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Karl Pilkington Talks to TVWW about 'An Idiot Abroad 2: The Bucket List'
January 20, 2012  | By David Bianculli


You've seen similar scenes dozens of times on CBS's Survivor, even on the same South Pacific islands of Vanuatu: people stranded and working frantically to build a makeshift shelter as the rain pelts them mercilessly.


Except, this time, one of the people marooned is Karl Pilkington, the reluctant world traveller sent around the globe by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant for the new season of the Science Channel TV series An Idiot Abroad -- and he says and does things you just won't find anywhere else.

When Karl's temporary training guide tries to teach him how to fashion a type of twine out of thinly sliced strips of palm fronds, Karl stops him, reaches into his travel bag, and pulls out a ball of string, then a roll of duct tape. And then, as the rain pours down, Karl grumbles to the camera -- actually, to himself -- that, "We shouldn't be building a shelter. We should be building an ark."

I love this guy. And when I spoke to him by phone Thursday, nothing he said made me like him, or laugh, any less...


For the uninitiated, Karl Pilkington is a plain-spoken, no-nonsense "bloke from Britain" who first crossed paths with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant when the pair were appearing on the radio, and Pilkington was assigned as their producer. In time, entertained by the odd way their producer thought and talked, they urged him to take more of an on-air role, and he did.

Eventually, he became the central star of the trio's podcasts, which eventually were animated by HBO and turned into the successful, delightful The Ricky Gervais Show. Then, last year, Gervais and Merchant persuaded Pilkington to visit the wonders of the world -- with a lot of curves thrown in -- for a travel series called An Idiot Abroad.

Starting Saturday night at 10 p.m. ET, Science Channel, which imported the original series, presents the second-season sequel: An Idiot Abroad 2: The Bucket List. Again, the program dispatches Pilkington as a reluctant traveler, taking marching orders from Merchant and Gervais back home -- this time doing everything from mushing with a team of sled dogs to riding on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.


"It's making Karl do things other people want to do before they die," Merchant explains in the opening to each show -- at which point, Gervais lets loose with one of his patented, contagious cackles.

"Exactly," Gervais clarifies, referring to Pilkington's marching orders. "This isn't his list!"

So Pilkington's itinerary, each episode, is a surprise, even to him. But -- and here's one of the show's secret weapons, and most glorious constant twists -- you never know how Karl is going to react. He gets sent to some remote jungle to be buried alive, vertically, with only a breathing tube above the surface, and ends up liking it.


"It's funny," Pilkington told me Thursday by phone, "how some of the things that they arrange, because they think I'm gonna hate it -- and I don't.

"Like in Russia, when I was buried alive -- I quite enjoyed that. And it really annoyed the cameraman and the director, because they were thinking, 'Karl, this is punishment'... And I said, 'No, I'm quite happy.' And they're worried about when they get back, and they meet with Ricky and Steve."

Karl is less worried, and feels all he's required to do is stay true to himself -- even if the result isn't what his better-known mates are expecting.

"They sort of can never predict how I'm going to take something," he says. "There's a lot of people who'd say, 'Oh, I'd love to do that' -- but I don't. And there'll be something else that I quite enjoy that other people don't. So even though they've known me for 13 years or whatever it is now, they still don't really know me. Ricky, I think I know him more than he knows me."

While being buried alive, Karl says to the camera, "This is one of them things they tell you not to try at home, innit?"

And afterward, when he checks in by phone with his bosses back home, he gives Ricky and Steve a recap that couldn't have been drier -- or funnier.

"Did that thing yesterday," he said deadpan. "Got buried alive. Cheers for that."


You'd think Karl would resent, even hate, the curves thrown at him during An Idiot Abroad 2 -- but once again, his reaction isn't at all what you might expect. Even when, in a future episode, his scheduled trip to swim with dolphins is scuttled for another underwater adventure -- for which Karl is submerged in a cage and sent to swim with sharks.

"'Change of plan,'" is the way Karl remembers being informed of the switch in a phone call.

"'You weren't that keen on the dolphin thing, you said you might find it a bit boring, so we changed it, and it's gonna be sharks.' And to be honest," Karl continues, "I think it is a better experience. I did enjoy that. I never thought in my life I'd get that close to a shark. It is pretty amazing....

"That's why the program works well," Karl reasons. "If I did know what's coming, I wouldn't sleep at night. I think that's why they did it that way, actually. They know that if they told me everything I was doing before we went away, I wouldn't actually leave the house. I'd just get wound up."

And then, without missing a beat, Karl Pilkington makes one of those leaps of logic, or unusual connections, that make him a unique TV personality. If Ricky Gervais heard this, and the context in which it had arisen, I'm certain he would have howled with laughter as Karl made his point. Instead, I did.

"I think that's why I hate Christmas," he continued, seemingly out of nowhere.

"The whole year builds up to it. It's a surprise, in a way, that I can handle more. If you just suddenly said, 'It's Christmas today!,' I'd probably enjoy it more than it always being on December 25."

I asked Karl if he had his own bucket list -- not one that was foisted upon him by Steve and Ricky -- and guessed, correctly, that he did not.

"There isn't anything," he said, then paused to think about it.

"That's a good thing, innit, in a way?" he asked. "That I don't really wish for anything? I'm quite happy."


I asked him if he had read Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, the irreverent 1869 travel book that launched Twain's career -- and, presumably, inspired the title of An Idiot Abroad. Once again, Karl's reaction was completely unexpected. And, as usual, led to a derailed train of thought that was unexpectedly delightful.

"I'm not proud of it, but I haven't got the concentration to read books," he admitted, then chuckled. "I've wrote more books than I've read."

Then he suggested that Ricky Gervais hasn't read The Innocents Abroad, either.

"I don't even think Ricky knows that book exists," Karl says. "He's never said that. He said he came up with that title. I wanted to call it Karl Pilkington's Seven Wonders, and he said,'No one knows who you are, and it sounds serious, and people might tune in to want that serious thing, and you'll let them down.' And he came up with that title. He's never said, 'It's a Mark Twain book."

As for Karl's on-camera style of saying whatever comes to mind (in one scene, he meets a "human magnet" who can make things stick to his skin, and asks whether he can keep a cell phone stuck to his ear, which would be useful), he has a simple explanation:

"It's just being honest. I don't know if you get David Attenborough and Michael Palin over there -- they're brilliant." (We do, and they are.)


"Attenborough's one of my favorites, the nature stuff. But I don't know -- is he being totally honest? How many spiders can you see? Can he really be that amazed? He must be 80 [actually, he's 85 - DB] -- think of how many spiders he's seen in 80 years of living. But every time he holds one, it's like the first time he picked one up!

"So if he is that excited, that's amazing."

An Idiot Abroad 2 is amazing, too. Hilarious, unpredictable, and educational -- and it's that last element that Karl Pilkington likes most about the series, and why he's agreed to keep making it.

"If there's funny bits in this that people like, fine. But like I said, I do watch Attenborough and Michael Palin. I want to make something that's interesting...

"It's not packed full of facts, but there is stuff in there. I think it's important that people know that."

Less important for people to know -- but still funny -- is that Karl Pilkington still has a very vivid recollection of the day he met Ricky Gervais, the man who has changed Karl's life so significantly.


On the day of producing the first radio show helmed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, Karl showed up about an hour early to prepare. Gervais showed up next, and Karl offered and served him some tea -- "and then," Karl recalls, "he hit me over the head with a mobile phone, to see what sound it made [on Karl's round, partly bald head].

"I just let that go. What can you do? I was working for a big company, and you can't turn around and say, 'Oh, I'm going. I can't be hit by a phone. I'm going home.' So I let him get away with that. And then he stuck a bib on me head.

"And Stephen hadn't even turned up yet -- he didn't see any of this. I thought, 'What's he like? Maybe Ricky's the good one here...

"After that, I said to them, 'Look, don't come in early next week."

Effortlessly hilarious. Endlessly entertaining. And, at the same time, utterly serious.

Just like An Idiot Abroad 2: The Bucket List.

If you miss it, you're an idiot.

Here's a brief sample, courtesy of The Science Channel:


And finally, click HERE to purchase the just-released DVD set of Season 1 of An Idiot Abroad.


jan said:

Thanks for mentioning "An Idiot Abroad: The Bucket List." I hadn't realized it was starting last night, and I loved the first season. I also loved this first show and am looking forward to the rest. Do you happen to know if there is a lot more material in the DVDs than we saw on the show complete with commercials?

Also, thanks for mentioning "Angry Boys." I didn't even know it existed. I absolutely loved "Summer Heights High," but then I used to teach grades 6 through 12, and he so perfectly captured the characters -- especially Jonah (I've had kids like that in class) and the girl transfer student (ditto). So now I'm enjoying this series as well. It's not always laugh-out-loud funny, but he sure inhabits the characters (I especially like Gran). If you hadn't mentioned the show as one of your recommedations, I would have missed it completely, so thanks for that.

[Totally welcome, on both counts. And no, there aren't many extras on the Idiot Abroad Season 1 DVD -- but the program alone is worth it. - DB]

Comment posted on January 22, 2012 12:52 PM
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