No matter what you think of Jeremy Clarkson, there’s no denying that he’s one of the most prominent entertainment figures of the modern era, across the pond or otherwise. During Clarkson’s reign as Top Gear’s co-presenter, alongside James May and Richard Hammond, the trio brought in an estimated global audience of 350 million over the course of their tenure prior to his firing. Now, “Jezza” and his chums are back for the second season of Amazon’s The Grand Tour, promising an array of tantalizing motoring exploits and even more colorful expletives.
Earlier this week, Vulture sat down with Clarkson at a hotel in downtown Manhattan to discuss why Steve Coogan’s criticism made him second-guess himself, what he thinks of his legacy — or lack thereof — and the joys of punk rock and Tom Petty.
You had a bad bout of pneumonia recently. How are you feeling? A friend of mine just had it and it wasn’t pleasant.
It’s not nice. How long were they out for?
About a month and a half.
Without wishing to be disrespectful to your friend, I’ve discovered that three people in our office had it and they were out for six weeks. I was better in five days. I think there’s a difference between the employer and the employee when it comes to pneumonia. I just wanted to be allowed to fly home. But I was fine.
What’s the normal post-pneumonia treatment these days? Yoga and green juices?
Mine was rosé wine and heavy food. I was in Majorca and I had a friend with a house. When I went out of the hospital, I went to stay with them. And then another guy came by on his really enormous boat, so I joined them and cruised around the Balearics with the pneumonia. It’s not nice, though. You can’t smoke, that’s the trouble.
Can you vape?
No, I had to give up all of those activities. Life has no meaning or purposes. No punctuation points. Do you smoke?
You need a punctuation point in the day to do something. A full stop, a comma, a semicolon before you then go and do the next thing, which was a cigarette for me. Now life’s just one long sentence of nothing.
Between your diagnosis and James and Richard’s ailments, did the higher-ups ever consider halting production for the sake of everyone’s physical and mental health?
It’s our production company, so we simply provide a show for Amazon, who then distribute it on their platform. We were more worried than I suspect they were. Those talks wouldn’t have happened with us three, but our producers had been talking to Amazon. We couldn’t have gotten away with it if two of us were in the hospital at the same time. Particularly if it was James or Richard — because they don’t matter. When all all three of us had been in the hospital, there really was no way we could stick to the schedule we dreamed up at the beginning, so it got pushed back two weeks. We still haven’t done a Christmas special or filmed it yet. Next year it can’t happen again, so we’ll catch up.
Before you were all incapacitated, you did a decent amount of filming. What did you learn from your inaugural Grand Tour season, and what did you want to fine-tune this year?
The great thing about Amazon is that they don’t interfere editorially at all. At all. You can do what you want. That being said, the BBC were equally free for most of the time — it was only in the last year it got a bit tricky. But I wouldn’t criticize the BBC for being overbearing; they’re not. Amazon is the same. It’s a very loose and free environment in which to work, which was great for us. It was the same people, same host, same crews, same everything, really. So it still feels similar to do it. We make a TV show. In the past, we gave it to the BBC. Now, we give it to Amazon. That being said, there were changes we made, a couple of things we think didn’t work. Hopefully to smooth out the creases.
I was surprised how heavily you leaned on scripted moments for comedy. They played out more like sketches than segments.
Yeah, it’s always been scripted somewhat. We once won an Emmy for Best Unscripted Program, and I sent a note to the committee saying, “I’m very sorry I can’t be there, I’m writing a script for the following week’s show.” And we’re in the unscripted department for Amazon, which always amuses me when I’m sitting up at three in the morning furiously writing the scripts for it, thinking, “Right …” [Laughs.] It’s not scripted like drama is scripted, but it’s organized, let’s put it that way. It’s planned. We’re going here and we’re going to do this. There aren’t specific words. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t. The celebrities aren’t dying anymore [for the “Celebrity Brain Crash” segment].
You could’ve had Trump on for that.
True. One of the things I’ve learned, actually, which is odd for me, is that when coming to America, keep your mouth shut about American politics.
Why is that?
It’s okay if you’re an American. I’m perfectly entitled to comment on Brexit, Theresa May, or Jeremy Corbyn. I’m entitled to have any opinion I like, and do have many. But coming over here, whatever my views might be, it’s not my job to come and talk about it. I can observe, and as soon as I get off the plane back in London, I shall have my views and I’m allowed to have them back there. But when I’m here, the line is drawn. That’s where we all are. We’ve got Brexit, you’ve got Trump.
When you were on the BBC, I was surprised by how many Americans had no idea what Top Gear was, despite it being the most-watched program in the world. Has being affiliated with a bona fide U.S. streaming service exposed you to a new fan base?
