TV REVIEW: Ricky Gervais' 'An Idiot Abroad' Is a Constantly Hilarious Practical Joke
Jan. 22, 10 p.m. (Science Channel)
Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant
At times, it’s nearly impossible not to fall apart laughing, writes Tim Goodman.
For a lot of people, the next two sentences will be hysterically funny: Christ the Redeemer. And Karl Pilkington. If that reads like Latin to you, then it’s time to get acquainted with Ricky Gervais (he you should know from, say, all the headlines lately), Stephen Merchant (writer, producer and co-hort of Gervais for The Office and Extras) and, lastly, Pilkington. He’s a friend of theirs who got enormous attention during Gervais’ often brilliant, completely rambling podcasts.
Before anyone was really thinking about the power of the podcasts – and even after they sort of came and went out of fashion – Gervais and company redefined the comic possibilities of having three people sit in a room with microphones and talk. (The original 12 podcasts are what HBO has turned into The Ricky Gervais Show). The genius in all of this was the accidental discovery of laconic Karl Pilkington, described by Gervais thusly: “He is a round headed, chimp-like man; moron; buffoon.” Or by Merchant like this: “We often describe him as some kind of real life Homer Simpson.”
But they love him. Truly they do. But they also make fun of him ceaselessly. And two out of every three things Pilkington says ends up making Gervais and Merchant fall out in squeals of laughter. That’s because there is no one more deadpan than Pilkington. He says things that no one else would consider saying or, in fact, consider.
Is he really that dense? Is he a brilliant comedian? Is he a misunderstood visionary? Parts of all three, no doubt. But he never, ever disappoints.
So, about the notion of Christ the Redeemer and Pilkington. Or Pilkington and the Great Wall of China. Or the Great Pyramids and Pilkington. See, Gervais and Merchant thought it would be a fantastic idea to send Pilkington to see the Seven Wonders of the World. Just the thought of this made them both laugh, and still does, even after the series they created from that adventure, An Idiot Abroad, aired last year in England. (It starts Saturday on Discovery’s Science Channel at 10 p.m.)
Merchant said he believes that travel broadens the mind and his hope was that Pilkington could really learn from it.
“I wanted him to hate it,” Gervais says.
Like any good Englishman, Pilkington doesn’t like to get out of his comfort zone, Merchant said. So this social experiment was ideal. “This is one of the most expensive practical jokes I’ve ever done,” Gervais said.
When they tell Pilkington of the idea, he reluctantly goes along with it. They show him a picture of the Great Pyramids and he says that in his neighborhood, the authorities would have none of it. “Get that down, it’s a death trap.” And he’s not too keen on kicking off the series by heading to China. Why? Well, they do everything different there, Pilkington says. “Chicken. Why is it orange in Chinatown? They eat anything. Octopus. Toad.”
Next thing you know, Pilkington is on a plane. And when he gets off, he’s disoriented. “I don’t think I’ve been this lost. Not even in Wales.”
An Idiot Abroad is ridiculously funny and even when it’s clear that Gervais and Merchant – pulling the strings back home in England and communicating with Pilkington via cell phone – are having a cruel laugh, it’s nearly impossible not to fall apart laughing at poor Pilkington’s fate. The duo send him to a fortune teller in China who, through an interpreter, tells Pilkington that he’s got a heart problem and needs to take care of himself.
“Is it going to kill me?” Pilkington asks. Through an interpreter, the answer is: “Ninety percent.” Pilkington: “Brilliant.”
Our intrepid explorer is also quite underwhelmed with the Great Wall. At one section, he looks down into a den of bears, like he’s at a zoo.
“What is this all about…It’s almost like they know the Wall isn’t that good so what else can we give them…It’s not a Great Wall. It’s an alright Wall.”
In another section of China, Pilkington gets a massage to help his aching legs (Gervais and Merchant wanted him to see the entire Wall). Turns out, the pranksters back home have set him up with a Chinese fire massage. “You’re having a laugh,” Pilkington says, as he looks at what’s about to happen to him. And then, the agony sets in. “Is that normal?...Why is she doing this to me?... Why is she lighting me on fire?”
Later, confessing that it really did hurt, Pilkington is trying to suss out why she was lighting little gloves on fire and putting them on his body. “Maybe she’s just a frustrated magician.”
Part travelogue, part social experiment, part practical joke, An Idiot Abroad is easily the best thing you’ll ever see on a Saturday night for seven weeks. And in the end, once you’ve met Pilkington, you’ll know why those first two sentences are funny. And you’ll be sucked into the podcast cult as well. With Gervais and Merchant and a misunderstood visionary like Pilkington, An Idiot Abroad is a long, strange trip indeed.
Note: Below you will find rare video from a Television Critics Association press tour event. This Science Channel panel at the Death March With Cocktails was one of my favorites because it came to us via satellite, there's a delay (delays are always funny, but particularly so with Pilkington), there is beer involved and there are technical difficulties (with Karl). On top of that, just watching Gervais and Merchant fall out laughing makes me laugh every time.