[16 February 2011]
I have two questions about Ricky Gervais’ podcasts with Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington: One, are they scripted, and two, is Karl for real?
I realize that these are not unanswerable questions. A few taps of a screen and I could find out everything I wanted to know abut the show and more. Furthermore, the podcast itself just might betray some of its secrets to the person who listens carefully enough. The allegedly improvised stories can be pretty elaborate and their structure a little too tight if you ask me, which suggests at least some premeditation, if not exactly a polished script. In addition, there was that time when Karl did lose it on the air—that time that he broke character, if you will. The audio of this moment is forever captured on YouTube, for those who are inclined to track that kind of thing down.
I am not so inclined and, though I admit to stumbling across the clip and giving it a listen, I actually wish I hadn’t, because the show loses some of its luster if Karl is playing a character other than himself. The truth is, those questions I have, I don’t want them answered. I’d rather not know too much about their process. Do they have production meetings? Do they rehearse? Do they give or receive notes after each broadcast? The truth is that I don’t care. The last thing I need is any extraneous information mucking up my enjoyment of one of the funniest recordings I have ever heard, which is exactly what Gervais and Co. have created. Scripts or not, acting or not, I rarely laugh as hard as I do when Ricky, Stephen and Karl sit down for a chat.
The origins of the current version of the podcast trace back to 2001 when Gervais and Merchant had a radio show on xfm and Pilkington served as the producer. The radio show became a podcast in late 2005, which was a format that enabled the trio to thrive. The show’s success encouraged Gervais to dub himself the “Podfather”, and with good reason: In 2007, the show was anointed in none other than The Guinness Book of World Records as the most downloaded podcast of all time.
Now on DVD comes HBO’s The Ricky Gervais Show: The Complete First Season, which cherry picks the best material from the podcasts and then animates it for 13, can’t-miss episodes. Years ago, I watched an amateur animation of one of their Monkey News segments on YouTube, and it was obvious then that the podcasts had the potential for a strongly visual component. The new series realizes this potential, even if it proves that the show ultimately works best in a solely auditory form.
Each episode begins by announcing that some time ago Ricky, Stephen, and Karl sat down “for a series of pointless conversations” and that “this is one of those conversations”, which pretty much sums up the show’s level of sophistication. Episode titles include “Space Monkey”, “Knob at Night”, and “Freaks”, which reinforce this level. The show bears Gervais’ name, but Karl is the star. Ricky and Stephen pepper Karl with questions like “If you could have any super power, what would it be?” or “If you could be anyone, who would it be?” If they are feeling more philosophical, they will ask him how he would improve on nature. They then take turns skewering Karl’s response, which inevitably lies somewhere between genius and madness.
To steal a line from Wild at Heart, how Karl’s mind works is God’s own mystery and, indeed, much of the show features Ricky and Stephen trying to sort out just that. A typical exchange involves Karl saying something that you can hardly believe someone would even think let alone verbalize, which is followed by Ricky refuting the point with either logic or sarcasm. For example, during the course of a conversation about technological advances, Karl says, “No one is dying anymore, right”. Ricky responds, “I think they are”. Karl: “Not as many as there should be”.
As Ricky repeatedly points out, Karl’s sense of history comes straight from The Flintstones (“It’s a well known fact that they wore like bear pants or something like that”, he says about prehistoric man), and his infatuation with primates lead you to believe that he might be closer to their species than to our own. Yet, there are times when his deranged view of the world does conform to a kind of truth (come to think of it, I never have seen a homeless Chinese person), and his mind does follow a kind of logic, albeit one that may not seem logical to the rest of the world. “The café was called ‘Tattoos’,” he says. “The fella who owned it didn’t have any tattoos, but we never saw his wife”. My initial response to a line like that is to laugh, of course, but, upon further review, it does reflect a certain nimbleness of thought that you can’t help but admire.
On the podcast, Ricky introduces Karl as a man “with a head like a fucking orange”. He softens that description a bit on the DVD, acknowledging that he has seen Karl “blossom from an idiot to an imbecile”. Believe it or not, as those who watched the recent Golden Globe Awards can attest, that is high praise from Gervais, and in Karl’s cases it is not completely unwarranted.
A few quibbles regarding consistency aside, I have no criticisms of the audio from which The Ricky Gervais Show is drawn, and most of these are neutralized by the fact that only the best three hours comprise the first season. However, the TV version leaves itself a little vulnerable in regard to the animation. For the most part, the drawings work, but there are times when I can’t help but think that less would have been more.
The renderings of Ricky, Stephen, and Karl hit the mark, as they are appropriately put-upon, jaunty, and dour, respectively. Ricky does look a little like Fred Flintstone, and the crude nature in which his head cracks back and his mouth opens wide when he cackles is endearing, in an old Saturday-morning cartoon kind of way. The rest of the illustrations, well, illustrate the stories, so, for example, when Karl talks about not wanting to donate his eyes if he dies because he wants to be able to see in the afterlife, the image is of a ghost with a cane. If the story calls for it, various characters appear, and it is endlessly amusing to see a cartoon doctor or zookeeper speaking with Karl’s voice.
The reason why I have a hard time accepting the drawings completely, though, is that there are times when Karl’s ruminations are so outlandish, so beyond the pail, so, frankly, batshit insane, that the journey from thought to speech to image ends up diluting their potency rather than enhancing it. The image of Karl baring his ass to a nudist across the way in an effort to square things up works pretty well, but a lone head in a hospital bed with nothing but wires extending from the neck spoils some of the wonderful weirdness that this idea conjures.
The other concern with The Ricky Gervais Show as a television show rather than as a podcast is that, honestly, I think the show is better enjoyed while walking around town listening to it through earbuds, rather than while sitting on your couch. The show’s stupidity—and I mean that in the most affectionate way possible—functions best when you are on the train ride home or shopping for dinner, much better than it does when you plant yourself in front of a screen and demand to be entertained. I realize that TV entertainment is often by no means high art, but am I crazy to think that the stakes are a little higher when you plan a Saturday night around a video? I guess another way to put it is that The Ricky Gervais Show is about the best snack you can buy, but I’m just not sure it’s a main course. A mid-week release? Sure. But date night? You might want to look elsewhere.
The DVD includes practically nothing by way of extras, which is just as well, because I don’t know how meta I can get with Ricky, Stephen, and Karl providing a commentary of Ricky, Stephen, and Karl commenting. There’s a storyboard version of one of the episodes, which might be interesting to people who are really, really into the animation process. What I miss the most is a feature that shouldn’t be considered “extra” at all: the “Play All” option for the episodes. Twenty-two minute shows are simply too short to gain any momentum, especially when Karl drops a theory that takes some time to truly digest (there were no worthy inventions in the 20th century? Really?). My best advice if you are going to dive into Karl’s world is that you clear out some time, kick up your feet, and gorge.