Karl Pilkington

Thanks to the Golden Globes, Ricky Gervais has become a household name in the U.S., while those who follow his work in television have quickly become familiar with his writing partner, Stephen Merchant. In the UK, however, there’s a perpetual third man whose name turns up alongside those of Gervais and Merchant with considerable regularity: Karl Pilkington. Pilkington began as the producer on the duo’s radio show and quickly found himself on the air as a result of his unique—some would say idiotic—views and interpretations of the world around him. Since then, he has become a major part of Gervais’ podcast as well as the animated HBO series the podcast has inspired (The Ricky Gervais Show), and he continues to gain further fame as the title character in the travel series An Idiot Abroad, now in its second season on the Science Channel. The A.V. Club spoke to Pilkington about the origins of his partnership with Gervais and Merchant, the best and worst of his ’round-the-world expeditions to date, and the likelihood of seeing him riding around on a bike with Warwick Davis.

The A.V. Club: You first teamed up with Ricky and Stephen accidentally, right? You were a producer on their radio show? 

Karl Pilkington: Yeah, it was at a radio station, and I used to do all of the production and stuff. We were taking turns—there were a few producers—and then Ricky and Stephen came to the station, and the boss said, “It’s your turn to work with these two people.” I can picture them walking in the room. I was put in, like, a meeting room, and they said, “Here they are, have a chat and get to know each other.” And it was just that thing of… I dunno, it’s awkward enough meeting someone new as it is, but when it’s two against one, you just feel like you’re on the losing side straight away, ’cause anything you said, they’d just disagree. They knew each other at the end of the day, and they knew what they wanted to do. I’d just met them. So it was annoying. 

I remember the first time I was doing the show. You know, when you’re a producer, you’re a bit of a lackey. You’re just making cups of tea and making sure they’ve got newspaper, stuff like that. I was making Ricky a tea, and he hit me on the head with a mobile phone. I said, “What’d you do that for?” And he said, “Ah, I just wanted to see what it sounded like.” I think that was him testing me out, really. That was him doing an interview. I don’t know if he did the same to Steve. He probably couldn’t reach his head. But it felt like that’s the point when he thought, “Yeah, I can get on with Karl.” ’Cause I let him hit me on the head. After that, he put a tin lid on my head. 

That’s going back… oh, it must be 11 years or so. Something like that. And he’s tricky, because people always think, “Well, what sort of person are you to allow a bloke to put a tin lid on your head?” But I had a mortgage, I had a job at the radio station, I didn’t want to lose that job, and I was at that age where you don’t want to, I don’t know, piss people off, like. If someone did that now, I’d go, “What are you doing? Don’t be putting tin lids on me head!” But when you’re working for a big organization, you’re thinking, “Well, I can’t tell ’em where to go…” Because what if he says, “Well, we’re not doing the show, then,” and they walk off? They haven’t got a presenter, and the boss shouts at me because I’ve made a presenter walk off, even though I’m well within me right. I’m with someone who once put a tin lid on my head, but… Do you know what I mean? It was a lot of pressure there. So I let him get away with it. I suppose it’s like babysitting. If a baby starts crying, and it’s not your baby, you can’t fix it, whereas if it’s your own… I’m not saying you should hit a baby, but you can control it the way you want to control it. Ricky wasn’t my baby. He was the boss’ baby. I was just babysitting. 

AVC: But now you’re in a position where you could have your own way if you wanted. 

KP: Well, I don’t know about that, because he’s now got more control, in a way, hasn’t he? Because at least then I didn’t work for him. I worked for a radio station. Whereas now I’m sort of freelance, and he came up with this idea of sending me around the world for series one. I did that. I did the whole thing not realizing it was going to be called An Idiot Abroad, mind, but now that’s what it’s called. When you’re in a program called An Idiot Abroad, job offers aren’t exactly flying in. Then he says, “How about doing another series?” I didn’t want to do it. Then we chatted, and he came up with the idea of a bucket list. And I said, “Well, that sounds a bit better. Can I pick from the list?” “Yeah, you get to pick what you wanna do.” So now I’ve done a second season with him attached to it, and if something else happens in the future, they’ll probably want him attached to it as well. So in a way, he’s my boss now. I’ve actually gone backwards. I was his producer in radio. Now he’s my boss. He’s actually got more control now.

I bet he knew. I bet this was his big plan, honestly. To me, this all seems like a fluke, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this was his big plan in his head. People do a five-year plan, don’t they? It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s sitting in his home, thinking of different ways to piss me off over the next five years. But, you know, it’s kind of a job. [Sighs.] Kind of. 

AVC: In the first series, you visited—among other sights—the Seven Modern Wonders Of The World. When you were taking these trips, were you going straight from one wonder to the next, or did you take breaks and come home between wonders? 

KP: I’d come home. Normally we’d go away for about nine days, then I’d come home and have a break from it. I don’t think I could do it otherwise. It’s not a joke: I really do like being at home. I don’t know if it’s the same with Americans, but in England, there’s a lot of people like me. I’m not really weird or the odd one out. There’s a lot of people who like a holiday, but we always like to get back home. And for me, that’s the right way ’round. I think it’d be really bad if you never liked going back home, ’cause it means that the country that you’re from must be really horrible. But I like being in England. There’s no way… if Ricky said, “Look, the way we’re gonna do it is a nonstop tour of the world,” I’d go, “Forget it.” The only thing that keeps me going is that, after nine days, it’s over and I can go home and have my little luxuries again for a week and a half. So it’s nine days away, back for a week and a half, and then away again for nine days.

Some of the trips go on a little bit longer, depending on where it is, what the time difference is, and the amount of distance I have to travel when I get there. On the first trip of series two, which was Vanuatu, there was a lot of flights. I think it was 22 flights in about 12 days. Yeah, I think that was 12 days rather than nine. Something like that, anyway. Normally, though, it’s nine. 

AVC: Speaking of that episode, do you see yourself giving bungee jumping another go anytime soon? 

KP: Not a chance! I remember I had a meeting where they wanted to do the Natural Wonders after the Modern Wonders, and I said no because I just don’t want to have this fixed list. I don’t like the idea that I’m doing something that someone else created that’s very fixed. I don’t even remember what was on the list. The Great Barrier Reef, stuff like that. But I was, like, “I don’t want to do this fixed list that’s set out for me.” So that was that, and I went away. I don’t know if it was Ricky or Stephen who said about the bucket list, how it would be a list of a hundred things and I would get to choose from the list. I said, “Well, what sort of things are on the list?” And they said, “Well, you know, the classic bucket list things.” “Like what? I haven’t really looked.” “Skydiving, bungee jumping…” I said, “Forget it.” I said, “I can’t even believe you’re asking. You know me well enough to know I’m not into that dangerous, stupid adrenaline-junkie stuff. I don’t want to do it.” So at that point, Steve was, like, doing a chicken noise, like, saying I’m a wuss for not doing it. I said, “You can do that all you want. I’m not doing it.” I was getting up to leave, and Ricky’s going, “Well, hang on a minute, hang on a minute, you’re working off the list, but you don’t have to do that one…,” and Steve was saying, “No, he should, you can’t do a program like this without doing something like that.” I said, “Steve, I’m telling you now: I’m not going to do anything like that, so if the list relies heavily on that, then we cannot do it. And that’s that.” I think that’s how that meeting ended. 

Then Ricky called another one, and he’s got this list of a hundred things, and he said, “Look at that. Are there some things you want to do?” That’s when I picked my seven things, and then they went and crammed in a bungee jump straight away. I didn’t feel bad about doing it, because I said from the very start that I was not doing a bungee jump. Have you done a bungee jump?

AVC: I have not. 

KP: Would you even dream of it?

AVC: I would consider it. I don’t know if I’d actually go through with it. 

KP: You see, people that I’ve met who were doing it were terrified up there, and they did it because they felt under pressure because their mates were doing it. There was a young couple who’d just got married, and they’d had, like, a load of alcohol in the morning to get through doing it. It’s, like, “Well, don’t do it then!” I mean, honestly, if I was in a plane, and it was going down, and they said, “Here’s a parachute,” I’d do it then, because it makes sense to. But this whole thing of tying something to your legs and jumping off? And it only lasts, like, eight seconds, anyway. So, for me, that isn’t a big enough thrill. If something lasts eight seconds, it’s not worth it. I want a nice, long…I dunno, it’s got to be longer than eight seconds for me to appreciate something. So that’s why I didn’t do it. I stood on the edge. I didn’t just get up there and think, “I’m not going to do it.” I thought, “I’ll stand there and see if I get an urge.” Like, maybe something comes over you and makes you want to do it. But it didn’t, and I’m not going to be pushed into it. So I didn’t do it.

That’s how I treated each thing. I didn’t go with any intention of not doing it on purpose. I went hoping to enjoy everything that came up. But there’s no point in kidding. I just sort of go along and say what I think—and that’s all you can do in life, really. It’s quite an easy job in that way. I don’t have to do like a lot of TV presenters do. A lot of them have to go along and say things are amazing when, deep down, they don’t think it is. It’s great, really: Everything you see is what I thought at the time. I don’t regret not doing any of it.

The thing in Russia, I couldn’t do it, ’cause I was ill, but they set up this zero-gravity thing, where you go in planes that sort of plummet out of the sky and then you’re floating around. But I was a bit burnt out because of all the traveling, I think. And I had tonsillitis. They did a medical on me and said, “You can’t do it, ’cause you’re gonna end up going deaf,” but I kind of thought, “Oh, I wonder if I’ll regret it, not being able to do that, when I get home.” And it’s just not me. I’ve never been into thrill-seeking like that. It hasn’t changed me. I kinda thought that maybe one or two things might make me sort of understand why people do all this kind of stuff, and I’m still none the wiser.

The ones that I was really looking forward to…I mean, I am into nature and seeing whales. I went whale-watching, and I was really looking forward to that, but when you see it on TV and you see other programs do it, you’re seeing close-ups of these massive creatures, and the music that’s added gives you a certain feeling. But in reality, you’re stuck on a boat that’s bobbing up and down, you feel sick, the whale isn’t there on demand. It’s miles…well, all right, not miles, but it’s at quite a distance. It wasn’t right up close. But that’s the reality of it. Do you know what I mean? A lot of people might see these things on TV and think, “Oh, that looks amazing, I’d love to go whale-watching,” but it’s almost better keeping these things as a dream. People go, “Oh, I wish I could do that,” because in your head you’ve got this brilliant experience, when in reality you’re on a smelly boat, it stinks of fish, you’re bobbing about and you’re out for hours. I was out on a boat for 10 hours. They wanted to go out all night, but I said, “I can’t handle this. I’m spewing me guts up in here.” I felt really ill, and it was freezing, ’cause it was in Alaska. So I was, like, “Forget it.” I got a glimpse of a whale kind of sticking its head out of the water. But then he went back in. And that was it. That was my experience of whale-watching. 

You can’t make that up. A lot of people of go, “Oh, it’s all made up,” but it isn’t. That’s the reality of it. We went out, and that’s what we got. It could’ve ended differently. It could’ve been amazing. It might’ve been better weather, it might’ve been a friendly whale like Free Willy jumping over the boat, but that didn’t happen. Everything you see is the reality of it. We don’t wait for nice weather. We go because that’s the day booked, and we go on the trip like anybody else would, and we see what we see. People aren’t saying, “Don’t go near the whales, we want them to have a shy time.” Sometimes the director’s panicking about it, too. On the one when we went to Russia, when the doctor said, “Oh, you can’t go, you’ve got tonsillitis,” he had a right panic on, because he’s thinking, “Sky TV paid for it! They paid an absolute fortune, about 20 grand for you to go up in this rocket thing!” I said, “Well, I can’t do it! I’m not risking me ears for the sake of 20 grand!” Honestly, they get really stressed out, the people on the shoot, ’cause they have a chat with Ricky and Steve and come up with this list of things to annoy me, and then they’re feeling like they have to deliver. It doesn’t always work out, or sometimes I enjoy something. In Russia, I was also buried alive. I didn’t mind it. I found it quite relaxing. And I think it annoyed them that I didn’t panic too much. 

