Fleet Air Arm, 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.”
• Here Comes The Clown by Dom Joly is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £18.99. He will be appearing at the Crown Hotel in Harrogate on July 3 as part of Harrogate International Festivals.