What is it?
An Idiot Abroad (2010-2013) is Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s TV show starring their friend and former radio producer Karl Pilkington. Pilkington is not an actor or comedian but is nevertheless found (somewhat unwillingly) hosting a travel show. The series thrives on Pilkington’s unintentionally hilarious and unique outlook on life. The show ran three seasons, totaling twenty episodes. Each episode is either 45 minutes or an hour, depending on the season.
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“I really can’t believe what a state the Pyramids are in. I thought they had flat, rendered sides, but when you get up close, you see how they are just giant boulders balanced on top of each other, like a massive game of Jenga that has got out of hand.”
It’s no surprise that when The Office creators Gervais and Merchant discovered what a humor goldmine their Xfm producer Karl Pilkington was, they wanted to poke him with a stick to see what hilarity came out of their metaphorical comedy pinata. And send a film crew with him, of course. The question was what stick to poke him with. How do you get the best reaction out of someone whose idea of a big vacation is not even leaving England? Send him around the world, of course.
At the risk of turning him worldly and unfunny (a risk we seem to be safe from, as the second season of his next show The Moaning of Life has just come out), Gervais and Merchant send Karl to China to walk the Great Wall (“I always have a problem liking things that I’m told I should like. This has been the problem with most of the Wonders I have seen so far. The fact that this one is called the ‘Great’ Wall of China annoys me. I’ll decide if it’s great or not. It might end up being the ‘All Right Wall of China’ to me.”), India to join the Kumbh Mela Festival (“I’d seen footage of Gandhi surrounded like this and always thought it was because he was very popular, but now I wonder if it was just because he had a camera crew with him.”), Jordan to visit Petra (“I’d rather live in a cave with a view of a palace than live in a palace with a view of a cave.”), Mexico for Easter (the only country Karl seems to actually enjoy!), Egypt to see the Pyramids (“Shitty nappy whizzing through the air, you don’t see that in the brochures.”), Brazil to see Christ the Redeemer (“I just think of the people who live in Rio. They’ve got that there every day when they leave the house, they see it. Ugh it’s there again, sick of seeing it, it’s like a pylon to them, that.”), and Peru to see Machu Picchu and go camping in the forest (“Imagine being a stick insect, walking about. You’d be forever going, ‘Is that whats-his-name?’ And you’d have to walk all the way up to the twig and you’d go, ‘Oh, it’s just another bloody twig again.’ It doesn’t work. ‘She looks nice. I’m going over there. Alright love? Oh, it’s just a stick.’ It’s hard! It’s a hard life to be a stick insect.”)
Pilkington is not told ahead of time what is in store for him. Occasionally, on his adventures he receives stressful phone calls from Gervais, outlining the next step of the trip. It’s usually something Karl dreads. Gervais believes that the real comedy comes from winding him up, but if you look at The Moaning of Life, the TV show Pilkington did after An Idiot Abroad, one without Gervais and where Karl gets to call his own shots, his own warped sense of philosophy is funny enough and perhaps even funnier than seeing Karl bullied and backed into a corner in a distant land.
What’s the point in this program being in HD? It’s a waste of time being in colour. It’s giving me a headache.
Season 2 is almost exactly the same, but the episodes are named after adventures, rather than countries. This season sees Karl on a desert island in the South Pacific (“I say happiness is like having a cake. If you have a cake every day, you get sick of that cake. If you’re happy all the time, you get sick of being happy.”), crossing Russia in the Trans-Siberian Express train and getting in a G-force Centrifuge (“Have I ever done anything like this before? What, gone in a tumble dryer?”), swimming with dolphins in Thailand (“People say dolphins are intelligent and that, but they’ve never done anything that have blown me away. They say I’m a div and dolphins are intelligent…It just baffles me.”), whale watching in the ocean (“That’s the problem with eating whale when you think about it. It’s not like a chicken where you can just give the bones to a cat or stick it in the bin. You’ve got a big massive bone about the size of a Ford Fiesta. Everyone knows what you’ve had for your tea. It’s out in the garden.”), communing with gorillas in Africa (“I came face-to-face with a gorilla which was quite good, but it was a 10-hour trek in bad weather, up hills, covered in mud, with mosquitoes everywhere, and when we got there the gorilla’s just sat there doing nowt.”), traveling along Route 66 in America (“She’s going, ‘Are you having fun now?’ Eh, no I’m not. Or is it just an American thing? Do they have fun? The word fun and all, it’s almost as if you’re going around, ‘Are you having some fun?’ Er, no I rather not, actually. I don’t want fun. It’s a word I just don’t use.”), and Sumo wrestling and climbing Mount Fuji in Japan (“It’s not even a skill that I want to learn, really, Sumo. What training do they have to do? It’s just pure… it’s just eating innit? That’s the workout. It’s just something for fat people to do, which is good, ’cause fat people haven’t got many sports, you know. I suppose it gets them off their ass. I just don’t want to be under it.”).
I don’t know if it’s changed me that much, really. When I go home I still like a biscuit and a cup of tea. Cup of tea, and you know, dunking a biscuit, I’m well happy. And that’s the right way to be, isn’t it? ‘Cuz you can be into traveling, but the world’s only so big, isn’t it? So eventually you’re gonna run out of places to visit. Whereas biscuits, there’s loads of them.
Season 3, although the episodes are longer, the season is shorter, with just three episodes. This season is very different from the first two. Instead of relying on Pilkington to say funny things in response to harrowing situations, Gervais and Merchant give Karl a traveling companion–film star Warwick Davis. This is partly to broaden his mind, like the traveling, as Pilkington has a rather un-PC way of looking at the world–His favorite book is a pamphlet called Freaks–but mostly it’s just to wind up him. They don’t really get along that well on this trip through Venice, Mumbai, and Chengdu.
Karl [on the phone with Ricky Gervais]: You should see the crowds here when Warwick was walking down the street. It’s the same thing. People just like seeing little oddities in life.
Ricky: Sorry, you’re saying this in front of him?
Warwick: I’m standing right next to him, Ricky.
Karl: That’s what humans do: We evolve. We learn to stand up. We learn to light fire. We learn to say “What is THAT?”
There are few programs on television as funny as An Idiot Abroad, and it’s not because Pilkington is an idiot. In fact, his views are the offbeat ideas that many people probably feel but won’t express or even dredge up from their subconscious. And several of his bizarre ideas, like a watch that ticks down to your death day, have actually been invented. However, there is an underlying exploitative factor, especially in season 3, that might make you uncomfortable, because you do feel bad for Karl being dragged around the world against his will (partly anyway). The Moaning of Life is a remedy for that, with all the funny comments and beautiful destination with none of the bullying.
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