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AVC: Did you reach a point over the course of your travels where you pretty much sensed that Ricky and Steve were going to pull the rug out from under you and change plans on you? 

KP: I sort of… [Hesitates.] I don’t know, sometimes I sort of think, “Well, how mad can an idea get? How many mad things are there out there that they can keep doing to me?” And every time I sort of think, “Well, now I’ve done that, I can face anything.” But most of the time, I think what gets me more than anything is the tiredness from the surprises. Going to bed every night when I’m away, not knowing what’s coming the next day. That’s the thing that really, really wears me down. It’s not the things. It’s not when I get there and they say, “Right, today you’re gonna be buried alive,” or “Today we’re going to send you up in a rocket,” because I have to deal with that there and then. But it’s the going to bed at night and thinking, “What time is somebody going to come in with a camera and wake me up?” And the directors and stuff, the cameramen, they’ll go off and start whispering to each other, and it messes with me head a little bit. I think I’ve got used to it, and on the second series, I think I was a little bit happier throughout. The first one, I was really…I did try to get out of doing the first series. In India, I called up people, saying, “I don’t want to do this.” I didn’t call Ricky, ’cause I knew he’d like to hear that. He would’ve loved the fact that I was trying to get out of it. And I couldn’t, ’cause I’d signed a contract. So I’d really had enough, but I don’t know, I suppose completing that made me a little bit stronger from dealing with it. 

It’s funny, ’cause I’m sitting here talking like I’m some soldier going into battle, but at times it kind of felt like that. But then I got to a point that I just told meself, “Right, well, just deal with it a day at a time.” And you get through it. But just imagine if someone said to you, “Right, at some point in the next week—not going to tell you when, what day, or what time—somebody’s going to try and run you over.” You’d be on edge all the time, ’cause you’d be thinking, “Is it today? Is it tomorrow?” And that’s what it’s like. Not being able to relax, because you just never know when they’re going to start filming something. The time in Israel when I was kidnapped, it’s madness! I could’ve had a heart attack! [Sighs.] I don’t know. I suppose it’s all an experience. Once I get back home, I can sort of look at it and say, “That was a bit of a mad experience.” Hopefully people will enjoy watching it, and that it’s over and done with and I’ll forget about it and move on to doing whatever I want to do at home.

AVC: Is there any particular moment that still lingers as something they put you through that was particular annoying? 

KP: Uh, there’s lots. But there’s also moments when I think, “Well, that was pretty amazing.” Like, being in the Amazon jungle, or meeting them tribes in Vanuatu and seeing that land dive. If somebody was to have said to me three years ago, “You’ll be going to these places,” I’d sort of think, “There’s not a chance you’d get me to some of them places. What are you on about?” So it is amazing. When I look at photographs—’cause the sound man takes a lot of photographs and emails them to all of us when it’s over—now and again I’ll sit there, or if I’m waiting in a queue for something, and I’ll just look at ’em on me phone and sort of think, “Bloody hell, I was in the middle of nowhere there!” Or I see these people I was with, who couldn’t be further away from me or what my life is. So I’ve got something out of it. It’s just I can’t enjoy it at the time, and it’s a shame, really, ’cause I suppose if I could crack that, it’d be the best job in the world. But I just can’t. 

AVC: So what do you think of HBO’s The Ricky Gervais Show?

KP: It’s all right. I think the second series…that already went out, and there’s a third one on the way. I think it’s really good. I mean, I don’t know if I enjoy it more now because some of those recordings that they’ve used, they’re probably from about two years ago now, and I can’t remember everything I talked about. So I can watch them now—like, they still send the odd one through, or they’ll send them to Ricky and he’ll say, “Here’s a DVD of the new episodes”—and I can watch it like a viewer can. ’Cause I just can’t remember what we talked about! And they really bring you to life. I mean, it’s weird. But we did those podcasts because Ricky and Stephen couldn’t commit to doing the radio show anymore. It was a radio show we did every Saturday, 1-2-3, but they got busy, and they just said, “We can’t, we don’t know where we’re gonna be. We might be filming somewhere. We might be in America. We just can’t do it.” And it was Ricky who came up with the idea of doing the podcast. Because he really enjoyed doing the radio show but couldn’t be in the same place every week, whereas the podcast we could do whenever he was free. So to sort of do that and think it’s just something that’s just for the Internet... that did really well, anyway, and had millions of downloads, which surprised me. And then the fact that HBO then went and took the audio and got it animated, and it’s just…I don’t know, it’s given it a new lease on life, hasn’t it? It’s just weird watching this stuff that was never meant to be seen, really. It’s like viewers are sort of eavesdropping on stuff they never should’ve been in on. But they’ve done a good job. I like it. 

AVC: What do you think of your likeness? 

KP: [Long exhale.] Well, I mean, I’ve got no features, have I? It’s just a round head. Yeah, I mean, it’s not bad. I think I come off better than Steve does. Steve looks pretty bad on it. But, yeah, it’s weird. I suppose that was the beginning of it all, in a way. I didn’t know it at the time, so I think that’s what’s quite nice about it as well. But we chat about things on there that, if I’d have known that it was gonna go out on the telly, I would’ve said, “I’m not gonna talk about that.” I’m talking about my auntie and stuff, thinking, “She’s never gonna hear it, ’cause she doesn’t go on the Internet.” And I’m sort of talking about her having a wind problem and all this, and all of a sudden it’s on the telly and animated. So that was a bit of a shock. I had a bit of explaining to do. 

AVC: Ricky and Stephen have repeatedly said, “We didn’t create Karl; he just is who he is,” but do you sometimes now find yourself playing to people’s expectations of how you react or respond to things?

KP: No, I mean, people ask that about An Idiot Abroad. They go, “Are you really like that?” And I am. But they’ve got to remember is that it’s an edited program, innit? So I’m away for nine days, and probably…I don’t know how many hours of film that is, but at the end of the day, it’s edited down to, like, 45 minutes or something. So there’s times when I watch it back and I think, “God…” But then I think about it, and I go, “Well, that’s 45 minutes out of hours and hours.” I’m pretty sure if I walked around with you and filmed you, and then somebody edited it down, I could either make you look like Stephen Hawking or make you look like…me. [Laughs.] You know, everyone has their weaknesses. I found out when I was in Alaska, doing the dog-sled thing, the bloke who was teaching me how to do it, he said, “Oh, I had Steven Seagal on the back of one of me sleds, and he wasn’t as good as you. He fell off about nine times.” Now, you wouldn’t know that, because it was a film—On Dangerous Ground—and they didn’t use the ones where he fell off. And that’s what I mean. Steven Seagal, he always comes across as this hard bloke, but there’s times when he falls over and falls on his arse. But they don’t use that, do they? Except when they make the program when I’m in, where they’re looking out for me looking like a bit of a… [Trails off.] It is me. There’s nothing that I say in the thing that’s, like, “No, I didn’t mean that.” At the time, that’s what was going on my head.

So, yeah, it’s me. But I think what doesn’t help is the title that Ricky came up with. You know, the fact that it’s called An Idiot Abroad is annoying, ’cause people on the street, they’ll sort of go, “Oh, it’s the idiot!” Which isn’t great. That isn’t a dream come true. I never wanted that. But it’s just because that’s the name of the group. Like, if people see Ricky…or, like, before he was more known, it’d be like if they said, “Oh, look, it’s the bloke from The Office.” They’re just going with the name that they know. It’s just annoying that I have to be in a program with “idiot” in the title, so they go, “There’s the idiot!” When you get talking to them, though, they go, “Oh, you’re not an idiot, though, are you?” I go, “Well, no, I’m not an idiot, no.” I’ve got a mortgage. I pay me way in life. I’ve got girls. I drive a car, like an adult. Not brilliantly. I’m not great. I didn’t do well in school. I got an E in History. But it’s ’cause I wasn’t interested, and there was too many kids in the class. At the end of the day, teachers aren’t going to mess about trying to make me into an Einstein, ’cause it was never gonna happen. We can’t all be brainy, can we? That’s just the way the world is. 

