Louis Theroux has said that when he got his first on-screen gig, on the satirical 1994 series TV Nationdocumentarian Michael Moore hired him because “the level of incompetence that I brought to the job was, for him, a big plus… he realized this bookish English person, when contrasted with a Ku Klux Klansman or a Millenarian cult member in Montana, was quite funny”.
Moore is the one who taught the twenty-something Theroux, who is now turning 50, to go after “slightly dodgy people” and be very polite and disarming, all while searching for comedy in everything they said. It’s an approach Theroux has largely maintained throughout his career; his unique brand of bumbling, placid interviewing has won him numerous Baftas and international fame.
Some of his films are impossibly moving. Others are so ludicrously funny they’ve spawned countless memes and a Twitter account called “No Context Louis Theroux”.
To mark the release of his latest documentary Louis Theroux’s Forbidden America on Sunday (13 February), here are seven of his most brilliant documentaries…
The Most Hated Family in America (2007)
This lid-lifting documentary introduces viewers to the Kansas family at the core of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose members believe the US government is immoral due to its tolerance of homosexuality.
The hugely controversial Christian ministry is notorious for picketing at military funerals with homophobic placards, claiming that soldiers were killed because “God hates” gay people.
It’s an extremely uncomfortable watch, like much of Theroux’s best work, and a topic that has been revisited twice by the filmmaker in 2011’s America’s Most Hated Family in Crisis and 2019’s Surviving America’s Most Hated Family.
Extreme Love: Dementia (2012)
This is one of Theroux’s most heart-rending documentaries, in which he interviews dementia sufferers and their loved ones. In it, we meet a 49-year-old mother who is unable to grasp the seriousness of her own deterioration of her, and whose husband is anxious about raising their young daughter from her alone.
There are moments of lightness, too, with a mischievous 89-year-old called Nancy teasing and flirting with Theroux in some of her more lucid moments.
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It doesn’t have the shock factor of some of his most famous films, but it’s a poignant insight into how love can endure such a devastating condition.
Altered States: Love Without Limits (2018)
This film sees Theroux head off to Portland, Oregon, to investigate polyamory. It is 60 minutes of perfect awkwardness.
Three groups of people of varying willingness to be in open relationships are interviewed, and at one point Theroux strips off and attends a naked “sensual eating workshop”.
That is all.
Drinking to Oblivion (2016)
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In this staggeringly moving watch, Theroux embeds himself at King’s College Hospital in south London, where he interviews patients whose alcoholism is so severe that it has put them at death’s door.
Joe, who is on his third day of detox, is one of the most memorable addicts featured. When we meet him, he’s spent the last few months drinking a bottle or two of vodka a day and is in withdrawal, petrified and hardly able to stand.
From 32-year-old Joe to a woman who’s been on eight cans of cider a day for the past three decades, the subjects are very varied in an astonishing film that gives a face to an addiction suffered by half a million people in England.
A Place for Paedophiles (2009)
Theroux gains incredible access in this unsettling film shot in California’s Coalinga Mental Hospital. More than 500 convicted paedophiles are housed in the institution, many of whom have already served prison sentences but are deemed too dangerous for release.
One of the sex offenders there has undergone castration in an attempt to secure his release, while another confessed to molesting 50 children.
At the time, Theroux said Coalinga was “the weirdest place” he had “ever been to”, which, coming from a man who has spent time with Nazis, Scientologists and tiger-king‘s Joe Exotic, is quite a statement.
Louis and the Nazis (2003)
This is one of Theroux’s most famous documentaries. It sees the filmmaker travel to California to spend time with the White Aryan Resistance, a group that includes 11-year-old twin sisters who have been taught to sing racist pop songs by their mother.
It’s one of the rare films that shows Theroux almost lose his temper. When he comes face to face with the people who are perpetuating so much hatred, he doesn’t look shy or confused as he often does, instead he is genuinely raging.
Weird Christmas (1998)
In this left-field festive special, Theroux brings together four of the characters he met during his Weird Weekends series to pull crackers with him in his Brooklyn apartment.
From a man who claims to channel messages from the alien planet Koldas to another who spent 28 years living in a hole in Idaho, it’s an eclectic mix of guests. The show will put any chaotic Christmas dinners you’ve had into perspective.
Louis Theroux’s Forbidden America airs Sunday 13 February at 9pm on BBC Two.