Inside story: The banter buddies

They are the butt of jokes – yet are often the creative spark. In today's radio world, nearly every presenter needs a funny sidekick. Guy Adams picks six of the best radio

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

Justin Waite

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."

Brian Murphy

Boss: Christian O'Connell

Employer: Virgin

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."

Dave Vitty

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."

Karl Pilkington

Boss: Ricky Gervais

Employer: Various

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."

Pete Donaldson

Boss: Alex Zane

Employer: Xfm

"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."

Trevor Lock

Boss: Russell Brand

Employer: Various

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
filmPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
General Election
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - Sheffield - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer position with a...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Advertising Sales Consultant - OTE £30k

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Gloucestershire's most innovati...

Recruitment Genius: Telephone Advertising Sales Consultant - OTE £40k

£18000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Gloucestershire's most innovati...

Recruitment Genius: Advertising Sales Consultant - OTE £50,000

£24000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Gloucestershire's most innovati...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders