Essay An Idiot Abroad
In the final episode of An Idiot Abroad (Sky1), Karl Pilkington and Warwick Davis are into the last leg of their journey, following Marco Polo east, often by bicycle. In Siliguri in India, they share a stage with a pair of conjoined twins known as the Spider Sisters. Then it's off to China, to Chongqing, a desperate slag-heap of a city by the Yangstze, to embark on what Ricky Gervais tells them down the phone is a "scenic river cruise". Their boat disappears into the murky gloom – it's hard to tell what's river, what's smog, and what's Karl's diarrhoea.
At a miserable panda sanctuary, they're shown a panda sex film (as the pandas are, to help them get in the mood), then dress in panda suits, so as not to alarm the pandas. Warwick – who's obviously being a baby panda – has a little suckle off Karl. Et cetera. Now I know it's not fashionable to admit to being amused by anything Gervais is involved with these days. And it's true, he is very annoying, even down the phone – like an evil cackling puppeteer, unseen but responsible for all Karl and Warwick's movements. But he's not enough of a presence to spoil things.
It's really about Karl and Warwick. And it's great. Not all of it: eating weird Chinese food is a cliche by now. And it is often very stupid. But that's part of the point (there's a clue in the title). There's a knowingness to the stupidity, and a charm in Karl grappling with thoughts. It's honest, they're honest – they say something's crap when it's crap (the river cruise), but will also admit to being impressed (by the Buddhist temple in Mount Emeishan). The show's even beautiful at times: the decaying carcass of a ship at Chongqing, Macao at night seen from above.
And it's funny. Because of Karl's idiocy ("Have you got knees?" he asks Warwick). Because nothing's off-limits, not even the size of Warwick's testicles. And because of the places they go, most of which are horrid. For which you-know-who is responsible. Oh come on, he did give us The Office and Extras.
Karl Pilkington is the star of "An Idiot Abroad," but to be fair, the show's title is a bit of a stretch. To be more accurate, Sky and Science Channel, where it debuts in America on Saturday, could call it "An Honest Guy Who Gets Sent On Outrageous Vacations By His Mischievous Friend."
At once Ricky Gervais' best friend and punching bag, Pilkington has become something of a cult star in England. He first appeared on Gervais's radio show in 2001, invited into the studio when Gervais and partner Stephen Merchant couldn't help but laugh at his very curious points of view and silly interjections from his producer's box. From there, he's gone on to publish four books, frequent talk shows in the UK and now stars in the second series of "Idiot," which features him being dispatched to go through ridiculous adventures in far off regions like islands off New Zealand, the plains of Mongolia, dwarf villages in China and huts in Africa.
Pilkington spoke to The Huffington Post over the phone on Friday, giving his unique insight into traveling, his relationship with Gervais and nature.
You didn't seem to enjoy the first season, so why did you come back for more torture?
Money, innit? I've got a lot of bills to pay... I've been in a program called "An Idiot Abroad," so job offers aren't exactly flying in -- not the sort of things I'd want to do. Because they go, "Well, he must be an idiot." But I'm not an idiot. At the end of the day, I've learned a lot. On Series One, I really didn't like it... That took some getting used to, I tried to get out of it. The trip to India, I was calling up people in London and saying, "Look, I'm sick of this, I want it to end." But I signed a contract and couldn't get out of it. But when it was all over, I looked back on it and I looked at the photographs and things like that and I said, actually, it was a good experience to go through.
So what was the best experience on the trips this season?
I'd say the best is when I was in Africa, I saw a hippo in a house. Someone had a pet hippo. And they're meant to be one of the most dangerous animals on the planet, and they had one that was sort of just wandering in and out of their house, just sort of roaming about. And that was amazing, because you hear about hippos from people who go on hippo trips and they don't get that close to them because they can rip your head off.
Did you get close to the hippos?
Yeah, I massaged it. Massaged its back and everything. When I was there, it came wandering into the house and it was pretty frightening, because it was a big thing -- it was like having a dinosaur wandering in your house, it's a big thing -- it could go off, it could suddenly get fed up. But it was worth it; it was the risk worth taking.
