In September 2006, Ricky Gervais announced that he was to stop recording comedy podcasts with Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington, saying he wanted to "knock it on the head for a while before everyone hates us". But the pontificating triumvirate are back, and today sees the release of the latest podcast in the series, The Ricky Gervais Guide to... This one's about philosophy, the series having so far covered medicine, natural history and the arts. The final podcast will be on "England and the English".
Gervais's website is a packed scrapbook trumpeting each of the comedian's projects, achievements and interviews. On it, the success story of The Ricky Gervais Show (five seasons on Xfm from 2001 to 2005, when the first podcast was launched) is laid out in a bewildering display of number-crunching. "The first series runs to 12 episodes between 5 Dec and 20 Feb 2006. When logs are analysed early in 2006, Guinness World Records ratified The Ricky Gervais Show as the most downloaded podcasts ever, with well over 250,000 downloads in the first month." Elsewhere we learn that "The Ricky Gervais Show was downloaded 4,611,655 times by 1,681,098 unique users in February . That puts the total at nearly 160 million." Meanwhile, the press release for the latest series boasts: "Ricky Gervais's audiobooks have sold over 3 million episodes and the new series is at No 1 in the charts in 14 countries worldwide including America and the UK." Oh; and don't forget that Gervais's blog is read by half a million people a week.
If these statistics sound a bit Brentian, it's fair to say that Gervais has made a success of the podcast medium, certainly more so than his film career up to this point. The success of his podcasts is down to the same approach that, by and large, makes his stand-up so enjoyable; they are both about the appeal of the down-to-earth humour of the "man down the pub" who can toy with trivia. Unlike stand-up, or short bursts of banter between records, the rhythm of the podcast demands closer listening in order to follow the trail as the trio grope their way towards something approaching a punchline. In Gervais's broad-brush stand-up shows, particularly Politics and Fame, the subjects themselves barely get lip service. But with the nebulous subject matter of "philosophy", it's virtually impossible for this pub chat to go too far awry. Perhaps that's to be expected from Gervais, a former student of the subject.
At the start, Gervais observes that "cod philosophies" of the new-age kind – mediums, crystals, feng shui – have given the discipline a bad name. Merchant recounts that when he was hosting a BBC World Service show, a medium told him: "You like to communicate with people on a global level."
From there, they move to one of the key building blocks of philosophy, Descartes's cogito ergo sum – "the first thing we did at university", according to Gervais. Pilkington, asked how he knows that life is not a dream, replies: "Because I haven't been sleeping that well lately."
Gervais cracks up here. Though his cackling can feel a little forced, he's right to find Karl Pilkington funny. We learn that, as long as Karl's boiler is fixed, he doesn't mind whether he is living in a dream or not, and that a packet of Munchies is integral to his limited capacity to enjoy life.
Sausages and curry also feature on the menu of illustrative philosophy. The morsels served up by the trio are intermittently tasty rather than a comedy banquet, but they'll whet your appetite for the rest of the series.
'The Ricky Gervais Guide to... Philosophy' will be available to download at iTunes or audible.co.uk (or .com) from today