“It’s not TV. It’s a podcast that we animated and make viewable on TV” isn’t the catchiest version of HBO’s slogan, but it does indicate just how odd The Ricky Gervais Show seems to be, given the network's original programming “brand.” It’s not a surprise crossover genre hit like Game Of Thrones, or a subversive, personalized comedy like Girls, or an only-on-cable raunchy soap like True Blood. It’s an animated podcast, and that’s it. But I’m entirely happy with Ricky Gervais not fitting in, because it’s quite possibly the funniest show on television.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s the best comedy on television. The usual suspects of Archer, Louie, Community, Parks & Recreation, and even Bob’s Burgers probably all have it beat, thanks to their character development, emotional impact, and the fact that they don’t rely entirely on making fun of one particularly dense individual for their humor. Yet The Ricky Gervais Show makes me laugh, harder and more consistently, more than anything else on the air, because making fun of Karl Pilkington is just amazingly entertaining.
If you’ve never seen or heard The Ricky Gervais Show before, the name is a slight misnomer, because it’s really about Karl Pilkington, a former radio producer discovered by Gervais. Pilkington is like a social psychologist’s wet dream; he is a man whose belief system is completely, unashamedly structured within his head. If he hears about something that sounds correct within that system, he believes it and will rationalize it creatively/idiotically. If it’s outside of that at all, Pilkington rejects it vehemently. He also anthropomorphizes animals constantly, which leads to many of the show’s funniest bits.
Ricky Gervais is more of a known quantity, although on the show he’s a little less filtered and much more manic than he is in much of his acting. He’s quick to argue with Pilkington, but it’s always best when he collapses into howling, infectious laughter. Gervais’ long-time creative partner Stephen Merchant is the third person on the show and tends to keep it on track when Gervais loses his composure.
In the third season premiere, Gervais and partner Stephen Merchant confront Pilkington with a letter from an unhappy viewer of one his BBC specials. Pilkington hears it and responds to the criticism with a series of typical inanities and one piece of Hall Of Fame-level pandering: “It’s all about getting people thinking.” Wandering around a museum, spouting the most incredible nonsense, and getting called out, but declaring it simply a think-piece? If only Pilkington could run for office!
Not much has changed from the second season to the third, which is probably a good thing. At some point during the recordings that became that second season, Gervais became an expert in getting Pilkington to demonstrate his true colors, and that’s all still on display here. The animation has probably improved slightly in terms of adding visual jokes to the aural sparring, making Ricky Gervais more of a television show on its own.
The biggest thing I noticed was that the interplay between the three men on the show was more refined and balanced than ever. When the show started, it was primarily Gervais goading Pilkington as Merchant occasionally interjected with a joke. Now, Merchant takes a more active role as an arbiter, attacking Pilkington when he’s particularly idiotic, but also soothingly agreeing when Karl comes across a bit of unintended wisdom.
More interestingly, the Gervais-Pilkington dynamic seems more comfortable, and almost even fair. What began as an apparently exploitative relationship now sounds more like a friendship. When Pilkington goes on one of his flights of fancy, pitching a movie, Gervais rushes to play the characters in the film, and Pilkington latches onto the improvised scenario without question.
If you’re of the opinion that Pilkington is a long-term, elaborate prank carried out by Gervais and Merchant, this will only add to that belief. But I think it’s a little more complicated than that. Pilkington may be monumentally incurious, and he has no filter that stops him from speaking before he thinks, but I don’t think he’s a total idiot. He’s smart enough to understand that his core personality and behavior work for him professionally, and that playing along with Ricky Gervais works well for the two of them. In short, Karl Pilkington has a slight, entertaining level of self-awareness now, which bodes well for the third season of The Ricky Gervais Show.