The Underlooked: Ricky Gervais on XFM

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Good evening/morning/banana, and welcome to The Underlooked, where we look at bits and pieces of pop culture that, in my narcissistic opinion, don’t get talked about enough. Movies, comics, music, television, and miscellaneous forms all may apply. This week, my favorite radio show of all time: Ricky Gervais on XFM.

Once upon a time, in a far-off land called England, there was a little TV show called The Office. But this was no ordinary show; it was innovative, and fresh, and very, very funny. When the people of England realized just how special this little show was, they started to make it very, very popular. Years later, the show would get remade in America and become a massive phenomenon, but this story isn’t about that. It’s about Ricky Gervais, the man who created and starred in the original show, and Steven Merchant, the man he co-created it with, and, most importantly, this is a story about Karl Pilkington.

Now, when the show started to get popular, Ricky recalled a tiny, independent radio station he had done a show for many years prior, called XFM. He decided that he would like to do that again, since he was a rising star now and all. So he and Steven made their triumphant return to XFM, and XFM agreed to let them have a radio show. But all radio shows need a producer, to push the buttons in the studio and make sure everything goes smoothly, so a producer who already worked at XFM was brought in.

His name was Karl. The first thing Ricky noticed about him was his head: bald except for a slight fuzz on the top, and almost perfectly spherical. This was an odd trait to have, but Ricky assumed the man was an otherwise unremarkable northerner. They made each other’s acquaintance, and began the show. Every Saturday, the three of them came into the studio, Ricky and Steve each with a bag of records to play. They were only doing this for the hell of it, so there was basically no pre-planning involved. Ricky and Steve would chat in between songs for two hours, and then go home. Karl sat by the equipment, occasionally making brief contributions to the conversation, but mostly staying quiet. For several weeks, this was the way it went. It was fun, but nothing extraordinary.

However, after about ten episodes, Rick and Steve began to realize something: Karl Pilkington was possibly the most extraordinary person either one of them had ever met. As they talked to him more and more, it became clear that he had a never-ending supply of insane theories, wild ideas, unbelievable stories, and, most striking to Ricky, gaps in general knowledge. Karl admitted he had never had much schooling, and when pressed, would reveal that all he knew of Ann Frank was that she was “Stuck in a cupboard”, or that he was unaware that dinosaurs and man never walked the earth at the same time.

But Karl was not an idiot. He was ignorant, certainly, of a great many things, and Ricky called him an idiot plenty of times throughout the show’s run, but he knew that wasn’t really the case. Karl would show flashes of great common sense and lightening wit, mixed in with his bizarre beliefs and inscrutable worldview. Put simply, Karl Pilkington did not think like any other human being on earth. The process by which he absorbed information seemed to be almost alien, because the conclusions he drew were completely unpredictable. At one point, Ricky informed him that forward-facing eyes were a milestone in human evolution, and Karl’s immediate question was “So years ago they had eyes that looked back into the head?” This was not a joke, or a smartass comeback; this was his sincere response to learning that fact.

So, the show changed. For four series, and hundreds of episodes, Rick and Steve essentially interviewed Karl for two hours every Saturday, with commercials and songs. The songs became rather necessary, as Ricky would sometimes become so incredulous after some particularly insane comment from Karl that he would insist on ending the conversation immediately, and so the cry “Play a record!” would come to mean Ricky had had enough. Week after week, Karl never failed to be a delight. He told stories about his childhood in Manchester, where two boys who went to his school both had abnormally large heads and webbed hands, but weren’t related, and didn’t spend much time together (“Because that would be too obvious”). He brought up questions he had about science, such as how the world keeps from collapsing under the weight of all the new stuff we make. And he said all these things not like a comedian playing to a crowd, but in a deadpan, almost monotone, northern drawl. Most of the time, the entire trio would appear to forget that they were on the air at all, going off on tangent after tangent, until eventually Ricky would interject “Sorry, this isn’t going out, is it?”

Besides the chats, there were a number of regular features of Karl’s design, which went off the rails fairly often. There was Rockbusters, a play on the popular British game-show Blockbusters, in which Karl would give the listeners the initials of three musical artists, as well as corresponding “Cryptic clues”; whoever emailed in the correct answers first would usually win some junk Karl had found in desk drawers around the building. More often than not, the clues were ludicrous stretches, or didn’t make sense even after Karl explained them at the end of the episode. “The Jamaican fella would like to live on that road, but it’s a bit pricey.” The answer there was meant to be Dire Straits, as in “Dear streets.” This feature would usually end with Rick screaming something to the effect of “This isn’t radio!” while the final song faded up. But the most beloved feature that Karl created was Monkey News. This feature was a prime example of another of Karl’s amusing qualities: he appeared believe just about everything he ever read on the internet, no matter how impossible or illogical it was. Every week, Karl would bring in a story he had found involving a monkey, or, usually, a chimpanzee. The stories got progressively more implausible: according to Karl, monkeys could play bass guitar, be construction workers, rob banks, fly airplanes, perform surgery, and were generally more intelligent and capable than the average human.

