Armchair travelers who find most travel shows a bit too slow — you know, earnest host visits exotic destination and waxes rhapsodic about the major landmarks — are about to get the chance to pick up the pace a bit.
Premiering Aug. 9 on Hulu.com, “Up to Speed” is part travelogue, part performance art and wholly unlike any other travel show out there. Think Mork and Monty Python take Manhattan — and five other destinations — and you begin to get the idea.
The show is a collaboration between Richard Linklater, director of “Dazed and Confused,” “Waking Life” and “School of Rock,” and Timothy “Speed” Levitch, a professional tour guide (“kind of,” he says) best known for his philosophical ramblings, thrift-store fashion sense and unique takes on New York attractions.
“It’s a magical history tour; it’s a theater piece,” said Levitch, who serves as the show’s hyperactive and metaphor-mixing host. “It’s a mix, a big salad — and the bigger the salad, the better.”
It’s also a rebuttal of sorts to what Levitch sees as the overly programmed focus that defines the mainstream tour industry, an industry he learned about firsthand as a guide for Big Apple and Gray Line Tours in New York in the 1990s.
“When you work in [the industry], you learn it’s like high school,” he told NBC News. “A lot of the popular and famous monuments are actually quite vapid. It’s the dweebs and wallflowers off in the corner that often have the most interesting things to say.”
For Levitch, those dweebs and wallflowers include such “monumentally ignored monuments” as a gold fire hydrant in San Francisco that tells the story of the 1906 earthquake and a metal doorknob that waxes nostalgic for Chicago’s bohemian history.
Which is not to say he shuns more traditional monuments, but rather, that he appraises them through a, shall we say, Levitchian lens. The Statue of Liberty? For Levitch, she’s not just a beacon of freedom; she’s “the girlfriend of democracy” and “225 tons of egalitarian womanhood” that speaks to issues of immigration, national pride and its creator’s feelings about his mother.
These and other historical tidbits are delivered along with voiceovers by inanimate objects, JibJab-style animations and ruminations about synchronicity, randomness and the need to break free of the shackles of linear structure. Add in Levitch’s unique delivery — think Richard Simmons’ voice in Woody Allen’s body — and you can see why Andy Forssell, Hulu’s senior vice president of content, believes the show has “redefined the genre.”
The Travel Channel, it is not.
Nor is it necessarily going to be everybody’s cup of over-caffeinated tea. In one episode, in fact, a couple on a New York tour bails out after Levitch encourages his charges to forgo an official itinerary in favor of letting “arbitrary be our copilot and purposeless our destination.”
That approach encapsulates both the tours and Levitch himself, who proudly calls himself a flaneur, a French term that Webster’s defines as “a person who strolls about idly, as along the boulevards; an idler.”
“It’s the aimless wandering with the ‘destination’ of savoring your surroundings,” Levitch told NBC News. “It’s a pretty good job to have if you’re going to have one.”
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.
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