The comedian talks about his American trip with Sean Lock, from bullfrog hunting and gold panning to moonshine brewing.
I’ve certainly gained a passion for the outdoors over the past few years. I think you can’t fail to be inspired given what we know is out there now. National Geographic and TripAdvisor have opened up the world — it’s a smaller place and needs exploring. And to me, heading off the beaten track is really at the heart of that.
I’ve travelled light before — in South America, Asia and Europe — but always with a plan of action for where we eat and where we sleep. However, my three-week trip around the backwaters of the US with Sean Lock for Channel 4 was much more about surviving on the edge. It took a lot of getting used to. For the documentary, they edited a week’s footage down to 45 minutes — generally leaving in all the bits where I look unwell. It makes good TV, I guess.
Louisiana was a big deal — two weeks to drive there and arrive at what was effectively a swamp. It was incredibly testing. And the guys we stayed with — well, I’m not sure we were quite on the same wavelength as them. I’m all up for the ‘man eat meat’ routine (for those who want to know, I’m a vegetarian), but when there’s a shop down the road, and you’ve got this big pantry of beans, you shouldn’t feel the need to impress.
While in the Atchafalaya swamps in Louisiana I saw some pretty incredible survival skills at work. Some other people we encountered really did live off their environment. I watched a man kill and skin an alligator — that was pretty tough to bear, but you have to appreciate traditions and resources. It was as compelling as it was disturbing. At the end of the day it would’ve been rude for us to step into someone else’s survival routine and only ask them to do certain things. If you travel you have to keep your eyes wide open to every part of the culture you infiltrate. So out of respect, we wanted to see how he paid his bills and explain why he does it.
At one point, we were out in the wilderness in the dark. I had a torch on my head and alligators all around me. My sense of humour had deserted me, yet I had one of the locals chatting away in one ear about bush stories and Sean cracking ‘jokes’ in the other. It was surreal.
Hunting bullfrogs was an experience I’d rather forget. I’ve been a vegetarian for years and our host, Jodi, hunted and ate anything he could find in the depths. The first night there, he took us out to catch bullfrogs — when they bagged them up, they made the most horrible noise. Jodi left them out on the step overnight. There were like 10 bullfrogs in a bag, making a groaning noise that sounded like ‘NOOOO’. When you’ve heard that, you’re like ‘No, I don’t need to eat animals that much.’ I was thinking of going out in the middle of the night, slitting the bag open and letting them all escape. I wish I had now.
I quite enjoyed panning for gold in Alaska, just for the sheer majesty of the countryside. Each day I took a breath of the freshest air I’ve ever encountered; it was something else. And it was interesting to see that this tradition from the old Wild West still thrives in the richest state in the world. There was no skinning or bagging of animals either, that I’m aware of.
While in the Blue Ridge Mountains we learned how to hand-fish, and how to brew up moonshine — two skills I never thought I’d ever find myself being educated on. But it turned out to be quite enlightening, even if the moonshine was like rocket fuel and I could barely catch a fin, let alone a fish, with my bare hands.
I certainly learnt you don’t have to venture to the back of beyond to experience real travel culture. Who would have thought a flight to the States could see me encounter so many unusual people… [laughs] When will I next head out to the wilderness? Later this year, I hope. I’m keen to do something in one of the rainforests. They’re enchanting places and there are a multitude of angles with which you can create absorbing, yet at the same time entertaining, television.
Would I ever go away with Sean Lock again? I think that would be a resounding ‘no’. It was definitely a clash of ideals that seemed to clash over and over. I could stomach a trip to Brighton with him, but that would be about it!
Jon Richardson is a regular on comedy panel shows such as 8 Out of 10 Cats, Have I Got News for You and Stand Up for the Week. Richardson, who dropped out of Bristol University in 2002 to pursue a career in comedy, lives in Kingston, southwest London. He published his debut book, It’s Not Me, It’s You! in 2011 and has curated radio shows on BBC Radio 4.
Richardson’s recently rediscovered passion for travelling saw him explore the wilds of America last year with fellow comedian Sean Lock for the Channel 4 series The Real Man’s Road Trip.
He’s a contributor to the Lily Foundation, a charity that raises funds for and seeks to improve research into mitochondrial disease. thelilyfoundation.org.uk