Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

It’s 3 p.m., let’s watch the old Tom Waits clip that maybe inspired Heath Ledger’s Joker

Illustration for article titled It’s 3 p.m., let’s watch the old Tom Waits clip that maybe inspired Heath Ledger’s Joker

It’s 3 p.m.! Let The A.V. Club briefly make use of the waning hours of your productivity with some pop culture ephemera pulled from the depths of YouTube.


The Dark Knight celebrated its 10th anniversary this week, bringing discussions of the film back into the mainstream (not that they ever really left). That includes one longstanding internet theory—that singer Tom Waits inspired Heath Ledger’s iconic performance as the Joker. More specifically, the theory asserts that one 1979 Waits interview on the Australian talk show The Don Lane Show gave Ledger inspiration for the Joker’s voice. And if that sounds a bit random, the similarities in the video are pretty uncanny:

Waits wanders into the interview hunched over and chain smoking (a good portion of the interview is just about getting Waits an ashtray). The singer could generously be described as “out of it,” although Lane—an American-born comedian who found success on Australian TV—handles the bizarre conversation like a champ. And there’s no doubt that Waits’ gravely voice and unhurried mannerisms seem, in retrospect, very “Joker-esque.”

There’s no real hard evidence for the theory, but it’s been a popular one ever since The Dark Knight premiered and the interview was unearthed shortly afterwards. That Ledger was Australian lends credence to the idea that he might have seen this particular interview at some point in his life. On the other hand, Ledger was born the year the interview took place and it was almost 30 years old when The Dark Knight was filming, which makes that idea slightly less plausible. Of course, one could argue that it was Waits in general, rather than this specific interview, that inspired Ledger. But while other Waits interviews were often eccentric and showcased his uniquely gruff speaking voice, most weren’t quite as Joker-esque as the Don Lane Show interview.

Given that Ledger died before The Dark Knight premiered, the actor didn’t have a chance to answer questions about what specifically inspired his performance. But a clip from the documentary Too Young To Die: Heath Ledger shows Ledger’s father flipping through the journal his son kept while prepping for the role. In addition to Ledger’s handwritten notes, the journal also features photos of playing cards, comic book panels, clowns, hyenas, and—most frequently—images of Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange.

So at the very least it’s clear that Ledger drew inspiration for his Joker from a whole bunch of different sources, rather than just one specific interview. But given that Ledger was a big music fan (he had a whole side career as a music video director), it’s not impossible that Waits was at least one of those inspiration points. Adding one more layer to this whole thing: Waits actually had a role in Ledger’s final film, Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus.

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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.