So, no, I’m not as brainy as Ricky or Steve. But I do all right. There’s things I can do that Ricky can’t. I mean, I’m pretty good at DIY, fixing things around the house. Getting my hands dirty. Ricky wouldn’t know where to start. I mean, I do my own tiling. Ricky would go, “What you doing that for? Pay someone to do it!” Why would I pay someone to do it? I can do meself. It’s a skill. I’ll save money. “Oh, pay someone else, and earn money doing…” No, I want to do it. I actually like doing it. If the world sort of ended, like Independence Day, when it all blew up and Morgan Freeman was there and said, “Right, we need to get all the builders and…” There’d be no place for Ricky if that happened. I’d be at the front of the queue fixing everything, Ricky’d be standing there, going, “Oh, I’ll tell some jokes.” Well, there’s no time for jokes, is there? We’ve got a world to rebuild! So when it comes down to it, I reckon I’m more useful than Ricky and Steve. 

AVC: With Life’s Too Short getting ready to premiere on HBO in the States, people may be expecting you to be jealous of the attention Warwick Davis is getting from Ricky and Steve. But I understand there’s actually talk of you and Warwick teaming up for next year’s An Idiot Abroad Christmas special. 

KP: Yeah, but I haven’t done it yet, have I? That’s something Ricky wants to do, but…I’ve met him, and, listen, if he can take some of the asshole off of me, he can have it, you know? [Laughs.] I mean, Ricky annoys me. He annoys Warwick. He’s also got a mate called Rob who lives in New York who he annoys. He’s got a mate here called Robin who he buried on a beach up to his neck in the sand and waited for the tide to come in. His mate Nigel, he taped him up with something like gaffer tape. I mean, compared to some people, I get off lightly. I mean, Robin and Nigel look at the things Ricky makes me do, and they only dream of the things that I do. So it’s all subjective, innit? But, yeah, Warwick, I haven’t really seen all of Life’s Too Short, ’cause I don’t watch much telly. I sort of play cards with my evenings. But I understand it to be pretty good. So, yeah, I’d enjoy that. 

AVC: Well, the pitch I’d heard was that you’d be riding around on a bike and that Warwick would be in the basket. 

KP: Yeah, but that’s it. It’s just an idea. And imagine if someone else went to a TV channel and said, “Right, I’ve got an idea.” They go, “What is it?” “It’s this bloke riding a bike with a dwarf in a basket.” They’d go, “Get out!” But since it’s Ricky, they go, “That sounds brilliant! We’ll give it a series of 12!” I mean, I said, “Look, come up with something better.” I mean, if that’s the pitch, if that’s the bit that’s meant to make me say, “That’s brilliant, I’d love to do that,” then what’s it really going to be like? So I said, “Get back to the drawing board. You’ve got to come up with something better than that.” I mean, the thing that’s there, that sounds all right for Warwick. He’s the one in the basket. I’m the one that’s got to do all the pedaling. So there’s nothing in that that says it’s a good time for me. So at the moment it’s just an idea that Ricky keeps talking about, and he keeps talking about hoping that one day I’ll just go, “All right, shut up, I’ll do it.” But I’m tired, and I just want to stay at home for a bit. I haven’t been home. I’ve been working hard, and the main reason I work is to earn money so I can own a house. At the moment, I haven’t got a house. I’ve got a flat. And even that I’m never in, ’cause they keep sending me off around the world. So, yeah, we’ll see if that happens. But I’m no hurry.