American audiences unfamiliar with British comedian Jack Whitehall may recognize him from his hilarious appearance alongside Jennifer Lawrence on BBC’s The Graham Norton Show. That, or Gary Marshall’s 2016 ensemble film Mother’s Day. Otherwise, they were probably surprised to see Jack Whitehall: Travels with My Father pop up on their Netflix queue last Friday. Rest assured the 29-year-old performer is one of the United Kingdom’s best working comics today, judging by his many hilarious appearances on popular British quiz shows, and the addition of his outrageous father, Michael Whitehall makes Travels a worthwhile binge. (Not to mention a wonderfully random Steven Seagal appearance.)
“Even the first weekend out, I am getting tweets from people all over the world, from places like Germany and Australia,” Whitehall tells us. “Which is kind of worrying, because many of these are places my father has made jokes about that will probably upset them. With Netflix, there is now a global audience of people he can upset. He’s already done it here at home, because he made a joke about a place in England called Norwich. He referred to it as being quite backwards, and it was in the local newspaper and the locals were tweeting at me. I was like, ‘I am so sorry!’ His ability to upset people and put his foot in it is unrivaled.”
A former producer and talent agent for the likes of Judi Dench and Colin Firth, Michael has since gained fame as Jack’s curmudgeonly hilarious (and occasionally offensive) partner in crime. The pair co-authored the 2013 book Him & Me: A Father and Son Remember It All Differently, and subsequently co-hosted the BBC variety program Backchat. Obviously a travel show, a prominent format popularized by British comedians like Billy Connolly and Stephen Fry, was in order for the Whitehalls. So they went with the premise that Jack had never taken a “gap year” — a “break” of sorts typically taken by British and other European young adults between secondary school and university, and more recently popularized in the United States by Malia Obama.
“A gap year is just sort of a silly thing we wanted to hang it on, but the heart of it — the most important thing — is the relationship with my dad,” Whitehall explains. “What I think is fun about watching the show, and the reason I hope people enjoy it, is even if you’re from a very different background or from somewhere else in the world, there is a lot we can all relate to when it comes to the relationship with a parent. Being embarrassed by them, or not wanting them to do certain things whenever they are abroad and around total strangers. All of these, I think, are things everyone can recognize in their own relationship with their parents. It’s a somewhat universal appeal, even if — as is the case for my father — your parents can be incredibly offensive. It takes all kinds, really.”
“There is definitely stuff we left on the cutting room floor I am pleased didn’t make the final transmission to Netflix,” he continues while laughing. “I’ve found, more weirdly, that doing press has been the hardest thing — especially when it’s live television. My dad is not the type of person you want on live television, because there is no chance of an edit or a filter. There have been a couple of appearances on programs in the U.K. where we’ve gone to promote the show. He was about to launch into a particular story or two, and I thankfully know where these stories go, so I’ve had to jump in front of the bullet to make sure he doesn’t get Travels taken off Netflix before it had even premiered.”
As worried as Whitehall seems about what his father might (and does) say in Travels and elsewhere, it’s a significant part of their onscreen charm. Throughout the six-episode series, Jack is always ready and willing to try new things — be it staying in a cramped hostel in Bangkok or giving parkour a shot. Michael, meanwhile, immediately abandons the hostel for a luxury hotel and generally avoids any and all activities he deems physically or culturally demanding. And through it all, the father and son bicker and joke with one another, providing viewers with a hilarious window into the relationship — and, per Jack’s suggestion, a possible mirror of their own. Though the younger Whitehall’s gift for confrontational comedy shines whenever he eggs his father on, a conceit that informs the majority of the show.
“He’ll do most things,” Whitehall recalls, “but he does have these moments where he is like, ‘What am I doing?’ The great thing about him, and what makes him work very well in the shows we do together, is that he never wants to do it. He is always so reluctant, and it all started with a small show we did together at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival years ago. It was only ever meant to be that one show, but then it snowballed. People just love it, for some reason, though it’s probably because he really is as reluctant as he seems. He really would walk away from it at any point, and that makes it all the better. Most people you see on television want to be there, and will do or say anything to stay on. As for my father, he usually doesn’t. I think that makes for some quite refreshing viewing.”
Sure enough, towards the end of their trip abroad the Whitehalls were supposed to “go live in the mountains with a community of people living off the land.” As Whitehall tells it, he was especially excited to try out this particular stunt, though his elderly father was most assuredly not. “It was quite an intense thing to want to do at the end of a long shoot, and that was the point my dad said, ‘You know what? I think I am done now. Get me back to England.'” It was the only thing the Travels production team had to cancel, according to Whitehall, who admits the original request was quite the stretch for his father. “To be fair,” he says, “that was the only time dad played the age card. ‘I am too old. You can’t make me do this,’ he said, so we agreed and called it off.”
Thankfully, one of Travels‘ more random stunts — a chance meeting with former action movie star Steven Seagal in Thailand — was not canceled. In fact, the Whitehalls’ participation in the encounter, and Seagal’s willingness to go along with it, makes for one of the series’ best moments. “I saw him at the hotel we were staying at and went over to his manager, who was English and, luckily, knew me from other things I’d done in the U.K.,” says Whitehall. “I just wanted to meet Steven Seagal, but he was more interested in talking to us on camera. He said, ‘Why don’t I appear on the show? Do a cameo?’ Everything about what we shot was his idea, though I didn’t know he was going throw me into the pond.”
With cameras rolling, Jack and Michael meet Seagal and his small entourage outside of the hotel. They speak for a few minutes before the younger Whitehall asks, “I know that you’re a zen master. What is the essence of zen?” Seagal, adorned in all black, promptly grabs his questioner and throws him into a nearby decorative pond just outside the hotel entrance. As the group leaves with Michael looking on in amusement, Jack exclaims, “Steven Seagal just threw me into a pond!” Meanwhile, his father expresses a brief moment of regret as he had wanted to shake Seagal’s hand before the impromptu incident. The scene leads to Jack asking Siri what the “essence of zen” is, which results in a punchline this article won’t spoil.
Jack Whitehall: Travels with My Father is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.