Why I Dumped Ricky Gervais for Karl Pilkington (but Am Still Seeing Stephen Merchant on the Side)

2011-11-22

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.

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.

Genius, but Not Perfect

In Series 5, when Gervais asked whether Pilkington would marry Graham, an imaginary “little gay fella” who was in love with Pilkington or have all of his family shot and killed, Pilkington actually thinks for a moment about how he could avoid having marital relations with Graham without actually hurting his (imaginary) feelings. Gervais, on the other hand, in setting up the ridiculous premise, reveals his view of “the gays” as being based on late night clubbing, wearing ass-less leather trousers, having nicely-decorated homes, and buying their lovers anklet bracelets.

In 2008, the format changed and became The Ricky Gervais Guide to…, and the three would muse for almost an hour on a specific topic, such as medicine, philosophy, and the human body. While still casual in deliver, the Guides definitely felt more like shows and less like conversations, and also occasionally used previously told anecdotes. They also felt designed to mock — a strange claim, I know, given that I just spent three years laughing at podcasts where Pilkington was being called an idiot. But I suppose the subtle difference is that in the early ones, I believed that Pilkington was just revealing his idiotic ideas through the conversations, but in the Guides he was deliberately being set up to talk about things portrayed as “over his head”.

Gervais introduced Merchant as “an award winning writer and graduate of the University of Warwick,” but Pilkington was “a man with no qualifications, very little education, but now known the world over as a shaven chimp with a head like a fucking orange.” Bullying accusations had been thrown about all through the podcast’s history, and I never really agreed, though the Guides came closest to that line. The real problem with these episodes was that they felt contrived. I listened to and enjoyed them, of course, but the rush to download them on the day of release was gone. The personal connection I had felt had now changed; I couldn’t deny that they were just entertainers, putting on shows for an audience. And in February 2010, they became a proper show when HBO premiered The Ricky Gervais Show, an animated version of selections from the podcasts. The podcasts themselves went “video” and were often used to promote other projects.

Away from the podcasts, the three were continuing their individual careers. Pilkington published Karlology in 2009; Merchant did his own radio show, a stand up tour and DVD called Hello Ladies and a few minor film roles; and Gervais starred in Ghost Town and The Invention of Lying, which he also wrote, produced and directed. Together, Merchant and Gervais wrote, produced and directed Cemetery Junction. By now, though, what was very clear was that Ricky Gervais was a Name, a powerful celebrity. In 2010, he made the Time 100 Most Influential People list. He spoke out on atheism, hosted awards show, made appeals for charities.

He also had a persona — an obnoxious cockiness that dissolved into an Everyman, a blend of someone who considered himself a genius and a guy who got lucky and wanted to make the most of it. In 2011, a row started on Twitter when Gervais posted silly photos of himself calling them his “mong” faces. When some criticised his use of the word (in Britain, it’s considered an offensive term for people with Down’s Syndrome), his initial reaction was to insult his critics for not understanding that words change, saying they should “get over it” and “are just jealous of my success” (he later said he was being “naive” and apologised). It became hard to tell who he really was and when he was playing a character.

In February 2010, a new collaboration between the three appeared in the form of Sky1’s An Idiot Abroad (shown in the US on the Science Channel). Each episode starts with Merchant and Gervais chatting to Pilkington about one of the wonders of the world before sending him off on a trip to experience it. Throughout each trip, Merchant and Gervais text or phone Pilkington to alter plans slightly (before he can get to Jordan, he is made to stop in Israel where he is “kidnapped” and receives training in dealing with terrorists) or to check on how things are going, which usually aren’t going well since the already grumpy Pilkington is subjected to extreme experiences and deliberately difficult travel conditions. In the opening, Merchant explains that “what we wanted to see was him experience other cultures, other peoples, to see if in any way we can change his outlook on the world,” but Gervais confesses that his goal is simply to make Pilkington miserable for Gervais’s own benefit: “I want him to hate it, hate every minute of it, for my own amusement. Nothing is funnier than Pilkington in a corner being poked with a stick. I am that stick.”

Promotional Still from An Idiot Abroad

What I found interesting about the show is that it solidified my growing perceptions of my three friends. We’re all aware that the goal here is good television, but even when Merchant is deliberating messing with Pilkington’s comfort levels, there seems to be a sense of genuine interest in challenging Pilkington to grow. And he does grow: despite his moaning, the new experiences obviously change him and some of his perspectives.

When I first met him, he was somewhat limited and happily so. Of course, he’s contractually obliged to take on the challenges he’s giving in An Idiot Abroad, but he does most of them with a combination of a desire not to offend (he does his best to eat a variety of foods his hosts prepare — and often kill — for him), genuine curiosity (he was amazed by how much he enjoyed meeting the different Indian holy men at the largest religious festival in the world) or an urge not to let Gervais and Merchant’s mocking affect him (they make him travel by camel instead of car, though he eventually gives up after his host’s camel breaks down and has to be transported by truck). He is bothered by the poverty sees, dazzled by the cultural differences, and actually enjoys some of his new experiences (in Series 2, currently being shown on the Science Channel, Pilkington actually has a nice, long laugh — the first time we’ve ever really seen this — at himself for failing to bungee jump and barely managing a five foot land dive on Pentecost Island, Vanuatu). And Gervais, well, he seems like a bully.

But maybe that’s just the character he’s playing. Maybe they’re all just playing roles. But they say they’re not: throughout the podcasts and again in the last episode of An Idiot Abroad, they address and deny the idea that Pilkington is a Merchant/Gervais creation, a character like David Brent or Andy Millman. I don’t believe they’re characters. I still like thinking of them as the three funny friends I used to hang out with many years ago. It’s just that I’m less keen on the cocky one. I’d happily meet up with Pilkington or Merchant for a cuppa on our own, but I couldn’t tolerate Gervais without the others being around. Like with my real friends, I enjoy being the one praising their comic genius. Much of Gervais’s work — particularly the work he and Merchant wrote together — is genius; the “Ricky Gervais” character he’s perfected, though, is not.

PopMatters