Back around September, I saw an ad for British cable advertising a new show called “An Idiot Abroad.” It was from Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant, and starred their friend and podcast cohort Karl Pilkington. It looked hilarious, but was originally only slated for British audiences. I sulked for a moment, and prayed that it would hit America.
A few weeks ago, my wish came true on the Science Channel, and it’s basically everything I wanted.
Let me lay out the concept if you haven’t heard about it: Karl is a radio producer who worked with Gervais and Merchant on their radio show/podcast. He’s also on-air with them, where his deadpan demeanor and seeming grumpiness toward everything made him a celebrity. The conceit of “Abroad” is that Gervais and Merchant have decided to send Pilkington, who apparently doesn’t travel much and really doesn’t want to anyhow, to see each of the seven wonders of the world. Merchant’s motivation is to expand Pilkington’s horizons and culture him; Gervais simply wants to see him squirm: “Nothing is funnier to me than Karl in a corner, getting poked by a stick,” he says at the beginning of each episode, “I am that stick.”
At the start of each episode, Gervais and Merchant pull Karl into a room where they discuss where he’s going, and what he’s there to see. As expected, Karl seems soured on the whole enterprise each time, and usually for ridiculous reasons. In the first episode, he complains about going to China because he thinks they eat toad there. He’s not upset THAT they eat toad, but he’s worried that he might like it, and if so, he won’t be able to get toad back in England. Stuff like this makes Gervais laugh hysterically, and his laugh is one of the greatest things ever.
Karl ends up going, and the inevitable culture shock is what carries the show. A program based simply around someone being uncomfortable about travel seems like something that would get old quickly, but “Abroad’s” ace in the hole is Pilkington. His discomfort with other cultures is fascinating. He’s always so put off by the way things happen in other cultures, and in such a hilarious way, you’re locked in. Back in China, at one point he’s sent to a masseuse to help him relax. He lays down on the table, and the masseuse brings out a bowl of alcohol (or some other kind of combustible fluid) with bandages soaking in it. The second she lights one on fire, you can see Karl crawling out of his skin. He hangs in there, but every application of flaming bandages makes him want to jump out the window, and he’s not shy about vocalizing his feelings.
Now, this isn’t to say that Karl is racist or anything like that. His discomfort isn’t rooted in some cruel bigotry or xenophobia, per se; he just hasn’t left where he’s lived too much in his life, and is fine with how things run in England. When he raises concerns with Gervais about the lack of toilet stall doors (or even toilets themselves) in Chinese restrooms, it’s not phrased in a “what horrible people these Chinese are” way. It just simply doesn’t compute with him why they don’t have stall doors, and he’s baffled.
One of the best parts of the show is how unimpressed he is with the wonders he’s tasked with visiting. His complaint about the Great Wall of China? It’s not that great. “It’s more like the Alright Wall of China,” he says. He’s also upset when he learns that much of the wall was refurbished in the 80s; therefore, he’s not really seeing the Great Wall from thousands of years ago. The pyramids? “If that was on my road, the Council would go, ‘Get that down, it’s a death trap.'” When he visits the giant temples at Chichen Itza in Mexico, he cranks some Depeche Mode on his iPod and dances around the fields.
But through it all, Karl manages to make it through each trip, complaining all the while. And you have to give him credit; he tries to acclimate himself wherever he goes. He may not want to eat toad, but when served some at a home in China (with noodles), he tries some. He gags like crazy, but he does try it. He eats the worm in Mexico, and almost chokes on it. He travels the desert by camel for hours, then attempts to eat a goat boiled in milk. He’s grumpy as hell about everything, but he’s at least giving it a shot.
Karl is all id, and not in the sense of being hedonistic; he just doesn’t have a filter when he speaks. In Mexico, this comes through when he speaks to his cab driver at the beginning. Karl mentions that he’s married, and when the cabbie asks him if his girlfriend has a hot body, he answers, “She used to, but not so much anymore.” He’s quick to add, though, that he hasn’t held up so well over time either. His displeasure at local customs is expressed immediately and often. But you can’t help but love the guy. Most everyone has a small part of his or her brain that reacts to new situations with skepticism and resistance. We’re usually better about suppressing it or working around it; Karl just embraces it and gives it full reign.
I really have nothing more to add except that you should watch this show if you haven’t already. If you find someone complaining about eating scorpions and wondering what the big deal about the Great Wall of China hilarious, you will not be disappointed. If not – I don’t care, you should still watch. If Science Channel ever decides to do a “How It’s Made”/”An Idiot Abroad” marathon one weekend, don’t bother calling me. I’m not going anywhere.
Need convincing? Try this on: