“Travel Man,” Richard Ayoade’s Travel Show for People Who Hate Travel
There are many kinds of travel shows—just as there are many kinds of travellers—and many ways in which they can intrigue or repel us. This summer, I watched quite a few, as I was taking an uncharacteristically ambitious trip and wanted a sense of what I was in for. I set my DVR to auto-record shows about Copenhagen, the Faroe Islands, Tuscany, and France, and then marvelled at the breadth of its harvest. There was “The Wine Show,” in which the actors Matthew Goode and Matthew Rhys bopped around Tuscany, sampling vintages and rolling a wine barrel up a hill; the peppily question-and-answer-filled “Curious Traveler,” with Christine van Blokland, punctuated with “Huh?” and “Ah!” sound effects; “Parts Unknown,” Anthony Bourdain’s singular cultural reconnaissance via food; and the ubiquitous Rick Steves, bringing his bountiful tips and deflatingly Stevesian sensibility to every corner of Europe. All of this was informative but alienating: these travellers were nothing like me, and I wouldn’t travel like them. It was hard to imagine myself in their shoes. Then I discovered “Travel Man.”
“Travel Man: 48 Hours in . . .” is a British series in which the comedian, writer, actor, and director Richard Ayoade spends forty-eight hours in a city, accompanied by various friends—“some of the most available and affordable names in light ent,” as he puts it—and tells us about what to do there. “Mini-breaks are a swirling nebula of nonsense!” he says at the top of “Copenhagen,” during a brisk montage of him in Venice, Copenhagen, Vienna, and Moscow. “How can anyone go somewhere new and be expected to enjoy themselves without a decade to decompress?” Exactly, I thought. This is the show for me. Ayoade is perhaps best known from the beloved British sitcom “The IT Crowd,” in which he and Chris O’Dowd co-starred as I.T. guys, and for his films “Submarine” (2010) and “The Double” (2013), which he wrote and directed. “Travel Man” began in 2015, as a spinoff of a show called “Gadget Man,” which Ayoade had taken over, as host, from Stephen Fry. He’s far more ubiquitous in the U.K. than he is in the States, but he seems due for an American embiggening.
On “Travel Man,” Ayoade is fun to look at (snappy suits, thick-framed glasses, expression of amused diffidence) and fun to listen to. (Of a monastery turned hotel in Naples, he says, “As well as modish guff, like a rooftop pool and a spa, it retains attractive old shiz, like staircases dug into the hillside.”) His persona is warmly amused, broadly skeptical, and gently astringent—i.e., British. He’s not a joiner. His intros conclude with him saying, in that episode’s particular city and with that episode’s particular guest, “We’re here, but should we have come?” It’s a refreshing tone for a travel series—somewhere between jumping in with both feet and looking askance at everything on earth, including the notion of fun on a weekend getaway. Where Rick Steves adopts an attitude of agreeable derring-do—in Siena, while wearing a Drago contrada neckerchief at a Drago contrada feast before the inter-contrada horse race, Steves says, “Even if I don’t fully understand what’s happening, the excitement is contagious and the wine is delightful!”—Ayoade does things like approach a toboggan on a snowy Norwegian hillside while muttering, “Generally, anything that requires a helmet, I avoid.” He makes it known that he’s happiest in bookstores, not in pre-vomit scenarios or places where lots of people are screaming, and then dutifully boards a hundred-year-old wooden roller coaster in Tivoli Gardens, looking apprehensive.
“Travel Man” is helpful, too. Ayoade gives practical information up top, such as the city’s population, the annual number of tourists, and historic cultural distinctions—which include, for Copenhagen, “Hans Christian Andersen, Sandi Toksvig, Lego, the pedal bin, and my old adversary, the pH scale.” Little price tags pop up onscreen to indicate how many pounds things cost—flights, hotels, food, handy gear. Whether it’s relevant to you or not, the practical information helps create a vivid impression. Ayoade and his guest tend to stay in hotels that are unusual and fancier than I can afford, but pleasing to vicariously enjoy. “The luxury Belvedere suite offers a well-wide view of Vienna, as well as a display hammock,” Ayoade says, entering his hotel room. “But I have no time for display hammocks!” He bats aside the hammock as he breezes past it. “Unpacking squanders time and is a bourgeois indulgence,” he says, briskly hanging up his clothes rack-cum-duffel bag (“£90 approx”). He sometimes claims the fancier lodgings for himself, part of an amusing recurring tactic of being discourteous to his companion. (His comic rudeness can remind me of Jemaine on “Flight of the Conchords,” if Jemaine were not such a dim bulb.) In Vienna, Ayoade has “arranged something bespoke,” outside, for Chris O’Dowd: an Airstream trailer from 1952. (“I know how much you like to be near a major highway,” he says.) In Marrakech, when Stephen Mangan, trying to navigate them out of an alley, says, “My map says that way, but my heart says that way,” Ayoade, beaming, replies, “Let’s go with the map, rather than your rotten heart.”
Having a companion join in, besides providing “the illusion of bonhomie,” as Ayoade says, is a smart way to offset the slightly embarrassing explanatory nature of a travel show—there’s less of a false intimacy between viewer and host. Instead, we see Ayoade and friend in action together, bombing around town via bicycle, funicular, hot rod, tank taxi, horse-drawn carriage, camel, Vespa, or tuk-tuk (“Lisbon’s steep slopin’ need not ruin your scopin’,” he says). The show’s editing of their adventures is energetic, occasionally near-Eisensteinian; it feels efficient and encourages the notion, however accurate, that travel is bracing and jolly. Ayoade and friend combine visiting attractions that we would expect, like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (“It calls for a brief pause in glibness”), with the less expected: golfing in Tenerife, a doll hospital in Lisbon, a cave tour in Slovenia. The show’s most famous scene is undoubtedly its hair-raising trip to a Vienna snow-globe museum—I’ll let you discover it for yourself—but that episode features an equally funny scene at the Sigmund Freud Museum, during a conversation involving Darth Vader’s helmet.
“Travel Man” is not necessarily best enjoyed in a binge. (There are nine short seasons and three Christmas specials.) Too much at once can highlight the effort involved in its stars’ banter, and you occasionally worry that Ayoade’s companion won’t be quite as fun as he is, a worry that is sometimes justified. But enjoyed responsibly, the potent, savory series provides what you most seek from a travel show: a sense of a place and an idea of how you might find yourself in it. It combines TV’s particular efficiency in revealing the sights and sounds of a destination with the sense of what an amiable neurotic might experience there. At this point in my year, having long since returned from my adventures in Europe, I am mere months into the decade I’ll need to decompress from even one fjord. Part of that process involves recreational “Travel Man,” where Ayoade adventures so I don’t have to. “This is the sexiest place on the planet,” a Miami skipper tells him proudly, on a boat tour. “People come here to have a good time and let loose and have fun.”
“Sounds like hell,” Ayoade says.
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