Sunday, 7 November 2010

Karl Pilkington Abroad: idiot savant, or just an idiot?

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Last week I ended up in a bit of a discussion with one of my husband's friends (hello Dave!) about Karl Pilkington, as I mentioned that I was reading (Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant send) "An Idiot Abroad." I am a bit of a Karl Pilkington fan, but I can't quite decide if he is playing a character, or if he is genuine in his reactions. I got the impression that Dave enjoys Karl Pilkington less than I do, because he suspects that it is only an act (I'm sure he will correct me if this is not the case, if he reads this). I'm not sure if Karl can be as dopey as he seems - I incline slightly more to thinking he is genuine, although if this is the case I am amazed that he is allowed out on his own - but I don't think that I mind if he is just playing a character. I just find him funny.

Maybe I should explain a bit about who Karl Pilkington is, just in case this is read by someone who has never heard of him. When Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant worked for the radio station Xfm, Karl Pilkington worked for the station as a producer. When Ricky and Stephen went on to launch a podcast, Karl became an integral part of the show with regular features such as "Monkey News" and extracts from his diary. While I sometimes feel that Ricky and Stephen's treatment of Karl borders on cruelty, for me he is the star of the podcast. His world view is at once warped and twisted, and yet oddly logical at times (few things scare me more than thinking Karl has a good point). He has innovative ideas, but fails to recognise when an idea is impossible and has no bearing on the reality of the world. His ideas pass straight by genius and go directly to barking mad. For Karl, the "Fortean Times" (which I occasionally buy, and read in the same way that you might enjoy a ghost story told by a roaring fire) is fact, and Ripley's Believe It Or Not is highly educational. He is capable of amazement at watching an ant eat a biscuit crumb.

In "An Idiot Abroad," Karl is the idiot who is sent abroad to visit seven wonders of the world. This was a TV series for Sky recently - which I haven't seen, as we don't have Sky - as well as the book. Karl dislikes travelling, and would rather go to Devon than go abroad. Stephen Merchant's reason for sending Karl abroad is an altruistic one; he believes that travel broadens the mind, and that Karl's life would be enriched by the experience. Ricky just thinks it would be funny, as Karl will probably hate the experience (and, to this end, he is booked into some of the world's worst hotels).

The experience does seem to be a traumatic one for Karl, as normally the biggest surprise he can handle is to wonder what flavour he will get in a bag of Revels. His twisted insights into the places he visits are very entertaining. In Brazil he is invited to stay with someone, but decides to leave when he finds a dead cockroach in the flat; he thinks it is a bad sign if cockroaches are meant to be able to survive beheading and nuclear war, but can't survive living in this flat (this is good example of what I mean by his occasionally persuasive logic). In India he sees a sacred cow being washed and blessed - and decides the cow looks embarrassed by the experience.

The main humour arises because Karl is supremely unimpressed by many of the wonders he visits. The statue of Christ the Redeemer in Brazil has a big chin like Jimmy Hill (someone points out to him that it is meant to be a beard). He is unimpressed by the Great Wall of China as it might be long, but so is the M6. He is more favourably inclined towards the Taj Mahal, but is skeptical of its origins as a mausoleum for emperor Shah Jahan's beloved wife. Karl thinks that he probably always wanted to build it but she wouldn't let him while she was alive, just as his uncle wasn't allowed to get a plasma telly while his wife was alive but bought one after she died. However, in Machu Picchu, he does actually find a wonder that impresses him.

I'm sorry that I have just given away a couple of things that made me laugh, but there were plenty other funny moments to enjoy in Karl's book. The humour arises as much from Karl's bewilderment at the minutiae of every day life and customs in other countries as it does from his reaction to the wonders. Karl is less amazed by the Great Wall of China than he is by the lack of doors on Chinese toilets.

In short, Karl would probably be a very annoying person to travel with - he'd spend the whole time complaining - but his book makes a very funny read.

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