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An Idiot Abroad Review

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by Mark Botwright Dec 10, 2010 at 11:07 AM

    “I could eat a knob at night”. With that absurdist utterance a very unlikely cult hero was born – Karl Pilkington. Having plugged away as a producer on the London based radio station XFM for some years, it was only when Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant discovered their producer’s talent for making ridiculous comments and his complete lack of ease with the world around him that he was pushed into a more prominent position on the show. The comedy duo even joked that Karl was the real draw for the listeners. When The Office took off and more high profile projects made the writing pair’s time more valuable the radio show inevitably ended but they, Ricky in particular, were keen not to let such a “special” mind go to waste and with their record breaking podcasts helped Karl gain a certain amount of fame and infamy thanks to his unique view of the world around him.

    Cut to a few years down the line, the audio podcasts have come and gone sporadically, video podcasts have been brought to the fore, Pilkington has appeared on Gervais’ DVDs and written two books himself and the logical step of giving a man, whom his friend refers to as having “a head like a ****ing orange”, a show of his own is upon us. The idea is sound enough, take a man whose concept of travel is a holiday in Wales and who thinks Chinese people don’t age well or that there are bacteria with a better standard of life than the Inuit, and send him abroad. In a deviation from the usual travel shows such as Palin’s impressive output, here the aim is not to simply marvel at the beauty of the natural world and the people who inhabit it, relishing cultural differences. In Gervais’ own words the remit is somewhat simpler – “Nothing is funnier than Karl, in a corner, being poked by a stick. I am that stick”. An Idiot Abroad is a televised joke, the intention being for Karl to be discomforted, confused, frustrated and downright annoyed. The hope is that along the way he says something funny, and given he’s already filled virtual tomes with his twisted philosophical musings, and he has six hours of run time to fill, hopefully the man who once said “I find that if you just talk, your mouth comes up with stuff” will indeed be proved right.

    “I don’t think I’ve ever felt this lost….even in Wales.”

    So, off he’s sent, our own orange-headed wonder delivered to see the real Seven Wonders of the World, a voyage of discovery that most of us could only dream of, but prior to every jaunt he’s shown a picture of the destination and asked his thoughts by an already sniggering Gervais and Merchant. In suitably Pilkingtonian fashion he is less than impressed by the sight of these supposed enchanting creations that prove the magic of human ability. The Great Pyramid of Giza might seem like an awe-inspiring marvel of early technological know-how and engineering to the likes of you and me, but the brain that sits behind Karl’s wrinkled little brow sees things slightly differently. With barely a hint of being impressed his thoughts first turn to everyday practicality, “If that was on my road the council would be on it, they’d go ‘get that down, it’s a death trap’”. But pictures can be deceiving and obviously one cannot surmise the scale of the structure from a mere photograph, surely when he was assailed with the sheer size of the Great Pyramid he would be significantly impressed? No, every moment of this travel documentary is pure gold for those who love Karl’s faux street-philosophy and down-to-earth assessments of even the most wondrous things in life, his observance that the 450 foot structure that dominates the horizon is that it is “like a game of Jenga that’s got out of hand”, as ever missing the point but hilariously funny.

    For a show about the Seven Wonders of the World, a fairly small amount of time is actually spent looking at the locations, most of the time is tailored to annoying Karl in any way possible. As Gervais points out “This is one of the funniest, most expensive practical jokes I’ve ever done”, and with that it is clear that the intention was never to broaden Karl’s horizons and expand his mind by bringing him into contact with other cultures and seeing sights that most can go a lifetime without witnessing first hand. No, Ricky’s aim is to make his friend’s journey as uncomfortable as possible, be it putting him in physically less than perfect accommodation or mentally pressing his buttons by setting up a continuing series of activities to participate in. All under the guise of integrating with the communities and getting to know the real people of each location, but in truth simply injected to force everyone’s favourite Manc simpleton into close proximity with gays and nudists amongst other groups that bewilder him.

    There is a slight problem with this side of the show in so much as Pilkington genuinely seems to lose his rag a couple of times. When deprived of sleep and having eaten little in the way of proper nourishment (he packs a large pack of pickled onion Monster Munch before each journey) the best of us would struggle to keep chipper, even if the point of the show was to antagonise him, it’s clear that it wasn’t always conducive to actually producing solid, humorous content. More often than not we are forced to watch as Karl, having had accommodation arranged for him, sits down to eat what his hosts consider bounteous hospitality, only to find that goat’s heads or bull’s testicles are offered as dish of the day. As viewers we are put in the uncomfortable position of watching a man who had been corralled into rudeness as he inevitably cannot bring himself to partake of that which is offered him. If the idea of the show was to highlight Pilkington’s inability to grasp foreign cultures, the opposite is often true in that it highlights the makers’ want to tacitly see such people being insulted by a man who obviously was never going to wolf down an unlabelled eyeball or flambéed genitalia. Put in such a scenario it is hard not to side with the man – anyone for tripe and sprouts?

    “It’s not the Great Wall, it’s the Alright Wall. It’s the Alright Wall of China”

    Thankfully the joke is glossed over once it becomes clear that Karl doesn’t want to continually upset his hosts, and the problems inherent with repeating the jape ad nauseum (quite literally!). The key to unlocking the laughs is to throw enough experiences at our guide until he either looks a prat, a task that’s easily achieved as his little bald head bobbling around in a sombrero looks more like a novelty toy than a man dressed for the Mexican climate (similarly when dressed for the Rio Carnival he describes the attire as “Andy Pandy on crack”), or makes an off-hand observation, a talent which he clearly never loses no matter how downbeat he becomes (not that he’s renowned for being Mr Sunshine, his brow’s so permanently wrinkled it looks like someone’s drawn a face on an old man’s elbow). China proves the most fruitful for such quotes, with his pre-existing suspicion of all things oriental well established he goes on to make even more ill informed comments that are comedy gold. When given a traditional Chinese massage, he quips “was that a massage, I dunno, or was I just being mugged?”. On describing the Chinese alphabet, he says it’s “like someone testing out a biro” and so on. Food, toilets, sleeping habits, attitudes towards death and life in general are all covered in truly Pilkingtonian fashion and, in between the apparent horror at how the rest of the world's inhabitants live, there are some moments where the gap is bridged and he of a head like a tennis ball finds something that makes sense to him. Take an old person in China, building their own coffin, to most Westerners it would be seen as mawkish but to him it is rational – retired people need projects to keep themselves busy.

    “It’s been interesting Steve. I’ve learnt a lot, I’ve seen a lot, I’ve done a lot, I’ve s**t a lot”

    It’s not Palin or Wicker but it is still involving, and more than that proves to be addictive and downright funny. Few men can get away with dismissing the colossal structure of the Great Wall of China, likening it to the M6 but without the functionality, see the placing of wishes in the Wailing Wall as a form of religious Jim’ll Fix It or when stood under Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro only find his Jimmy Hill chin standing out as a feature of interest. He has a unique talent for finding the unsaid, saying it and in the process confusing even himself, and this series showcases that “special” gift perfectly with a whole host of new quotations to add to the ever expanding Pilkipedia.