It’s a tricky one, that one. The answer is no, but we’d like it to. [Laughs.] I know Amazon would. Amazon, as you say, is a bona fide American organization and it would be better if it were better. The country that we’re least well-known in is America, without a doubt. Italy, Spain, Russia, South Africa, Australia: Everybody knows who were are. If you save up to get a satellite dish, the first thing you’d be able to get in the olden days was Top Gear. Everyone watched it. I remember once BBC’s Newsnight was in Romania, asking people why so many Romanians wanted to come live in Britain. Everyone they asked said something like, “Oh, because of Top Gear.” And then you come to America and you get nothing. Going down the coast in North Carolina, people knew who we were, but anywhere in between, not a clue. You start thinking about how we could expand into that area, but of course if we expand into that area, we would have to do a lot more monster-truck racing and tractor pulls.
What, you don’t love monster trucks?
I can’t imagine there’s too many people in the world very interested in tractor pulls. It’s really hard to get a calibration on that. There are two Americas. If you’re appealing to one, it’s very difficult to appeal to the other, so we don’t try to appeal to either. [Laughs.] We do what we want to do and see what happens.
Why do you think Americans haven’t fallen for a motoring program yet?
No idea. There are countless cookery shows and makeover shows and reality shows and shows where you go and sing and see a dancing dog. Car shows? Hardly any. It’s a weird thing. Not so much in New York City, but people everywhere else in the world have cars. It’s a huge investment for people. They like to know what it’s like, what people will think about them if they drive this car other than that car. And yet, very few shows. But Top Gear’s not really a car show. It’s a social and travel show. “I don’t know how an Audi works or how a Cadillac works” is not as relevant today in a show as “What people will say of you if you have an Audi or a Cadillac?” Look at a Corvette. If we drove Corvettes in the U.K., people would think we’ve gone mad. As great as the car may be, we just couldn’t have one. “What a terribly vulgar person!” That’s the lovely thing when I think about cars. How you can comment socially on people through the medium of what they drive.
Can you see The Grand Tour and Top Gear’s influence in popular culture? I realize there’s a general dearth of motoring shows, but in terms of the presenting style you three have honed?
Quite the reverse, actually. If anything, television is getting more schmaltzy. There’s so much hugging and weeping, which we just don’t do. We are not the U.S. Marines — we do leave the man behind, and we laugh as we leave him behind. We cackle and mock. Last night, Richard Hammond lost his passport somehow between getting on the airplane and arriving at passport control at JFK. Did we wait? No. Any other television show would be like, “Oh no, my friend Richard, let us help you look for it. We’ll wait for you and call the airplane.” Absolutely not. The bar’s open, we’re off.
We’ve just done a show for this new series in Mozambique, and I discovered it was actually possible to get bored with Richard Hammond falling off a motorcycle. First 20 times? It’s hilarious. But the next 20, and the 20 after that, it’s like, “Come on!” If somebody fell off a motorcycle in any other show, they would be like, “Oh my God, are you all right? Do you want a rest?” Even the crews were leaving Richard behind after a while. They literally couldn’t be bothered with him anymore. We were bothered when he had his really big crash, of course. We thought he was dead. But as soon as I learned he wasn’t dead, I flew home. Nothing for me to do. I’m not a doctor, I don’t have an air ambulance. I could be of no use to him at all.
You know what I mean, though? The schmaltz on the television? In Britain, we used to have a thing about a stiff upper lip. You didn’t show your emotions. We thought Americans cried. We’ve now gone down that route. Even the news reports, you can see the camera creeping in on someone whose house has blown over. [Makes crying noises.] Oh, for God’s sake. Pull yourself together.
So you’re not a fan of The Great British Bake Off?
I’ve never seen that. Is there weeping on it?
I could imagine there is some weeping and some “journeys.” People who have been on “journeys.”
If an exit interview doesn’t mention a “journey,” I’m caught off guard.
We have been on many journeys, but they’re actually journeys. Driving across Mozambique, it’s a journey. When you’re a shop assistant and you go and sing to Simon Cowell and you end up being a shop assistant afterwards, it’s not a journey. It’s a predictable outcome of being talentless.
You’re a divisive cultural figure, and I imagine you don’t care much about what people say about you. But has any criticism been genuinely beneficial?
The only time it ever happened was with Steve Coogan, who used to be a very good friend of mine. He still is, but in a weird way. Do you know him?
I like his Trip series. And his hair.
The Trip stuff is funny. He does very funny stuff in the U.K. — slightly less successful attempts to crack Hollywood, but nevertheless, he was a friend from way back. One day I open up my Sunday newspaper and he ripped me apart on the front page. This huge piece about why he thought I was not funny and he was properly attacking everything I’ve ever done. It caused me to pause for awhile and think, “What do I do, though?” There are one or two things I don’t do now as a result of that piece that I used to do in the past.
