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How ‘Travels with My Father’ Produced Netflix’s Best Odd Couple

Netflix has birthed several odd couples through its original programming: Grace and Frankie, AJ and the Queen, the canceled-before-its-time Tuca and Bertie. But they didn’t have to work too hard to bring together its most naturally funny. As their shared surname would suggest, Jack and Michael Whitehall are a son and father combo who have had more than 30 years to hone their mismatched buddy act. Thankfully, the latest addition to their alternative travelog series proves that their rapport remains as strong as ever.

Michael, an old-fashioned, curmudgeonly showbiz agent who once represented Dame Judi Dench, hasn’t always been the perfect foil for his eldest child: a stand-up comedian whose persona curiously flits between laddish manchild and camp toff. The couple first worked together on 2013’s Backchat, a youth-oriented BBC talk show whose humor derived from Michael’s complete ignorance of their celebrity guests.

On this occasion, Michael’s belligerence came off as contrived; an embarrassing dad routine stretched to breaking point. However, when the pair joined forces again four years later outside the confines of a half-hour studio format, they managed to prove they weren’t just a one-trick pony.

Sure, Jack Whitehall: Travels with My Father still contains plenty of moments that are blatantly staged for comic effect. See Michael randomly chatting up a Thai ladyboy in the apparent belief that she’s a tour guide during the first series jaunt across South East Asia, for example. Or his beloved Luk Thep doll called Winston – arguably the real star of the show – being stripped on suspicion of drug-smuggling at the Transylvanian border by an overzealous guard in Season 2.

Photo: Netflix

Yet the difference here is that the majority of set-ups are genuinely funny. We all know what the reaction will be when the traditional Las Vegas magic show Michael’s expecting to watch turns out to be Magic Mike Live! But that doesn’t make his horrifying slow realization any less satisfying. Likewise his visible disdain for the Full Moon Parties of Phuket, the naked yoga sessions of California and the beer-biking tours of Budapest. Few have mastered the withering look so effectively.

The joke, however, isn’t always on Mr. Whitehall Sr. Jack is just as willing to make a fool of himself, particularly during their third series trip to the American West. Here, he competes on the indie wrestling circuit as a union jack-wearing squaddie named Tommy Tank before hopelessly failing to impress his Compton taxi driver by confusing Dr. Dre with Will Smith.

But alongside all the goofiness, there’s a poignancy to Travels with My Father which makes it stand out from the bizarre recent wave of British stand-ups taking a parent on a televised vacation. A sobering trip to a Khmer Rouge execution cave where a staggering 10,000 Cambodians were killed puts all the wisecracking entirely to one side. It’s here where Michael’s ambition to show Jack “that there is more to life than telling jokes about his penis,” is truly realized.

The duo aren’t afraid to get a little deep when they wrap each series up, either. In fact, on the final night of their South East Asia tour, both come close to tears while reflecting on how much they’ve enjoyed each other’s company. You keep waiting for a punchline, but one never comes.

There’s also a particularly moving moment as the pair bring their American journey to a close. Forever dressed in a three-piece suit, even on a beach in the height of summer, World War II obsessive Michael is a good half-century older than his comedic son. And their acknowledgement that they might not get to share such experiences for much longer brings a surprising lump to the throat.

Luckily, the ever-bantering twosome have had the opportunity to prolong their unlikely sideline as TV travel guides, with a fourth series set hitting Netflix this week. This time around, Australia is the destination as the pair get to grips with emu farming, camel riding and an aging biker gang more interested in eating fudge than raising hell.

A family wedding provides the emotional crux here, with Michael spending much of the trip testing out wildly inappropriate childhood stories and drawn-out dad jokes on his captive audience – we later see one such zinger making it into his father of the bride speech much to Jack’s dismay. But there’s also a lovely scene in which, overlooking the awe-inspiring Uluru skyline, the seasoned grump lets his guard down and reveals his true feelings about the soon-to-be newlyweds.

Joining the pair in Sydney, Jack’s mother Hillary (and Michael’s long-suffering wife) also gets a touching heart-to-heart with her son about his lack of a plus one, too, albeit immediately after he’s just performed on stage as a drag artist named Jackie Whitehole.

Of course, there’s still a whole host of insults (“I’ll be surprised if there’s a living soul that knows who the f*** he is in Australia,” Michael remarks about Jack’s concurrent tour) and unashamed daftness (Jack chasing wine connoisseur Michael around their SUV while pleading with him to try some of the warm boxed kind) on display. And with Australia and England sharing a love-to-hate rivalry, the latter doesn’t miss the chance to dig out a few old stereotypes, too (“most Australians were descended from convicts”). The humor hasn’t got any more sophisticated across four seasons, that’s for sure.

Yet by balancing their pure silliness with a sweetness you wouldn’t have expected in the wake of their earlier output, the Whitehalls have hit upon a formula which best plays on their generational divide. With South America, Africa and Western Asia all still to cover, there’s still plenty of mileage left in it, too.

Jon O’Brien (@jonobrien81) is a freelance entertainment and sports writer from the North West of England. His work has appeared in the likes of Esquire, Billboard, Paste, i-D, The Guardian, Vinyl Me Please and Allmusic. 

Watch Jack Whitehall: Travels With My Father on Netflix

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