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Q&A: Danny Wallace
The new book Join Me explains how a mild-mannered TV producer and freelance journalist accidentally became a cult leader.- February 27, 2004
Danny Wallace, a 27-year-old Brit, is an award-winning TV-comedy producer, a precocious freelance writer (he'd written for 12 different national magazines and newspapers by the age of 16), and—oh yeah—a cult leader. It happened by accident, he insists, after, for no particularly good reason, he placed an advertisement in a London newspaper that contained only the words "Join Me" and an address. He was curious to see what would happen, and soon enough, he had 6,000 Joinees across Europe. Join Me is a good cult, though, one that's only mission is to do nice things for people. Certainly it's been a nice thing for Wallace: He became a European sensation, his Joinees call him The Leader, and his book Join Me, which chronicles the founding and growth of this movement—and the tolls the movement took on The Leader's personal life—is being published in the United States next week. In advance of a planned two-week U.S. tour, designed both to sell books and pick up some new Joinees, Wallace spoke to mediabistro.com about his cult, his background, and his day job at the BBC.
So you're a cult leader?
Yes, I am. I'm a leader of men and women. In the earlier days, I was a little uneasy with the term "cult leader," because cults tend to get a bad press, but my cult is a nice cult. There's very little space travel involved, and no chanting to be heard of, really. And suicide is frowned upon.
That's always a plus. So what exactly is Join Me?
Join Me is something that started a couple of years ago. I had no real idea of what I was really doing, and it's grown into quite a nice little collection of thousands of people from all over the world who just want to be nice. Like, for example, here in Britain, the unsolicited pint is often a good one: You'll see an old guy in the pub running low on his drink, so you'll just buy him a new one and pop it down and walk off. One Joinee got up very early in the morning and washed all his neighbors cars.
And they're nice because you tell them to be?
Well, I think they're nice because, essentially, I think people are nice, and they want to be nice. But sometimes they need an excuse to be nice, and if joining a cult helps you, then it's a good thing. I think that the people who join Join Me do so for a variety of reasons. In the early days, I just put an advert in the paper saying "Join Me," and I didn't really know what I was doing and obviously neither did the people who were replying to the advert. They didn't know who they were joining or what they were joining or why they were joining. But they just were joining. In the early days, I think people joined up out of a sense of adventure or a sense of fun or maybe they saw the joke in joining something when they didn't know what it was. But then there was the Good Friday agreement, and people going off and doing good deeds. I think this attracts a certain type of person, and that's people who want to be nice.
The book, then, is am account of how Join Me developed, and what the group has done?
It's essentially the true story of how I started the cult by accident. And the early days. And the effect it had on my life and my then-girlfriend. What I found is that girls don't tend to like cult leaders.
Really? David Koresh had had all—
Yeah, I've really missed the trick with this whole cult-leader thing. I think that Koresh was in the golden era of cult leaders, and I've come in at the tail end, when there's very few girls and just a lot of admin.
I get it that your original "Join Me" ad was just sort of a joke. But did you also have the idea that you'd write about the experience?
Not really. I've got a bit of a history of doing things not knowing if they're going to go anywhere. It's only when you're down at the pub with your friends, telling stories about what you've been up to, that you start to realize it could be something. It would be a lie to say that I wasn't aware that something could happen. But if I'd gone to a publisher in the early days and said, "I'm going to put an advert in the paper, and then 6,000 people are going to call me their leader," I don't think that anyone would have believed me.
I asked that because you've had a long history as a freelancer, especially for a young guy. Tell me a bit about how you started and what you were doing up until you decided to become a cult leader.
At 13, I was really into video games. Just massively so, and so were all of my friends. And then one day at school they told us that we had to go and get work experience. Most of my friends were going off and digging ditches or cleaning gravestones or whatever. But I found out that there was a magazine in my hometown that was dedicated to video games, and I just kind of begged them to let me in for a few days, and they did. I did all the world's worst jobs, things the guys there didn't want to do. Then one of the reviewers got ill, and they let me review a game, and they liked it, so I started writing about games. Then gradually I fell out of love with writing about video games. But I liked writing, so I just continued. When I first took out that "Join Me" advert, I'd just stopped working at the BBC, where I was a comedy producer in the writing dept. And I stopped for a while because I wanted to take stock and find out where I was going, and I was doing a bit of freelance work at home, writing, and then I started a cult instead.
And now, since last year, you've got a job in development at back at the BBC.
They call it the head of development in the new comedy department, which sounds very impressive and grand but—trust me—really isn't. It's like being made head of stationary just because I've got my own pencil. There's no one beneath me.
Well, what does one do as head of comedy development?
I try to do as little as possible. I walk around with paper looking busy. Actually, I go and see comedy and work on scripts and find new talent and try and spot new people and work things up and put them with the right people and make it funnier.
Did having your cult of Joiners behind you help get the gig?
I don't think it did. It's something that my bosses I don't think were aware of, and I'm quite pleased about that. Because if you're in any sort of job interview and they ask you you're interests, when you say you run a cult—
It is an unusual resume line item. So what do the Joinees think about you having this big corporate job now?
I'm not sure that many of them know. They know that I'm the same shambling idiot who's been their so-called Leader, so I don't think that they mind at all really. They've all got jobs as well. Just being a cult leader doesn't really pay the rent anymore.
What's the actual job description? What are your responsibilities as cult leader?
At the moment it involves responding to a lot of peoples emails, a lot of sitting at a desk opening letters and putting passport pictures into a file. A lot of Joinees meet up around the world—on any weekend they're meeting at Oxford or in Edinburgh or in Brussels—so sometimes I'll set up that, and we'll all get drunk and do some kindness. Which sounds dirty.
As a television producer, it must make it easier to build an audience when you have a whole cult of people at your disposal.
That would be good. But development is one of those places where nothing ever actually gets made. But if anything does get made, yeah, I'll have an audience there.
Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com. You can buy Join Me at Amazon.com.
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