Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant send their close-minded friend, fellow podcaster and former co-worker Karl Pilkington around the world to document the Seven Wonders. On his travels, Karl visits the Great Wall Of China, the Taj Mahal in India, Petra in Jordan, Chichen Itza in Mexico, the Great Pyramids in Egypt, Christ The Redeemer In Brazil and Macchu Picchu in Peru.
Ever since they revolutionised the comedy landscape with their seminal mockumentary The Office and followed up in style with industry send-up Extras, talented co-creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have been gradually introducing the world to Karl Pilkington. First meeting at XFM radio station, the duo initially dismissed him as a dim producer who merely ‘pushed the buttons’ for them, before growing to love his unique mindset, bizarre theories and oddball ramblings, all the while slowly realising that they’d struck comic gold. Mentioning Karl in stand up, affording him small cameos in their work and peaking in the trio’s hilarious, record-breaking podcasts (which has since spawned an animated HBO cartoonisation), the next step was to give him his own show…
Part comedy travelogue, part social experiment, part expensive practical joke, An Idiot Abroad (originally titled Karl Pilkington’s Seven Wonders) doesn’t provide the non-stop hilarity or inspired back-and-forth of the podcasts, but it’s consistently amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny. Intermingling Mancunian grumbling with striking aerial shots, the show isn’t intended as an educational series – but strangely ends up as a curiously truthful travel guide and offers us a few interesting morsels of information (such as the Great Wall having been restored twice). While Gervais openly admits that the primary focus was to wring humour from Karl’s discomfort out of his comfort zone and Merchant hoped it would broaden his narrow-mind, the final product also results in an experience which is actually more relatable and honest than most ordinary documentaries.
Still, there’s little doubt that the show’s main appeal is Karl’s unusual philosophy and outlook on life. The abstract statements, the flashes of profound thinking, the deadpan observations… they’re all present and correct. Certainly, there’s never really been any question that the likeable Manc is a close-minded simpleton who views the world in a very child-like manner, but yet there’s also little doubt that he possesses an undeniably sharp comic mind. Whether commenting on local traditions or reflecting on cultural differences (at one point likening Chinese writing to “someone testing out a biro”), he’s admirably unable to offer anything other than his 100% honest thoughts, and it’s these witty, on-the-spot appraisals that are the real reason to watch.
Christ the Redeemer in Brazil? “It’s like a big pylon.” The Great Pyramids in Egypt? “It’s like a game of Jenga that’s got out of hand.” Musing on the Great Wall Of China alone produced a few golden comedy nuggets, as he was simultaneously unimpressed with its length (“It goes on for miles, but so does the M6″) and overall quality (“It’s not the Great Wall, it’s an alright wall. It’s the Alright Wall Of China.”). Cynics will claim that some of these are written in advance, but so what if they are? Here Karl consistently litters his travels with such throwaway gems that he provides further semi-concrete proof that he’s not the scripted character many suggest, while simultaneously reminding us why Ricky views him as the funniest man alive.
But the problem with An Idiot Abroad – in that there is a problem – is that it’s not the best forum for Karl Pilkington. As mentioned, he’s an unquestionably funny man whose grumpy, off-on-a-tangent grumblings are frequently entertaining, but the funniest thing about him is often Ricky and Steve’s reactions, since they’re educated friends who find him genuinely amusing and – particularly in the former’s case – endlessly fascinating. With them only popping at the start of each instalment for a quick pre-trip chat and then the odd progress-update phonecall, the usual dynamic is crucially changed, leaving Karl isolated and surrounded by foreigners who barely speak English (let alone Mancunian). The brilliant finale sees the threesome re-unite for a satisfying post-trip analysis (which will likely prove the highlight for podcast fans), but most of the time Karl’s off-the-wall comments are met with blank expressions from cultures who don’t understand him.
That said, while the novelty value wears off slightly and the premise feels a tad stretched over the course of some episodes (a 30-minute running-time may have been a better fit), there’s something that lures you back every time. Obviously, it goes without saying that this is a must-see for Pilkington fans, yet there’s also the strange threat that his experiences here might affect any future podcasts. A crucial aspect of the three-way chats has always been Karl’s general ignorance and inexperience, but now there might be the odd reversal occasionally…
Part comedy travelogue, part social experiment, part expensive practical joke, An Idiot Abroad doesn’t match the inspired hilarity of the podcasts, but it’s frequently amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny. No, it isn’t the best forum for Karl (who works better bouncing off Ricky and Steve), but he provides enough genius observations to prove worthwhile.