Photo by Bob Glanville
British journalist and comedy writer Danny Wallace has approached unsuspecting strangers with cups of coffee, packets of peanuts, pints of beer and the odd cow or two. He has been worshipped by Belgians, stalked by a man named Whitby and commended by both Prince Charles and Tony Blair. Along the way, he lost a girlfriend and gained an army, a Karma Army, that stands 7,000 strong. Wallace, who was moved by his great-uncle Gallus’ failed efforts to start a Swiss farming collective in the 1940s, placed a small ad in a London paper asking people, simply, to “join him.” The price of membership? A single passport photo and the willingness to do a good deed every Friday. Whether a sincere cult leader or a brilliant PR artist, Wallace has taken on such a “stupid boy project” (that grew into a publicity-garnering book) before: Are You Dave Gorman?, written in collaboration with then-roommate Gorman, had the pair crossing continents in search of others by the same name in order to settle a bet. Join Me is a shambling, self-mocking chronicle of the so-called cult’s early days (way back in 2002) that also happens to be an excellent look at how social movements often get started — by accident.
L.A. WEEKLY: What is it about you that lures people, that makes them want to join you?
DANNY WALLACE: It wasn’t about me being any one thing that they would like to join; it was a case of them maybe wanting to join something. And I was just a flavor of the week or I was just putting the effort out there. Actually, that’s what I put to [the first joinee]. I wanted to know why, and it turned out he was bored and wanted a laugh. A newspaper in Britain called him the least cynical man in London and I think that’s a great way to describe somebody. You know, I don’t like cynicism and I get very bored with cynicism and I think cynicism’s so easy.
But the British — if I am going to make sweeping cultural stereotypes — not only do they seem to be very cynical, but they seem proud of it.
That’s weird, because I’ve actually found with Join Me that the people who have e-mailed me from Britain were kind of mildly cynical, but were kind of inherently joyful as well. And I found that Americans, they tend to be much more earnest, sort of serious, and ignore the humor side of it. And Australians have just been mad. Actually, insane — e-mailing me, going “Okay. I’ve heard about you. I think we should meet. Can you come to Australia?” And it’s like “Hullo, you haven’t even told me your name yet!”
Did you always know that this would become a book?
If I’d gone to a publisher and said, “Right. I’m going to put an advert in a paper and I bet you anything millions of people are going to reply to me and I’ll end up on Belgian TV,” they’d just go, “Get out of my office, you!” Do you know how I think [Random House] heard? It was when someone handed a Join Me flier to Geri Halliwell at her book signing — she is Random House. And they called me up and asked, “What are you doing now?” So, a series of Spice Girl–related encounters, I think.
You say in the book that you’re against wackiness, but this whole Join Me thing is a little wacky.
How dare you! I think of this as something that happened to me rather than something I did, because very quickly it got out of control. And I was trying to catch up to it. Whereas [compare it to] the people who wear the zany ties, the crazy wigs at the office party and, you know, the Snoopy socks — not because they like Snoopy or they’re cold, but because it’s a statement.
Do you have any special tactics to get Join Me to appeal to potentially cult-friendly Americans?
Yes. Slogans. Such as “Don’t Mug Me, Hug Me.” I’m going to do my best to make use of slogans and puns to win over the American people. I’m starting an American Karma Army, a.k.a. AKA. See, I’m a thinker.
JOIN ME | By DANNY WALLACE | Random House | 340 pages | $13 softcover