A year ago, in a slot where you would usually find the thoughts of statesmanlike world leaders, senior politicians or agenda-setting journalists, The Spectator ran an interview with Karl Pilkington, a little-known radio producer who had become Ricky Gervais's sidekick on Xfm.
Pilkington was, on the face of it, a strange subject for the (supposed) journal of political record. A balding 33-year-old from Manchester, he was neither statesmanlike nor agenda-setting, nor particularly famous. Yet the magazine's headline-writer declared him: "the funniest man on the planet."
Subsequent events proved them right: weeks later, a book called The World of Karl Pilkington hit the bestseller lists, while the podcasts on which Pilkington had collaborated with Gervais and Stephen Merchant entered the Guinness Book of Records as the most downloaded show of all time.
Elsewhere, Pilkington's unwittingly hilarious observations – "you never see an old man eating a Twix," or "Chinese people age overnight" – entered the lexicon of playground catchphrases. The deadpan radio personality had indeed, again in the Speccy's words become a "superstar."
Today, Pilkington remains firmly in the ascendant. He's released a second book, Happyslapped by a Jellyfish, and Other True Stories, and was recently signed by Channel 4 to appear in Comedy Lab and a documentary entitled Karl Pilkington – Satisfied Fool. Across Britain, fans repeat his catchphrase: "People who live in glass houses... have to answer the door."
All of which illustrates two important facts about modern broadcasting. Firstly, that Ricky Gervais retains an enduring Midas touch; secondly, and perhaps more importantly, that sidekicks like Pilkington are of infinite importance in the high-stakes, cut-throat world of radio comedy.
Explore the world of the superstar DJ, and you'll quickly realise that most, if not all, rely on a hapless assistant to underpin the comic dynamic of their show. Chris Moyles, for example, boasts a sounding-board called Dave Vitty (otherwise known as Comedy Dave); Johnny Vaughan has one called "Welshy". Both are the foundations of their employers' success.
Sometimes, a sidekick can rise from his lowly roots. In the 1990s, for example, Chris Evans built a selection of gags around a bespectacled producer called Will MacDonald, who went on to host his own TV quiz show. But for the most part, they remain the great, unheralded heroes of modern broadcasting: to be laughed at, to play Laurel to their overpaid employer's Hardy, be the butt of his jokes, and generally fill the traditional role of a bloke who takes custard-pies in the face.
Recently, I spent two days shadowing Brian Murphy, a producer who fulfils the sidekick role on Christian O'Connell's Virgin Radio show. Not only was Murphy forced (like all who work in breakfast radio) to rise at 5am in order to earn his crust, he was an uncomplaining and constant figure of fun for both O'Connell and his millions of listeners.
When we met, Murphy had just been forced to change his name, by deed poll, to an absurd name suggested by O'Connell's listeners. His passport and driving licence therefore carried the magisterial title: Blaize Falconburger.
What should we make of this? I would argue that Murphy's collusion in this stunt was a heroic act, worthy of the sort of journalistic laudation usually saved for a Woodward, Bernstein, Pilger or Hersh. Here, therefore, in a laudatory spirit, we profile six of Britain's finest radio sidekicks...
Additional reporting by Jamie Merrill
Boss: Johnny Vaughan
Employer: Capital Radio
Justin Waite, aka Welshy, is the soundman and official laughing stock on Capital Radio's Johnny Vaughan Breakfast Show. He owes his nickname to his birthplace and heavy Welsh accent. Despite recently having to undergo a full Brazilian wax and having his car crushed by Vaughan, Welshy is happy to take the rough with the smooth. "Essentially you can only take the piss out of someone if you get on with them," he says. "Welshy is only a distilled part of me, mind, the more silly side. I have fun but in the media you don't see the anyone entirely. I am performing. I don't think there is anyone out there who is exactly what they sound like on the radio. It's a caricature."
Boss: Christian O'Connell
O'Connell gave Murphy his first job in radio six years ago, and he's been paying for it in gags ever since. "Christian's the funny guy of the show," he explains. "When I come on it's usually to do something stupid, or say something idiotic.
"We have this rule that anything that's said outside the office can also be used on air. It makes the show like a snapshot of our lives. One time I caught scabies. Christian's wife had just had a baby, so out of politeness I told Christian about the disease, because the doctor told me you had to be careful. The whole thing was straight on air, the next day. I had to apologise live on air, to his wife, for endangering life."
Boss: Chris Moyles
Employer: Radio One
Vitty has been official to Chris Moyles since 1998. "I was working at Radio One as a studio technician. We got on as mates and started going for beers in the afternoon. My role is being his sidekick, though a while back I started putting 'director of comedy' on emails and since then I've been called Comedy Dave. Although I'm not a stooge in a Baldrick fashion, I'm known for things like not ever reading books and have other personality traits that get the piss taken out of them. I would never be so arrogant as to say that Chris couldn't work without me, but we know each other well and are very good at setting each other up and timing. We are genuinely best mates on and off the radio."
Boss: Ricky Gervais
Pilkington is the official heavyweight champ of British sidekicks. "I didn't even really want to go on air at first," he says. "I was involved in the technical side of things and the boss made me work with Ricky and Steve. It was a great laugh and gave me the confidence to do other things like my books and television.
"I don't know if I have a profession now. I write books, but I'm not an author, because proper authors use big words and I just tell little stories.
"Being on radio was a bit like the Truman Show, I had strangers coming up to me in the street. I shy away from the limelight; I don't like strangers coming up to me, so writing books means I don't get that hassle."
Boss: Alex Zane
"Cheeky" Pete Donaldson could be called the career sidekick, since he's served both Lauren Laverne and Alex Zane since joining Xfm from university. He also boasts a well-read blog, full of bizarre musings and internet oddities. "I started doing work experience at Xfm and made an opening for myself on Lauren Laverne's show. She was about my age and we shared a sense of humour so I was the tongue-in-cheek northern boy who comes down south for her.
"I tried to drop the 'Cheeky' part of my name when I started working with Alex, but it seems to have stuck. Our relationship is a partnership. He takes the piss out of me and I take it out of him twice as much back."
Boss: Russell Brand
In his own words Trevor Lock played the "kinky vicar who liked killing small animals" alongside Russell Brand on his BBC 6 Music and BBC Radio 2 show until last year. He had first met Brand when, as a scriptwriter, he cast him in Something You Should Know at the Edinburgh festival in 2000.
"Russell needs a context; a radio studio is a barren landscape so he needed a context for his comedy. Most of the show revolved around Russell doing nasty things to me. I was the curious person with glasses who read books and didn't drink. I was more like a pet than a sidekick, but it didn't bother me: it was a fun way to spend Sunday morning."Reuse content