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Stephen Merchant on Karl Pilkington's Adventures as 'An Idiot Abroad'

by Joel Keller, posted Jan 21st 2011 4:00PM
Stephen Merchant, Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington on 'The Ricky Gervais Show' on HBO
When I asked Stephen Merchant if he helped his friend and writing partner Ricky Gervais with some of the scathing jokes he said on the Golden Globes awardcast last week, he acknolwedged that he did, but "I'm not going to take any credit for anything, because I want to work in Hollywood again," he said with a nervous laugh.

Seriously, though, Merchant wonders why there's been so much hubub about Gervais' jokes. "If you can't make jokes about movie stars, I don't know who you can make jokes about," he told me yesterday. "It just seems like they are a perfectly legitimate, fun target, because they have won. They've won the lottery of life. They're the best looking, they're the richest, they're the most privileged. And generally speaking, in my experience, they can laugh at themselves."

Merchant and Gervais have a lot going on at the moment. In addition to their individual projects, they've got two projects on the air that revolve around their friend and podcast partner Karl Pilkington. There's the second season of HBO's 'The Ricky Gervais Show,' which started last week, which contains clips from the trio's famous podcasts rendered as cartoons.

Then there is 'An Idiot Abroad,' debuting Saturday at 10PM ET/PT on the Science Channel. In the documentary series, Pilkington is sent to exotic locations to see how a simple man from England with "interesting" observations deals with different cultures.

Merchant and I talked about both shows, what the everyday Karl Pilkington is like (he's got a girlfriend!) and why people think he's a made up character. Finally, I ask the co-creator of the original version of 'The Office' what he thinks of the future of the American version now that Steve Carell is leaving.

How many hours of podcast do you guys have to cull from for this show?
Boy, that's a good question. There's a number of seasons of it. Most of the shows were maybe 40, 50 minutes. So there's quite a lot of hours. But you know, they'd be cherry-picking the stuff that they feel they can animate most interestingly.

Does Karl know that you guys are having a laugh with him? Does he know that you guys are prodding him to say this stuff a little bit?
Yeah. He knows and he doesn't care. People always think that it's bullying. Bullying, I always think there's a victim. And with him, Karl, is he really isn't a victim. He's got his life, he's got his opinions, he goes home, he never leaves that studio crying in tears with his world shattered. He leaves exactly the same man as he was when he walked in. He knows that we're joking with him, but he doesn't care. He's got his opinions, his views, and he's sticking to them. And he's become maybe a little more militant as time's gone on.

When you watch the travel show, which is on Science Channel, I think you'll start to see him push back, and start to sort of rebel a bit. And yet, he's really not happy on some of those trips. He tried to buy his way out of these excursions a couple of times. Just called the producers and said,"Look, I want to come home... I'll give you the money back."

How do you guys figure out where he's going to be going and what he's going to be doing?
We want to put him in the most unfamiliar places. That's the key. In the same way, when we're doing the conversations on the podcasts, we're constantly trying to throw ideas at Karl that he's perhaps not thought about before. Because his way of conceiving of the world is always interesting.

So I remember when we first talked about the travel show, we showed him a picture of the Pyramids. And he looked at the pyramids, and he went, "Terrible design. Absolutely terrible design. Huge living room, tiny bedrooms." And we had to point out that it wasn't actually a house, but it was a mausoleum. So (our goal is) confronting him with stuff he just would never have encountered, that he would never have even thought existed, and just seeing his mind spin when he's confronted with it.

Like when he's trying to eat toad, that kind of thing?
Right. But I don't know if it was on the one you saw, but I'm sure that he makes a comment at one point, he was terrified of eating toad, in case he got a taste for it, and he couldn't get it back in England. It was just such a funny, perverse way of looking at that, you know. That's his objection...what if I like it and I always just want more?

What do you tell people who come to you and say that Karl seems like a character sometimes, that you and Ricky may have made him up?
You know, it's funny, because (people) made that accusation of him from the moment we started working with him on the radio. They instantly said, "I don't believe this guy. He's too good to be true." There was a conspiracy that really annoyed Karl, that he was just an actor called Graham. I don't know how someone had come to this conclusion. This really infuriated him.

And my argument is simply this: that you couldn't generate this much material if it was a character we were writing. He's too 3-dimensional. He's...he's...(sigh) Well, people will believe what they want to believe. But it infuriates him.

What I always think is funny is when you get a good look at him on the show he really does look like the animated version of himself and vice versa.
(laughing) He really does, yeah. They've really captured the view of him. Particularly in this season, they've been studying the way we talk, and our body language when we talk. And they've really managed to put that into Karl, particularly. So there's a thing, when he's thinking, he'll often rub his head. And they've really captured that in the animation.

