It’s hard for travel television to surprise us anymore. This isn’t the fault of the hosts or the producers, it’s just the nature of the beast. At their best, our own trips are enlightening, perspective-widening, and fun — so virtually every show about travel will try to hit those three sweet spots. Even Bourdain, who managed to seem fresh by adding a little dry humor, still circles these basic themes.
When we watched the screener for Planet Primetime we expected another, “I learned! I gained new perspective! I had fun!” show. That would have been fine, by the way. Travel television is like food television: there’s no crime in riffing on a common format. But the show, hosted by Karla Cavalli, was such a wild departure from typical travel TV that it felt like a shock to the system. While it still had those three classic elements mentioned above, it also dared to try something that not enough travel shows risk: It was weird. Like, super weird.
That weirdness, that willingness to dive into a culture even when you can’t quite make sense of it, is what makes the show so good. The basic plot line is that Cavalli goes to different country and approaches their TV culture the same way that Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern approach food culture. And since TV bleeds into all facets of human life, so too does the show.
Cavalli, as our fish-out-of-water avatar, is perfect. She plays along, even when she doesn’t know the language. She is like the ultimate improv partner, always saying “yes and…” when challenged to try something bizarre. This week — fresh off the premiere episode — we spoke to the host about Japanese humor, viewing the world with a sense of wonder, and the joy of seeing someone get hit in the nuts.
Let’s talk about understanding a country through its pop culture — that’s kind of what Planet Primetime wants to get at, right?
Yeah, that’s exactly what we’re getting at. We’re looking at television but we’re also looking at a lot of pop culture. Because pop culture and television are totally intertwined. For instance, in Japan, where we shot the first episode of the show, they are completely and totally obsessed with mascots and they have a lot of mascots on television. There’s even a mascot that does the weather with the weatherman everyday, and people really … these characters resonate with them and they become almost human-like and part of their daily lives.
I think, in an interesting way, by doing this very absurdist trip through Japan you actually got under the skin of a part of the culture that we don’t often hear about. We hear about Japan as hardworking and the Japanese as uptight, and then sometimes we maybe hear a little bit about cafe culture there and some of the cosplay stuff. But adults, people who are older than forty, being thrilled by watching someone get hit in the balls with a mallet is … it really is an insight into the culture in a way.
Absolutely. I think Japan was a little different than any of the other countries because I had never been to Asia before, this was my first time. I set foot in Tokyo and it was this magical place that seemed like science fiction to me, because it was so sophisticated, so structured, everybody was so elegant and polite, and it was just a utopia.
There are millions of people in this tiny, small space and — I think I even say it on the show — there’s no road rage there. Everybody is just lovely. And then, all of a sudden you look at their television and it’s a total 180. It’s the total opposite. It’s frat-boys jumping around, doing maniacal stuff like hitting each other. They’re breaking all the rules. It’s the total opposite of what the people are like in general. You learn a lot about what makes people tick by learning what they’re laughing at, or learning what telenovelas they want to watch or whatever shows they’re fancying. I think it’s really revealing.
What’s your guess in the case of Japan. Is it that we all have to get our frustrations out somehow and this zany slapstick is release valve for them?
Yeah, you’re totally correct. It’s like when they come home from their jobs. The Japanese work serious hours. They are very disciplined people. And then they come home from work … and what do you want to do? I mean, what do we want to do when we come home from work? We want to binge watch something amazing or we want to laugh and we want to let our hair down and really just stop thinking about work and stop thinking about all these other things. And then, if you sit down and watch a game show it’s like an escape. You can really settle in, have a drink, and relax. And that’s how they relax. They really like … almost, for lack of a better word, child-like humor. It’s really playful and silly and fun and and it, in a weird way, brought me back to being a little kid again.
You just hit on the greatest travel skill, one that I think everyone should have: childlike wonder. So how did that manifest when you traveled to different countries? What were the experiences that opened your eyes?
