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A Story of Genius and Idiocy

Of course, I first came across Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant in The Office. They had met earlier in 1997 at Xfm radio, but my first introduction to the two was a few years later through their groundbreaking BBC Two show, chronicling the ups but mostly downs of the Slough branch of Wernham-Hogg. The show was different: it was a strange mix of brilliant humour and painful anticipation of horribly uncomfortable situations.

It was amazing, and I was part of it: I was in on the magic of a show that eventually led to millions of articles about it containing the word “genius”. Critics have claimed that it changed television comedy and for the ten year anniversary of The Office, the BBC highlighted its ground-breaking global impact: the show’s been remade in the US, France, Canada, Chile, Germany, Sweden and Israel.

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The Office, Special Edition

(BBC; US DVD: 22 Nov 2011; UK DVD: 24 Oct 2011)

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Extras, The Complete Series

(BBC; US DVD: 15 Jan 2008; UK DVD: 3 Nov 2008)

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An Idiot Abroad

(Sky1; US DVD: 10 Jan 2012; UK DVD: 15 Nov 2010)

Of course, it wasn’t really Gervais and Merchant I was meeting, it was David Brent and the Oggmonster, characters they created as writers/directors of the series. They introduced their next incarnations, Andy Millman and Darren Lamb, in Extras in July 2005. Extras was also different than other television programs: it showed a tender friendship between a man and a woman, and it gave realistic and insightful glimpses into the acting world and the celebrity machine.

But it wasn’t until later that year, on 5 December, when I felt I was really meeting Gervais and Merchant—them for real, not characters they created—but the men themselves, when the Guardian Unlimited invited me to download the first Ricky Gervais Show podcast. The original podcasts featured Gervais and Merchant having chats with Karl Pilkington, who had been the producer of their radio show. The initial 12 podcasts were essentially just the three lads shooting the breeze, talking about Pilkington’s unfounded beliefs and ridiculous gaps in knowledge.

They were hilarious. People often say this about funny stuff even when it’s not true, but they literally made me laugh aloud over and over—as they did Gervais, whose cackle seemed genuine and infectious. The hours of conversation would accompany me on long drives; when I felt down, I could immediately lose my blues by getting lost in Pilkington’s logic and Gervais and Merchant’s silliness. They became like my friends, and I was part of their gang.

This gang grew; the podcast averaged 261,670 downloads a week during its first month and was eventually awarded a Guinness World Record as the most downloaded podcast. Despite its popularity, there was something intimate about the podcasts: they didn’t feel like performances but real conversations that I was listening to (and occasionally participating in, when I would call out Pilkington’s idiocy or laugh aloud with the three of them). The fact that I often listened to them through my iPod while riding on the bus helped seal our bond—it was like starting my work day with inside jokes with my friends on an otherwise crowded, dreary commute.

Gervais was the draw of the podcasts—it was his name in the title as it had been mostly his name and pictures in promotion and reviews of The Office and Extras. I assumed this was primarily because his on-air roles in both shows were bigger than Merchant’s and because Gervais was also becoming more famous for his other work. By 2006, he had released three Flanimals children’s books, completed his Animals and Politics standup tours, was all over the television (including as a guest and writer on The Simpsons), and had had a part in the Hollywood film Night at the Museum. While his name might have been the lure of the podcasts, it was Pilkington who was the real star;  Gervais and Merchant were there to challenge Pilkington and get him to talk.

Pilkington talks about his childhood and the characters he met on his estate (such as the “mental homeless” woman who pushed around a pram containing a bucket with a painted face on it), his ideas about the natural world (including a section called “Monkey News” where Pilkingtonreports on monkey-related stories he read about somewhere on the web—he has no details because the facts don’t matter), and his general philosophies on life (we should be born as adults and age backwards because then we’ll die as babies and won’t understand we’re going to die). He has an active imagination, dreaming up entire life stories for the ants and wasps he watches, but cannot seem to grasp abstract concepts (he can’t understand the phrase “A stitch in time saves nine” because it’s about sewing). He acknowledges that his education and world experience are limited, but he’s okay with this because “knowledge is hassle.” He’s also funny and quick and comes out with the strangest ideas and theories.

Pilkington almost immediately became a cult figure, an Internet sensation. In 2006, the website Pilkipedia was created because “the wisdom of Pilkington must be collected; collected for history, for prosperity, for laughs. We quickly realised the depths of this man’s knowledge would not fit within a normal website, we needed an encyclopaedia to house such wisdom,” and the site has been running since. Fans started creating Pilkington memorabilia, dance songs based on loops of his quotes, animated versions of “Monkey News.” I was able to download some of the original Xfm radio shows and was surprised to hear that a few of the stories shared on the podcasts weren’t new to Gervais and Merchant, Pilkington had already told them on the radio. That stung a little—I had believed Gervais when he seemed surprised or shocked, but I was willing to forgive him because after all, even after multiple listens, I was still joyfully surprised and shocked by the things Pilkington said.

Then, of course, as often is the case, money got involved. The podcasts became audiobooks and I had to pay to get them. Ultimately, I didn’t mind; if the four of us were down the pub hanging out, I’d have definitely sprung for a round or two, so what was a couple quid for an hour of entertainment? Then books appeared: the transcripts of the podcasts with some extras were released as The World of Karl Pilkington (or as it says on the cover, Ricky Gervais Presents The World of Karl Pilkington) in 2006 and Happyslapped by a Jellyfish in 2008. When the Pilkington cult began, I remember I thought how amazing Gervais had been for giving this “little bald Manc” such a chance at fame and fortune, but after more series and specials of the podcast, it was clear Pilkington was the essence of the show; without him, it wouldn’t have worked.

And to be honest, I was beginning to find Gervais annoying. What had begun as his leading Pilkington turned to goading, and many times Merchant actually had to tell Gervais to shut up and stop mocking so that Pilkington could actually be heard. Additionally, Gervais seemed obsessed with getting Pilkington to talk about homosexuality in a way that I felt said more about Gervais’s anxieties than Pilkington’s. He was always delivering hypothetical situations to Pilkington about gay men, as if to get Pilkington to say something outrageously homophobic that Gervais could mock. However, Gervais’s comments were the ones that bordered on offensive and Pilkington’s responses, though uncomfortable, were oddly thoughtful.

Christine Brandel was born in the American Midwest but came to life in England's East Midlands. She is an educator and a writer. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in literary journals on both sides of the Atlantic, and she was a columnist for the arts and literature magazine, Incorporating Writing. She rants and raves through her character Agatha Whitt-Wellington (Miss) on her blog, Everyone Needs an Algonquin.

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