The everyday Karl, the Karl who gets out of bed, goes and gets a newspaper, and goes to lunch, is he saying this stuff to people that he just encounters, his friends, and people he encounters in the pub?
Yeah. Well, he doesn't seem to have a great many friends. He has a lack of friends through choice. He'd rather just be at home. Friends are a lot of effort. He doesn't really go to the pub, you know, it's too noisy. So yeah, it's all carried through into his private life. He's much happier doing DIY work on his place, tiling, or fixing up the kitchen, or painting the walls. That makes him a lot happier than anything else. Because he feels like he's accomplished something at the end of the day.

In fact, we were fascinated to know what his real life was like so much that we did the podcast where we just asked him about a day in the life of Karl Pilkington. And it was kind of a fascinating insight. It's very uneventful, but he's kind of curiously eccentric. He speaks to his parents a lot. He phones Suzanne, his girlfriend, and asks her what they're going to have for dinner. They have a game of cards before dinner, which I always think seems so beautifully 1950s, a couple stomping out a game of cards.

Have you met his girlfriend?
I have, yeah. I haven't seen her for a while, but she's very normal, very smart, professional woman who works for the BBC. Sometimes I think it's almost like a nurse and her subject, or a carer and her subject.

So the Gervais Merchant comedy machine has been quite busy over the last year or so. What's life been like with the two of you guys over the last year?
Well, it seems like Ricky's been busier than I. We've been working on a show called 'Life's Too Short,' with the actor named Warwick Davis who's a dwarf actor. And Warwick came to us with this idea about sort of a 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' style show, but following the fortunes of a dwarf. So that's been the sort of spine of our year, writing that, but we kept sidetracked with other things, and Ricky was doing standup, and I went off and did a film with Owen Wilson, 'Hall Pass,' which comes out in February.

Are you and Ricky going to be in the series acting at all?
We're in it as ourselves. And we'll pop up occasionally. Warwick was in an episode of 'Extras.' He's an actor who was in 'Willow' and a bunch of other stuff. So yeah, so it'll follow his life.

When's the approximate time when we're going to see it on the air?
I would've thought sort of at the tail end of this year.

Ricky's going to be showing up a little bit on the American version of 'The Office.' Any thought of you making a brief, quick appearance at all or no?
I haven't been asked. It's not been discussed In fact, now you've brought it up, I'm a little offended that they haven't asked me. It hadn't occurred to me before.

Just even in passing, like on a TV somewhere or something like that...
Right, yeah. You're absolutely right. I'm angered that they haven't.

Not that you have any input into this, as far as I know, but how would you replace Steve Carell?
Well, I don't have any insider information. I genuinely don't. And I don't know what they are going to do. I don't know. I just instantly think of the most absurd ideas, you know, like an animated boss, like it suddenly becomes like a 'Roger Rabbit' style show. I mean what can you do? Steve is sort of irreplaceable, really. So I think the best thing to do is sort of take the sideways move and either promote from within or maybe, you know, I think I'd quite like to see a female boss. I think that could be fun. It'd be nice to see a sort of female take on the sort of character.

I think it would be hilarious if Mindy Kaling was the boss.
(chuckles) Yeah, that would be interesting.

Was there ever any discussion that David Brent would show up in the American version of 'The Office,' even briefly?
Well, I think certainly early on it was never a consideration. The show is so bedded in now that it doesn't seem as wild an idea. We talked for a while about the idea of it almost seeming like this was a kind of a documentary project focused on an office in the U.S., and that the David Brent version co-exists (with it). It's a similar documentary in a similar office in the U.K., and that they sort of inhabit the same universe. We always quite liked that, conceptually. But our version was just never well-known enough here, I think, for it to ever seem like it needed to be addressed, really. But no, it was never really talked about. I think by the time the show got up and running, we were doing 'Extras' or something. And the idea of Ricky doing David Brent seems sort of old news, really.

Because that was what, 10 years ago now?
Right. Yeah, it was. Yeah. Wow, yeah. You've really depressed me in this conversation. That was 10 years ago, they didn't ask me to be in 'The Office...'

'The Ricky Gervais Show' airs Fridays at 9PM ET on HBO.
'An Idiot Abroad' airs Saturdays at 10PM ET on Science Channel.

(Follow @joelkeller on Twitter and at www.facebook.com/joelkeller.)

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This "Idiot Abroad" show's terrific. I didn't think I'd like it, but turns out it's more like an everyman's sort of take on other countries as opposed to some stuffy travelogue hosted by a historian or scientist. Mr. Pilkington's obviously a joker, yet he pretty well reacted to things he saw and people he met on his visit to China very naturally, much like I imagine just about how I might - not being a historian or scientist either.

January 23 2011 at 2:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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