Oh my god, there were so many. It’s weird. It’s just this whirlwind year of me experiencing things that I never dreamed of or ever thought I would ever experience. And I think, honestly, because it was such a whirlwind I was able to have that childlike wonder. And I was able to be totally innocent. Also, the producers didn’t tell me a lot of the things we were doing, they liked to jibe me because apparently I give good reactions. But, oftentimes I didn’t have a choice. I was just thrown onto random television shows where I didn’t speak the language. I had to smile and nod and work with it and agree and be totally and utterly out of my comfort zone.
But, travelling this year in particular… I’m not super well-traveled. I was born overseas, I’m probably more well-traveled than the average American because my parents were foreign so we traveled a lot when I was a kid. But, I’m the newbie on the block. I came into this show really not knowing what to expect, and I think that was a really good things for me because it allows me to just play and be really excited about all this new stuff… I was going to say something that was really fucking poignant and I forgot it.
I think that you did say something poignant. What I saw on the show is what I would hope travelers would do which is just say, “I don’t know, I might screw up, I might look like an idiot, I’m just going to go along with it because I want to try this new culture and this new thing,” which I think is a really good approach.
Oh! That’s exactly the point I was going to make. You have to challenge yourself. If you’re not willing to do something different and look like an idiot, then you’re really not living life. Life is just like a big old improv game, you’ve just got to say “yes.” And I know that sounds like the cheesiest quote on plant earth ever. I just heard it come out of my mouth and it made me want to throw up. But, it’s also true.
You’ve got to not be so uptight, not take yourself so seriously, and then you experience all these incredibly wonderful, beautiful things and you look back and you’re like, “Wow, I just did that. That was amazing, and I don’t care that I stood up in front of hundreds and thousands of people on live television and I made myself look like a total asshole or idiot,” because you laughed.
I think I’m really good at laughing at myself, to be honest, and I’ve gotten much better at it over the past year. When you’re younger sometimes you get all caught up on what you’re going to be perceived like, and that has been my worst enemy on this journey and during our travels shooting the show.
I had to finally make a decision to throw that out the window and be as open as I possible could… Unless it was eating something really disgusting .
Again, I think that’s exactly how travel needs to be. One of the most amazing things I saw, which was so funny, is you were trying to adjust on the fly to comedy in a country that you didn’t know, on a medium that you weren’t really familiar with (being Japanese television), and in language you didn’t speak. Trying to be funny on their terms must’ve been very difficult — particularly because that campiness probably felt foreign.
It did. And you know, it’s intimidating being in front of these local icons. These comedians I was on that stage with are legendary. People in the country bow down to them literally and figuratively. They’re so funny, and so famous, and here comes little miss whoever … American girl. I don’t know. It was terrifying as well as exhilarating. I did that thirteen times over. In every country I had to either smile and nod or try to go with the flow and do whatever weird thing they were asking me to do, and just embrace it. I did, and some really awesome, amazing, incredible things came out of it and then some terrible, awful things happened, Those things make for even are better comedy, in a way.
Yeah, watching you get smacked in the face with a rubber band was the perfect metaphor. You literally got slapped with a new culture and you had to adjust to it. You did it with grace, but it was definitely a surprise for me to watch.
Yeah, I don’t know if I was so grateful when I was gloating about my win after getting smacked in the face. But thank you.
I was a huge fan of Jack Tripper when I was a kid. Three is Company was one of my favorite shows — I loved his super over-the-top comedy. The reactions that they gave, however big, would always sell so well.
One of the most reassuring things — I think my favorite thing — was realizing that American pop culture hasn’t taken over the world. Japanese media is so much different than ours, their culture stands so far apart. Was that almost heartening, as you traveled the world, to go, “Oh, we’re not quite as important as we thought”?
Are you kidding? I was fantastic. It was amazing. I was waving my fists in the air in celebration that I was seeing different things. And you know, sometimes, we can be boastful and our egos are really big living in this big land that is actually is incredible and every time I leave and then set foot back in America I am so beyond thankful. I’m the most patriotic person ever.
With that said, I really love that everyone has their own take on things and they have these incredible characters that, for instance … we have our Jon Stewart. But, in Mexico, they have their Supercivicos, and they have their political satire shows. We all just have different versions and I love meeting the new characters and seeing how beloved they are in their respective homes.