In general, though, you don't seem to be all that impressed with nature.
You see, I am. It's just that sometimes, I just question it. I love nature -- it's probably my most favorite thing. I don't watch much telly, the telly hardly goes on, but the things I do watch are sort of nature programs, and something about the oceans and the amount of weird fish that's in there. But all I'm doing is questioning it sometimes, because people make a lot of fuss over animals. And it's just all this stuff... Things going extinct or whatever. I just sort of say, what does it matter? We'll all die out eventually. Humans will be gone. And all I'm saying is, when people worry about polar bears disappearing or whatever, it's like, well that's life, things will come and go, we'll find new species...
The dodo went, it died out, nothing's changed, we've just carried on. But we've gotten to the point that we want to save everything. The population is going up, we save every animal -- things are meant to die out. If dinosaurs were wandering about now, we'd be saving them. If something dies out, it dies for a reason... But honestly, if there was a job opportunity coming up, in terms of what I'd want to do a program on, nature is the thing I'd love to do, it's just that I'm not qualified enough.
So you'd want to do a naturalist program?
I wanted to do something ages ago, we did it on the radio show. It's called "Do We Need Them?" What I'd do is I'd go through all the species that exist and just say, "Right, what if we take that off the planet? What effect would it have?" It's just like bees. People say if bees die out, the world would end apparently. Now, I don't know if that's true, if that's some bee enthusiast who managed to write a good document and people believe this. I read the other day that bees have started to work in airports, they teach them to sniff out bombs... Animals are dying out, but some are also changing. You've got dogs doing more jobs than they ever had in their lives now. When you've got bees doing jobs, who'd have thought that would have happened?
So maybe in the program, I'd look at, I'd go, are bees needed to keep the planet going? If so, why are they doing that job? What's that animal doing, what's the panda doing? Everyone's panicking about the panda dying out, but what's a panda doing? Every time I see a panda, it's on its ass doing nothing. It's not like it's having kids. Well leave him! What would happen without the panda? That's all I'm saying. It's just looking at nature; it is amazing, but what's it all doing? Do we need everything that's on here?
Ricky is a big save-the-animals activist. Do you disagree with him on that stuff?
The problem is, he loves animals. We should all love animals. I don't want people reading things thinking I go around kicking dogs, but he goes too far. If you follow Ricky all the time, you'll know his cat Ollie. He spoils it rotten. He never leaves his house. When they go on holidays, they go to some sort of hotel with a webcam so they can tune in and see if he's all right. To me, a cat is an easy pet, they don't need any spoiling or looking after.
When I had them as a kid, we'd go off on holiday, we'd leave them. They're natural sort of wild animals who can look after themselves. We'd go away, two or three weeks sometimes in the summer, we'd come back home and the cat would be there. Sometime it'd have lost an eye because it'd be in a battle with a bird or something, but it'd survived. It caught food and survived. Now his cat, he thinks he's doing well by spoiling it, but if something happens to him and his girlfriend and that cat was given to a normal household, it wouldn't last five minutes because it had the wildness taken out of it. It'd be useless. It swarms about thinking it's an ocelot. People go on about "oh, it's a lovely-looking cat," but if they met it, they'd hate it, because it's really spoiled. For me, he's interfering with nature there -- he's not letting a cat be a cat.
Ricky calls you his best mate. Is he your best mate?
Ehh, I'll say he is, but mainly just down to the fact that I don't have many mates. That puts him as the default best mate, I suppose. Yeah, we get on. I suppose he calls me more than I call him, just because he can be pretty annoying. That's why it's good that he's doing well in America, because it means he's over there more often than he's here, so I'm happy about that. Not because I want his career to do good, but because it means he leaves me alone for a couple of weeks at a time. So he's a mate, we have a laugh every now and again, and he's like a career adviser in a way. If it wasn't for him, I don't know what I'd be doing. Him and Steve, they changed me life -- I don't know if it's for the better or the worse -- but I've gotten to see the world.
"An Idiot Abroad" premieres on Saturday at 7PM EST.