What were those things?
Tiny little things. I went and apologized to the Mexican ambassador, to put it like that. Got absolutely drunk out of my mind with him. A good day. So, not really. If 51 percent of the population is with you, you’re all right. If it’s 49, you need to start pushing back or pulling in. If you try to appeal to 100 percent of the population, you can be assured you’re going to be nobody. You’re just going to be bland. And I would hate to be bland.
When I spoke to James May last year, he said that you’d all love to film in Central Park …
Well, lucky him, because we’ve done that this season. We did a race from New York to Niagara Falls. James and Richard on public transport and me driving, and we all started in Central Park.
What is your dream location now?
I’ve been to most places in the world. There are probably six countries I haven’t been to at this point. Two of them are Zimbabwe and Iran, both of which I’d like to go to. I’m really worried about Zimbabwe, because I don’t think it’s going to survive the downfall of [Robert] Mugabe quite as well as people are imagining. A friend of mine who works a lot in Africa said to me last week, “It’s going to be a good week for Toyota.” Because the United Nations are going to have to come down. [Laughs.] That and Iran would be the two. I know I’m supposed to think of something American in your presence, but that’s the truth. The big problem we have these days is that geographically and geopolitically, anyone staging an actual “grand tour” is struggling. The whole of northern Africa is out. Most of the Middle East is out, with the exception of Jordan and possibly Iran. I wouldn’t even film in Istanbul at the moment. All of the “stans” are out.
It’s remarkable to me that you were filming in Syria and Iraq, what, six years ago?
A brief window. We were only 40 kilometers from Mosul then. We drove through Aleppo. I’ve never forgotten — James May got out of his BMW in Syria and there was a big crowd shouting at him, “Welcome to Syria, Mr. Slowly!” And I went off for a cup of coffee in this little shop and had a fantastic night there. You look at it now, and the cities are simply gone. Erased. It’s heartbreaking, really. And then we went to Jerusalem. That’s not going to be possible for the next week or two, for sure. So little of the world remains! We’ll just have to film everything in Geneva and Vancouver at this rate. There’s no crime or no war. There’s no anything! Vancouver or Geneva, there’s no graffiti. [Laughs.] Give me New York or London any day of the week. The two best cities of the world, I think.
Whenever you decide to say good-bye to presenting, have you given thought to what you’d like your legacy to be?
No. There was a hokey little motoring show on BBC Two that never made it to BBC One. It might’ve been globally massive, but it maintained the garden shed. We never wanted it to be big. We still don’t, really. We’re like drummers — we come, we make a noise, and then we die like houseflies. I can’t imagine we’re going to leave any cultural legacy of any sort. We’ve achieved nothing, done nothing, moved mankind not one inch. We’re like fluff. We’re like punk music. There was a very brief moment. The New York Dolls went, “Well, what if we?” Malcolm McLaren went, “Well, what if we?” Within three years Television came along with Marquee Moon and it was all over.
I was not expecting such a pessimistic and music-centric answer.
It’s the truth! Johnny Rotten goes on reality shows now. God knows what’s happened to the New York Dolls. Or the Ramones.
All of the Ramones are dead!
They are dead, aren’t they? [Laughs.] I don’t think we’ll leave anymore of a legacy than any other not particularly important TV show.
Well, I respectfully disagree. We’ll have to argue about this again in a few years.
It’s enjoyable. You’ve ever gone to a punk concert? I once saw the Sex Pistols — fantastic. But as we know it, they’re gone.
No punk concerts, but I saw Tom Petty a few months before he died. It was a religious experience.
I saw Tom Petty at the Royal Albert Hall about three years ago, and he brought Steve Winwood on with him. They did “Can’t Find My Way Home.” Still the nicest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. I liked Tom Petty a lot. He was my favorite of the recently dead ones. Really big fan of Tom Petty. We got there and I was thinking how I was hoping he could play four of five of his big songs. And then he plays all of his greatest hits and you think, “How many hits did he have?!”
“Oh my heavens, this one! Oh my god, this one too! And now this one!” When he brought Steve on, I thought it would be some old bluesy thing, but no, it was Blind Faith. I was over the moon. Yesterday, we had Nick Mason and Stewart Copeland on the show — Pink Floyd versus the Police, American versus Britain. They’d never met, so it was funny listening to those two talking. They’re both from massive groups and they’re both drummers, and they never met one another.
As much as I want more rock gossip, your publicist is signaling that my time’s up. Hopefully my questions didn’t bore you too much.
Not at all. You didn’t ask what my favorite car is, so for that you’re on the top of my list.
Hey, it’s not too late! What are the cool and hip cars?!
No, no, no, no, no, no.
This interview has been edited and condensed.