Comedian James Veitch spent two years responding to spam emails, turning something that most would consider an annoyance into both a TED talk (the fastest one to reach 2m views) and a book, Dot Con. We caught up with him to chat about going viral, what makes a "good" spam email, and his favourite exchange with a spammer.
Your Ted Talk now has over 10m views. How did it feel as that video was going viral?
Going viral essentially amounts to your friends texting you telling you that you’ve gone viral. And then you think about everyone who has wronged you in the past and how once they see you’ve gone viral they’ll definitely regret wronging you.
Of all the many spam emails you received before responding to your first one, what made you not hit delete again?
It was an email, received first thing in the morning, from my friend Alex (unexpected trip, mugging) that sowed the seeds of what’s become Dot Con. It didn’t take me long to realise it wasn’t Alex (Western Union, alarm bells) and, I reasoned, this gave me the upper hand. I was sitting up in bed now, finger poised over DELETE on my iPhone when this question came quite unbidden: ‘What would happen if I replied?’
The marooned friend is one of the best known scams, principally because it’s the one that dodges the spam filter most often. It comes from someone you know but, often, only tangentially. It’s since become – hands down – one of my favourite scams. The scammer is pretending to be someone whom you know; they don’t know how you know them, though, which means you can just make it up as you go along.
I pecked out a reply.
‘Alex, but how on earth did this happen?’
And the game was afoot.
The correspondence lasted a day and forms the first chapter of Dot Con. In fact that one reply spawned a book and an Edinburgh Show; I had so much fun that it got me thinking: what would happen if I began replying to every scam email I received? And that’s what I’ve been doing for the past four years... on your behalf.
What’s the worst kind of spam email?
Probably the ones with Winnie Mandela. What a card! She’s still emailing me now. Old Winnie!
And the ones like the first one; the ones pretending to come from a friend. Because they’re claiming to be someone you know but don’t know what capacity you know them in, you can say anything you want to. You could be their doctor, their dentist, their flying instructor; and they must agree. It’s rather like an improv game where you must say ‘yes,’ to everything. Some of the best (and worst depending on whose side you’re on) scams come from this; they’re also the ones most likely to make it through your spam filter since, generally, they come from someone you know who has had their email account broken into.
If you had to write a spam email, what would your subject line be?
“I’m 100% LEGIT marooned in the Philippines”
Do people now send you a) fake spam or b) their spam to deal with?
Both. Fake spam is funny because it’s always so obvious to me that that’s what it is. And everyone forwards me their spam saying “One for you mate.” I made the mistake of printing my email address in the book so there’s that too.
Your first solo show debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Would you recommend an up and coming comedian do the same?
Do exactly the same thing as me. Don’t deviate from my path. Go up to Edinburgh and spend your days flyering and flirting with the venue staff assuming there will be zero repercussions.
What can we expect from your Soho Theatre show?
A series of incredibly strong “bits” bolstered by a premise that the Scotsman labelled as “completely pointless.” There will be ducks. I think you’ll have a fucking good time tbh. And it’s only an hour so you prob will be able to get through it without dying for a wee. This is a good show. I’ve timed my projections just right and I’ve created a “dramatic arc” that you’ll only realise four days after watching the show and then you’ll be walking down the street and you’ll stop as the twist reveals itself to you and you’ll whisper to yourself “jesus christ, fucking Veitch legend,” and then you’ll get on with the rest of your day. This may or may not happen.