“Nothing is funnier than Karl in a corner, being poked by a stick. I am that stick.”
Every episode of An Idiot Abroad opens with this quote from Ricky Gervais. And that’s exactly what happens. For one hour, every Saturday night at 10pm on the Discovery Science channel, Gervais and his producing partner Stephen Merchant metaphorically poke a man with a stick.
Gervais and Merchant have made a career out of awkward, uncomfortable, often mean-spirited (not in a bad way!) humor with The Office and Extras. But with An Idiot Abroad, they’ve managed to pull off the impossible: reality television filled with laugh-out-loud moments. Travel shows are all over cable these days, and it is certainly not a new form of television. People around the world take comfort in watching travel shows, seeing all of the beautiful places they may one day go. Everyone wants to explore the world. That is, everyone except Karl Pilkington. And that’s what makes An Idiot Abroad the best comedy on television.
Karl Pilkington is annoyed. By everything. For those who don’t know who Pilkington is, he started off as Grevais and Merchant’s radio producer, but the two quickly became fascinated with his odd rationale, annoyed disposition and somewhat simple mind. Pilkington was introduced to the world on The Ricky Gervais Show podcast, where listeners were treated to monkey news (lies), scientific views (nonsense) and readings from Karl’s diary (drivel). After the podcast, Karl wrote three books; The World of Karl Pilkington, Happyslapped by a Jellyfish and Karlology. Happyslapped is the closest to what would become An Idiot Abroad as it documents his vacations with diary entries. If you don’t own this book, you should stop reading this immediately and buy it. The reader learns that it doesn’t matter where he is, Karl is distressed; either by crowds, lack of crowds, insects, driving, walking, beaches, snow, anything. So the obvious progression would be to have him host a travel show.
Throughout the eight episode run of An Idiot Abroad (all eight have aired on SkyOne in England, and three have aired so far on The Science Channel), Karl Pilkington visits the seven wonders of the world. Certainly no surprise for a travel show to document the most famous locations in the world. Also unsurprising is that Karl is miserable the whole time. What is shocking about this show, however, is that the joke never gets old. Karl Pilkington is so damn watchable. And while Gervais spends every episode laughing at Karl’s misery, as a viewer you don’t have to. Yes, it is always funny to watch a grown man on a camel talking about his squashed testicles or getting beamed in the face with colored powder, but Pilkington does something no other travel host has done before: he’s honest. Unapologetically, brutally honest. Instead of sugarcoating every new experience he has, Karl lets us know what’s on his mind every step of the way. The good, the bad and the disgusted.
So why do we want to watch someone be annoyed for an hour a week? What makes this such fantastic television? Because deep down, we’re all Karl Pilkington. We are all more comfortable with what we know. Pilkington just has the lack of social graces that make it hilarious.
“It’s not a great wall, it’s an all right wall.” This is Karl’s not so insightful insight into one of the most impressive manmade sights in the world: The Great Wall of China. In the first episode of the show, Karl goes to China. Here, he witnesses the different culinary offerings of China (he seems particularly disturbed by the toad), goes to a Kung Fu Training camp (annoyed that he has to wake up so early) and gets a traditional Chinese massage (where he is visibly uncomfortable by the use of fire). But the thing is, Karl isn’t wrong. It must be incredibly jarring to be thrown into a new culture, especially when you didn’t want to go in the first place. As someone who doesn’t live in China, I would be kind of weirded out too (not that I don’t love traveling). And you get the sense while watching the show that deep down, Karl doesn’t hate it either. He is just a man with no filter. Pikington only has two emotions: annoyed and less annoyed. He embodies everyone’s sullen uncle during a family vacation. Nothing is good enough, interesting enough or familiar enough to be truly enjoyed. But, like your uncle, you still love him.
But the show is not just Karl sulking about in foreign lands. He occasionally (albeit rarely) gets jazzed about his upcoming tasks. Despite his disinterest in all things religion, Karl gets excited to go to the Indian holiday Holi Day. Not for the cultural experience, or the chance to witness first hand one of the most important religious festivals in the world, but to stare at an elephant man and see a Baba who has had his hand raised in the air for 12 years. He doesn’t make fun of these men, he’s just really, truly fascinated by them. Yet another aspect of this travel show that sets it apart from all the rest: instead of trying to sell the audience on how amazing every foreign land is, or how significant a moment can be, Pilkington is really just looking for things that he finds interesting, and to hell with the viewer.
He likes “freaks”, a fact well documented on The Ricky Gervais Show. So when given the opportunity to see some in person, Pilkington gets noticeably excited. Unfortunately, the trip is marred by a visit to the Taj Mahal, where he complains about the crowds and is confused by why it was built in the first place. After learning that it was built as a mausoleum by an emperor for his deceased wife, Karl assumes that “he must have felt really guilty about something, or he would have paid more attention to her when she was knocking about.” Has a more honest theory ever been said on a travel show?
Gervais and Merchant don’t rely on Pilkington to be bitter and disagreeable enough on his own, so they are constantly giving him tasks to make the experience as distressing as possible, much to the audiences’ delight. On his way to Jordan, Karl is forced to stop in Israel, which concerns him as “you never hear a light hearted story comin’ out of here, only that it’s going off again.” Minutes after arriving in Israel, Karl is forcibly kidnapped by a group specializing in extreme combat training. All set up by Merchant, of course, but you can’t help laughing at the absurdity of Karl simply complaining about his back while being thrown into a van. And instead of chartering him a plane from Israel to Jordan, like most travel shows would do, Gervais makes Karl cross the border between Israel and Palestine, one of the most volatile places in the world. But Karl was least impressed by the Petra in Jordan, a city with rock cut architecture. He figures it would be better to live in a cave on the opposite side of the roadway, so at least you’d have a good view.
At one point in the show, Gervais is frank with Karl over the phone. “This isn’t for your amusement, this is for my amusement. Mine and the viewers. You are my gift to the world.” And what a bizarre, fascinating, hilarious gift it is. If you’d like to plan your next international vacation, I would suggest the Travel Channel. If you are looking for an uncomfortable comedy to tide you over while waiting for the next season of Louie, then set your DVR for the Science Channel every Saturday night.
Joey Slamon lives in Los Angeles where she watches lots of television and produces this show.