What were some of the iconic moments of the trip that didn’t make the screen? I imagine you shot the whole season almost all at once?
We shot over about a year — a little more than that. There were so many things that didn’t make it in the show. Like the extra episode — the fourteenth episode — which is like the entire blooper reel of all the ridiculous insane stuff that happened. They couldn’t fit them all into the actual episodes, so they put them in this one big that’s one of my favorites.
The funny thing is that the show was originally supposed to be a little bit more cerebral. I don’t want to say smarter, but it was supposed to be heavy and informative and I did a lot of interviews when we were on the road with important journalists and people who were producing shows about guerrillas in Colombia. They were really heavy, and then all of a sudden I think they realized that the show was much better when it was me in my happy place, which is just experiencing all these amazing, fun, happy things that happened on television. It had this amazing metamorphosis.
I’m sorry, what was your question? Did I even answer your question?
I think you did. I wanted to know about … maybe zoom in on a few travel moments that felt like they taught you something about the world or reaffirmed your love for new places?
New Zealand was mind-blowing for me. I had never been and I was … So, we went to the glowworm caves. Have you been to New Zealand yet?
Yeah. You went to Kaikoura? Amazing, right?
Unbelievable. But, then we took this little walk up into the hills after we saw the glowworm cave, which was quirky and cool and amazing in and of itself, but then we walked on this tiny pathway up into this hill. It was all uphill, and upstairs, and I took an Instagram video of myself in this place and I was like, “I am in the Shire. For realsies. This is my day off. I don’t have to be in a studio, I don’t have to be on or doing anything, and here I am in New Zealand in the middle of the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in my life.”
New Zealand kept kicking me in the gut with its beauty. I was insulted by it, almost. One time we were shooting in this harbor , doing something completely different, and I look over and all of a sudden … it was pretty as it was … and then a rainbow pops up. I was like, “F-U! F-U New Zealand, for being so incredibly stunning!”
I cannot wait to go back, because want to experience the South Island. I don’t think enough people know about it. I want everyone to go to New Zealand.
I just got back from Colombia two days ago and that’s how I felt about Colombia recently. Although I love New Zealand, and definitely want people to go there too.
We do an episode in Colombia, actually, you’ll probably really like it. It was incredible there too. We went to this tiny island with a local village and they embraced me with open arms and I was moved to tears. The Colombians are warm, loving, beautiful people. I had a blast. I went to Cartagena and Bogota both. It just …. I don’t know if it was what I expected it to be.
I just want to end with: I am so in support of what you’re doing. I think it’s the wildest, weirdest, craziest show and it’s something that had a lot of real surprises for me. I think if the goal is to use culture as a conduit to get under the skin of a country, you’re nailing it. Don Wildman does that through history and Andrew Zimmern does it through food, then this is through pop culture and I think that that really works.
It certainly does, very well said. You should put that in the interview and attribute it to me — I love it.
That must be the pitch of the show, right? How much can we learn about people through their popular culture. Is that essentially what you’re chasing everywhere you go?
Yeah, that’s exactly it. I try not to knowingly chase it, I try to sit back and just do the experience and look back on it and have some final thoughts about it towards the end. Because if I get too up in my head about what we’re learning, and what my focus is, and my objective I end up not letting go and playing and actually living in it, if that makes any sense. I don’t want to be wrapped up in what I’m about to learn when I’m about to learn it. I just want to feel it, and then in the end, yeah, I still feel like the viewer comes away with even a better understanding than I had of what they say.
It’s a funny thing. Pop culture is created by us in all these tiny microcosms of where we live. So it’s all different, but then there’s a lot of things that are really similar. As humans, we want to laugh, we want to love, we want to be moved, we want to be excited, we want to laugh at someone getting hit in the nuts.
Speaking of which, remind me not to start producing your show.
They have the hardest job in show-business, I swear to god. I love them to death — but there’s something beautifully wonderful about seeing a guy get nailed in the nuts with a machine.