Clayton Jacobson built a career in music videos, TVCs and short films before finding himself in the spotlight with his first feature film Kenny. He tells Simon de Bruyn what it was like for him to step into the final frontier of television, for his new comedy travel show Kenny’s World.

Why did you decide to venture down this path and create Kenny’s World?
When we finished [the theatrical run of] Kenny we had a lot of people asking if we’d do a sequel and we’d make a lot of jokes about it. But the idea for a TV show had already come from one of the producers we were working with, Rohan Timlock, before we even made it into a feature. I was in Japan with him at the time doing a Japanese car commercial, and we were laughing about the toilets that we were coming across, and he suggested it would be great to take Kenny around the world. And so before we even had a feature film we were toying with the idea of doing a TV series.

When the film did well we decided to jump aboard this TV series idea because it is actually different to the film; it picks up where the film left off; it doesn’t compete with the film. And it plays on the whole thing of Kenny being a fish out of water, but also being dragged along in the wake of his own curiosity of a world he knows really well, the world of sanitation.

I imagine you were keen to make sure it was different enough from what you had already done with the character of Kenny.
It’s a strange one, because we feel like we know the character of Kenny so well. Not just because we made the film but because Shane and I spent so long with [the character of] Kenny on the road, promoting the film – he’s a character we know inside out. And to be fair, he’s based heavily on our own uncle and father, so it was less about wanting to develop the character and more about seeing how Kenny would react to the world around him. I was more fascinated about how well an Aussie character like Kenny would be received around the globe.

The result of this idea has turned out to be an interesting hybrid of a travel show and a comedy with some nice character moments. Was this a hard balance to maintain?
Well it’s a hybrid: part information, part entertainment, park documentary, part mockumentary and part travel show. But the thing hinging it all together, for me what Kenny is all about, is connection. It’s just a personal take I have on life, but we seem to be living such chaotic sort of lives, and it’s very rare now that people know everyone in their street. When I grew up I knew just about everyone in the street and it was not uncommon to have people drop in on you unannounced. Nowadays that very rarely happens.

We’re living very busy and isolated lives and I think that Kenny brings us back to those old fashion values of connecting with people, and a love of humanity that has been eroded a bit post September 11. Stranger fear is such a well worn media push over the last few years, and my personal opinion is that the reason Kenny connects with people is that there is something old fashioned about him, and it is just like a wide-eyed child walking into a new environment and saying “show me to the candy, this is fantastic, I want to meet some people and see what this world has to offer”.

But that’s also a delicate balance – that wide-eyed curiosity without being patronising to people who are like that.
Exactly. That was the thing that I like about the character and in terms of getting it up and running. We heavily researched it, we spent months and months researching it, and that was an incredibly exhausting process. The difficult thing with Kenny as a TV show is if you have too much travel it starts to become a bit packed, and if you have too much information it starts to feel corporate. If you have too much heart it starts to be worn on its sleeve and if you have too much comedy it starts to trivialise the other elements. So Kenny’s World had to be this juggling act between information, heart and humour, and I got the editors on the show to continually remember the mantra of the show, that you have to have an even balance, and no one element can override the other, otherwise it starts to fall over on its head.

You mentioned the heavy research process. Can you expand on this?
The TV series was very heavily researched, so first and foremost, we had to find as many interesting and informative stories with as much colour and variation as we could find around the world. Of course there were all kinds of logistics that had to be taken into account as well, the main one being that we only had a very short window to shoot all of this. I think we had about 60 days to film in 16 or 17 countries, and I think we did about 45 flights, so we were averaging two to three days in each country we went to. So one of our aims was to make sure the story covered enough countries to give a sense of diversity, and to cover enough sanitation stories so it didn’t feel like it was just Kenny walking in and out of toilets, which was never our interest. It had to be more about the connections Kenny makes with people.

So we heavily researched it, then we sat down and wrote all the scripts for the entire series. The difficult thing about Kenny’s World, unlike a Getaway style program where you could ring up a hotel and say “look we want to come over and promote your hotel” is they’re welcomed with open arms and given free rooms. It’s a little different when you say “we’d like to come over and talk to you about toilets”. You don’t get met with the same enthusiasm.

So one of the problems with writing the script was that often when we got to where we were heading, the realities of the research were not always as we’d been told, they’d either been amped up more than the reality, or the reverse. So the bottom line was that we always treated every aspect of the show as a guide to the next step of the journey, meaning that is was heavily researched but we were prepared to discover new realities when we got to the location. 

It’s an intriguing concept, this mix of comedy in a travel show format, but scripted. How much room was there for improvisation?
I love improvisation but this is one of the great misconceptions about film and TV shows – that it’s all just improv. You can’t just rock up with a camera and an actor and say “please provide me with some magic”. Even a football match has well and truly got a game-plan; you don’t just go out there and grab for the ball, there’s a process to it, and that’s very much the case with Kenny’s World. The biggest role that I see myself having in creating the film and the TV series, and in a way having you asking this question suggests we were getting it right, is manufacturing a feeling of spontaneity.

And that’s immensely difficult.
It’s actually immensely entertaining and rewarding; it’s the thing that gets me most excited about working on Kenny. I’m a huge fan of the sort of fly on the wall documentaries I grew up watching and seeing in film school – there’s an energy about that feeling that almost anything could happen, and of course reality TV is all about this, and we’re swamped with it.

One of the things I always felt about mockumentaries was it always seemed odd that there was this insistence of constantly mugging and winking to the camera, to let you know it was all an elaborate joke. I always felt that the mockumentary can be just as emotive as a drama. So from the outset that’s what I was trying to do with the film, create that feeling of manufactured spontaneity and have audiences fall in love with the character and really believe that it is real when in fact it’s just a mock style.

Kenny’s World airs on Network Ten on Wednesdays at 8pm.

To read the second part, click here.

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