The dynamic between the three broadcasters is what kept the show entertaining for so long. Karl was the star, but Ricky and Steve were great at getting him to come out of his shell. Ricky would often be more antagonistic to Karl, while Steve would take on a sort of referee role, even occasionally playing devil’s advocate. This arrangement could shift on a dime, though: Ricky would constantly mock Karl’s unusual appearance and lack of education; but rather than retorting directly, Karl seemed to take out his frustration out on Steve, taking jabs at his height, caution with money, and lack of a significant other. Ricky would usually encourage both sides for his own amusement whenever a spat broke out, which would lead to Steve turning around and berating Ricky, thus restoring equilibrium. Of course, most of this was joking among friends, but it’s hard to tell exactly how angry they got; how much of it was real, and how much of it for fun.

Which leads us to the many accusations that have come up over the years that Karl Pilkington is a fiction, a character created by Ricky and Steve and passed off as real, in a decades-spanning hoax. This is absurd, of course. If Andy Kaufman or Steven Colbert couldn’t stick to a character long enough to not be known as “That guy who stays in character”, a random producer from a tinpot radio station certainly couldn’t. No, the truth of the matter, as demonstrated through the haphazard, yet thorough documentation that was this radio show, was that Karl was just an extraordinarily singular human being. The show is a dive into a mind unlike any other; like Lewis Carrol’s wonderland, the world inside seems to operate on its own internal logic, but it is nearly impossible to piece together how that logic works or what its rules are.

It has an effect on you, too. I know I’m a more open-minded, outside-the-box person for having listened to Karl so much. I may not believe everything he says, or really take seriously nearly anything he says, but it doesn’t matter. To listen to this man is to study the art of not following the crowd; not for attention from counter-culture types, not to incur the annoyance of the proverbial “Man”, but simply because he gives no thought to modeling his own mind and heart on the patterns of others. To listen to Karl is also to laugh, frequently and loudly, as Ricky does, but not really at the expense of Karl. Deep down, we all know we could stand to be a little more like Karl, so truly, with laugh with him, not at him.

And what happened after the radio show was over, you ask? Well, the trio went on to do several other projects together, including the popular podcast The Ricky Gervais Show, modeled on the radio show that preceded it. It is a worthy successor, but doesn’t quite capture the same shambolic, amateurish magic of the XFM shows, and towards the end, Karl and Ricky begin to grate on each other more than usual, suggesting that Ricky was finally starting to get sick of his favorite person. A breath of fresh air was needed, and was delivered marvelously in the form of An Idiot Abroad, a television show in which Ricky and Steve sent Karl to various distant parts of the globe just to watch his reactions to what he found there. The show was brilliant, and Karl would later continue in this vain without the other two in his show The Moaning Of Life, also a very fun piece of television.

So, in summary, they all lived semi-happily, albeit with much frustration and anger, ever after. But to hear where it all started, and to see Karl’s fantastically unique personality in all its glory, the XFM shows are where you must start. It may not be a road to enlightenment, but it’s a fun road, regardless.

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  1. Great article recognising the quality of this show which has kept me going through years of boring desk jobs. Karl’s simplicity is so relatable, comforting and relaxing to me. I remember half-listening to some of the later shows when they aired but only properly got into it when I was working at the company that published Karl’s books. I was asked to find a picture of Hairy Chinese Kid to use in Karlology and that’s what led me to the youtube goldmine. I listen to the cycle about every year and constantly quote the show to my husband, to his annoyance. Will keep on trying to push it onto people.

  2. Great article Tim! I’m always scouring the internet for more of Karl. Too bad “The Moaning of Life” has ended. He’s a beautiful person with a good heart and possibly the funniest person I have ever heard in my life.

  3. I very much agree with your piece here. The dynamic between these three (almost always) interesting and (sometimes) insightful people impacted me greatly over the past decade that I have been listening to their podcasts and radio shows, they have helped form my beliefs and understandings, and each have contributed to my education in ways that I just couldn’t explain in a short comment here. I can’t imagine how different a person I would be today if I hadn’t found Karl, Steve or Ricky when I was so young, my parents have questioned their influence on me however I couldn’t be more grateful to them.

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