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Karl Pilkington on Science Channel's 'An Idiot Abroad': Idiot, Yes, But Savant, Too
March 12, 2011  | By Mark Bianculli  | 1 comment

Saturday's Science Channel marathon showing of An Idiot Abroad (2:30-11 p.m. ET) gives viewers the chance to catch up on episodes they missed, or to be introduced, in one massive dose, to a TV travel host with a unique difference. He hates to travel...

Until viewing the new travel documentary series An Idiot Abroad, by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, I had never noticed a now-obvious niche left completely unexploited by the current travel show format.

Here I had thought they'd done it all, exhausted every character, and delivered something for every type of fan.

We've got Anthony Bourdain, the slick, bad boy foodie author who dines with sultans and street vendors alike.

And Andrew Zimmern, the hefty, gregarious bald man with no gag reflex, who crosses continents to savor a tasty bull testicle ceviche.

And let us not forget PBS's Rick Steves, whose straight-laced, uber-geeky approach is somehow strangely comforting and addicting. But as varied and unique as these hosts are, they all share one fatal flaw: they love to travel.


Enter Karl Pilkington, a "typical Little Englander" with a high school education. And also with, as Gervais describes him, "a head like a f#@king orange." Earning fame on both the record-breaking podcast and animated HBO version of The Ricky Gervais Show (9 p.m. ET Fridays), Pilkington has made a career out of seeing the world a bit differently.

Now, as the host of the brilliant series An Idiot Abroad -- repeated in full today by the Science Channel, followed at 10 p.m. by a finale in which Gervais and Merchant question Pilkington upon his return -- Pilkington gives us the chance to see it a bit differently as well.

In what Gervais himself calls "the most expensive practical joke I've ever done," Idiot sends Pilkington to six of the seven wonders of the world -- The Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, the ancient city of Petra, and Machu Picchu in Peru -- to tear him far from his comfort zone and watch him squirm and winge in his worldly new surroundings. And of course, hopefully to learn a thing or two along the way.

Now some -- including Gervais, who loves him like a brother -- would classify Pilkington as a moron. A mank. A buffoon. An idiot. And in some ways, perhaps they're right. But to simply label him an "idiot" is to leave out the "savant."

Karl questions the world with a childlike lack of preconception, often stumbling upon brilliant new ideas, or dismantling popular and accepted ones. And it's during the dismantling where his tries genius lies.


Melding a near-complete lack of knowledge with a complete lack of veneration, Pilkington skeptically criticizes everything, which almost always leaves him over-bothered and under-impressed. This, however, is precisely the quality that makes him the perfect host for a different type of travel show.

Gone are the poetic descriptions of a city's architecture and landscape. Absent is the blind adoration of foreign culture. Distant places are removed from their pedestals and, most refreshingly, evaluated with brutal honesty.

The traffic and merchants in India are almost unbearable. The buckets of entrails and skinned frogs in China are revolting. The street festivals in Mexico are arbitrary and reckless. Most of the ancient Great Wall is a modern renovation.

Now granted, Gervais and Merchant wouldn't be good producers unless they poked poor Karl with the proverbial stick, so extra efforts are made to make his hotels and meals comically miserable. But he's also treated to some extraordinary opportunities that the common traveler never experiences. And between the two, you get to watch the perfect balance.


Part of you watches him detest his absurd situations, and laughs at him. Part of you relates to the horrors of traveling, and laughs with him. And part of you -- unexpectedly -- realizes how profound and insightful his wit can actually be.

By the end of his six trips, Pilkington can't wait to get back to London. He curses the idea of a second series, and recalls nothing but painful memories. But watching his adventures, we see how much he has actually learned and tasted and experienced, and can't help but sense that he secretly appreciates it. Travel -- even unpleasant travel -- broadens the mind and enriches the soul.

It's like Mark Twain said in his first travel book, The Innocents Abroad: Any rare thing, any new, exhilarating sensation, is worth a hundred worn and threadbare home pleasures.

That's something even an idiot can understand.


jan said:

Thank you for a perceptive and insightful analysis of An Innocent Abroad. I absolutely love this show, but I don't find it "hilarious" most of the time. It's fascinating, and certainly Karl gets to do things no normal tourist would, and it does have some laugh-out-loud moments, but he seems like a genuinely nice man with a slightly different view from the usual tourist. You said it very nicely when you said, "Gone are the poetic descriptions of a city's architecture and landscape. Absent is the blind adoration of foreign culture. Distant places are removed from their pedestals and, most refreshingly, evaluated with brutal honesty. . . .And part of you -- unexpectedly -- realizes how profound and insightful his wit can actually be." I'm really sorry this series will be ending; I've enjoyed it immensely. Thank you for such a lovely commentary on it.


Comment posted on March 12, 2011 6:04 PM
Kelly said:

Wonderful show. The column captures it perfectly. I did find myself a little uncomfortable with the discomforts Gervais so gleefully inflicted on his friend, but in total the series is an achievement. While Karl dismisses a second series, I have a suggestion: since the Science Channel is the home for this gem, how wonderful to give Karl the opportunity to weigh in on some of our most impressive scientific advances. Let him visit the super collider, a cloning laboratory, or where the ozone is being analyzed. I would love to hear his perceptive analysis!

[I'm curious to hear what Mark thinks of your suggestion -- but in the meantime, let me tip my hand and say, "Brilliant!" Can you imagine? Hour-long shows featuring Karl Pilkington's views on... Evolution! Extraterrestrial Life! The Big Bang! And, of course, Monkeys! - DB]

Comment posted on March 12, 2011 10:32 PM
Greg Kibitz said:

I haven't yet seen this show, but I have been checking out the latest Ricky Gervais Show (cartoon) episodes where they tease Pilkington like a couple school yard bullies, viz. someone to poke sticks at, make fun of and generally abuse.

Being a bit of an idiot-savant myself (an engineer/science geek with Asperger's - high intellectual IQ and yet near zero social IQ) I too see not only the idiocy (and general illiteracy and overal social awkwardness) of Pilkington, but also his genius insight (at times) when it comes to deeper thoughts about all things nature, science and humanity.

Unlike tha average American Blue Collar Idiot (trans: slackers, rednecks, gad abouts and/or vapid incipid teen idol queens), for such a woefully uneducated man, he still often has insights that only a true genius (who actually knows a good bit more about such erudite, obsure and egnimatic things) can really fathom. The sad truth is, that as much as Karl is an easy victim of ridicule from the likes of Gervais and Merchant, in my eyes it is often Gevais who looks the real idiot/jerk/douchebag when his own scientific illiteracy comes to roost.

If Gervais only knew more about Psychology, Quantum Mechanics, Relativity, Anthropology and Cosmology (outside that which is prevalant in the Popular media) he would realize that with a bit of Oxford education himself, Pilkington would easily be his intellectual equal, if not superior. Still, in the "real" world, in which we all inexorably inhabit, and knowing what I know of human psychology and untoward social norms/behavior, more mediocre minds like Gervais', with the ability to be snarky and witty (well beyond their acutal intellect) and use others for their own gain, will always rule the day.

I like Gervais, enjoy his comedy, but in some manner, his treatment of Pilkington goes too far, and that makes me like him just a little bit less. But now I need to see the new show and see if Pilkington truly shines.

Comment posted on March 23, 2011 12:49 AM
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We have Anthony Bourdain, the slick, bad-boy culinary writer who enjoys meals with both sultans and street vendors.
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