British radio producer Karl Pilkington is famous because Ricky Gervais likes laughing at him. A series of podcasts, audiobooks, and television programs over the past several years has leveraged that single quality of Pilkington’s into an unusually open life. Followers of Gervais’ work know how Pilkington responds to urban legends and tabloid sensationalism (with a kind of analytical gullibility), the nature of his relationship to Suzanne, his girlfriend of 16 years (mutually long-suffering), and his interest in leaving behind the provincial comforts of home in search of adventure (nil). So for the dual purposes of extending the worldwide Pilkington brand and making Gervais cackle like a baboon, Sky TV followed the round-headed naïf on trips to the Seven Wonders of the World. The result is the series An Idiot Abroad, airing on the Science Channel in America through March 12.
For those who have seen the TV version, the companion book An Idiot Abroad: The Travel Diaries Of Karl Pilkington will add little additional incident or information. That doesn’t make it superfluous, however. The diary format filters the sadistic experiences Gervais and partner Stephen Merchant set up for Pilkington—travel in the slowest, most agonizing possible conveyances, with the most annoying companions, and fueled by the most disgusting native delicacies—through Pilkington’s brain. While on television, viewers get Pilkington processing events immediately, in conversation with the cameramen and producers whom he regularly begs for mercy. The book, however, allows for more extended attempts at making sense of the alien cultures and habits into which he’s been thrust. Pilkington fans are already familiar with Karl as a diarist, since Merchant’s dramatic readings of his daily thoughts constituted a regular feature of the Ricky Gervais podcast. In journal form, Karl is a more sympathetic figure; his revulsion and bewilderment at the way people live in India or China comes across as what any of us might say if we were less inhibited by cultural sensitivity.
While An Idiot Abroad is a breezy read during the diary sections, it’s also a slog of a send-up of travel-program tie-in books in general. References to Michael Palin and other figures of British television less well-known in the States abound. Phone calls from Gervais or Merchant to Karl, sending him to more torture while he’s stealing a serene moment floating in the Dead Sea, are reproduced as comic-book speech-bubble interludes. Unnecessary photo montages and fact sheets litter each chapter. For those as fascinated by the way Pilkington’s mind works as his Svengali Gervais is, An Idiot Abroad contains ample gems, like his comparison of the Seven Wonders to the icing on wedding cake: “They use them to get people to visit a place that you probably wouldn’t think about visiting.” For the rest of America, the book isn’t just inessential, it’s probably impenetrable.