An Idiot Abroad is the latest brainchild of comedic masterminds Ricky Gervais and Stephan Merchant, co-creators of The Office. The Science Channel’s eight part series, which is being touted as “the most elaborate practical-joke-turned-sociology-experiment in television history”, concerns itself with Karl Pilkington, a hapless producer at radio station XFM and a contributor to Gervais’s podcasts. Pilkington is sent out on a world journey by Messrs. Gervais and Merchant and keeps in touch with them via iPhone.
“It’s great to have An Idiot Abroad on such a prestigious and innovative outlet,” says Gervais. “Karl didn’t even go to school and now look at him. I can’t wait to hear how they announce it on air. ‘And now on The Science Channel, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant send a chimp around the world to annoy it.’”
Most people would welcome a chance to visit the Seven Wonders of the World on Ricky Gervais’ tab. Not so Pilkington who much prefers his comfort zone in the U.K. Despite his reluctance, he is shipped off to these exotic locales and told to learn the history of each Wonder of the World and immerse himself in their local customs.
Gervais pulls no punches when he refers to his traveling friend as a “round, empty headed moron, a real life Homer Simpson but lovable”. He goes on to say that he thinks sending Karl around the world is “amazing” and how learning about other cultures will change his friend’s outlook. “Nothing is funnier than Karl in a corner being poked by a stick,” Gervais says. “And I am that stick”.
Okay. The first thing you might ask yourself after hearing these comments is, “Is An Idiot Abroad for real?” Sure, the show is a practical joke. But after about a half hour of viewing it, it will be obvious the joke is on you. Not that it’s not a bad thing. An Idiot Abroad is actually amusing in a peculiar sort of way. As with all of Gervais’s creations, the cringe factor is over the moon.
In the premiere episode, Pilkington is sent to China and is immediately suspect of his surroundings. He worries about stuff like how ‘weird’ the alphabet is and how the books are read from back to front. When he ambles into a Beijing shop to have a parchment made with his name written in Chinese, the shop owners can’t manage to pronounce ‘Karl’ properly. So begins a routine reminiscent of the best Abbott and Costello schticks. When Karl purchases the finished product, he wonders if the symbols truly represent his name. He considers giving it to his girlfriend and telling her it’s her name. “How would she know?” he wonders aloud.
He continues his walk and observes a girl eating a scorpion off a stick (“what does she do if she sees a spider in the bath?”) and a man scooping a chicken fetus out of an egg. Horrified, he sits in a corner and munches on a more familiar type of snack. (“I’m the freak here, eating this bag of chips”).
I can almost feel for him.
In Badaling, Pilkington sets off on a bus trip to visit the China’s Great Wall and let’s us know from the outset he is not looking forward to the trip. The Wall goes on for miles, he says, but so does the M6, and you can drive on that. He comes away from the experience unimpressed. “It’s not a great wall. It’s just an alright wall. The Alright Wall of China”.
There are loads of similar observations throughout the show. I couldn’t help thinking it was all very “Gervais”. If it’s not scripted, then Gervais has gotten inside of Pilkington’s (supposedly) addled brain and is having a fantastic time controlling the horizontal and the vertical.
If you’d like to have a laugh at Karl Pilkington’s expense over the next seven weeks, and see the Seven Wonders of the World in a skewed light, give An Idiot Abroad a look. But try not to forget that the joke is really on you.
An Idiot Abroad airs on The Science Channel, Saturday nights at 10PM ET.