He is a co-host on the most popular podcast ever, becoming a cult comedy star in the process, and only has to work one day a month. Yet if it were up to Karl Pilkington, the online shows he presents with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant would have stopped long ago.
“I got bored of them from series three and I wanted to knock it on the head then,” he says glumly. “It doesn’t matter who you are, there’s only so much you can talk about and it felt like I had nothing left to say. Ricky convinced me to stay on for a few more, but after series five I said, ‘That’s definitely it’.”
But, with the help of a poster campaign that invited fans of the show to decorate their streets with posters of Karl’s face, Gervais convinced Pilkington to do a sixth season, which started in December. Titled The Ricky Gervais Guide To…, the shows are loosely structured around certain topics. So far they have covered medicine, natural history and, in last Friday’s episode, the arts.
As he sits in a café in London’s Soho, Pilkington, 36, is insistent that this season will be the last. It is a curious decision, given that the show has turned the bald Mancunian with just one GCSE (an E grade in history) into a cult celebrity and provides his main source of income.
Its popularity was instant and after its first month in December 2005 it entered Guinness World Records as the most popular podcast ever when it averaged 261,670 downloads a week. In three years it has managed to attract more than 155 million downloads.
But the success is a mystery to Karl. “I don’t understand the appeal of it. I think, ‘Why would anyone want to listen to this?’ It’s just a few blokes chatting. People can do that in the pub with their mates, can’t they?”
But its popularity is undeniable. And it has made Karl famous in his own right, hasn’t it? He disagrees: “Now and again I get recognised or someone will shout at me in the street: ‘You’ve got a head like a fucking orange’ (a phrase Gervais directs at Pilkington in almost every episode). But it’s more of a cult thing than proper fame. I’m not invited to any exciting parties and my life hasn’t really changed. Ricky and Steve are the famous ones. They are why people download the audio books. I’m like Victoria to their David Beckham. Or Ashley to their Cheryl Cole.”
Much of the show’s format centres on Karl being an object of ridicule. Gervais and Merchant will mercilessly mock his ideas and views on the world and are incredulous at his often bizarre observations, such as “Why don’t you ever see an old man eating a Twix?” In the sixth season of the podcasts (now called audio books, because you have to pay to download them) Pilkington continues in much the same vein, his observations being the main source of comedy. Art, he opines, is “something for your eyes to look at”. Talking about medicine he says: “It’s good to feel ill.”
Yet Karl is not concerned about his portrayal as the intellectual weak link in the trio. “It doesn’t bother me,” he says. “I look at Ricky and his other mates he picks on and realise it could be worse. He buried his mate Robin Ince in the sand and waited for the tide to come in, and he wrapped his editor, Nigel Williams, up in Sellotape. Being called a ‘div’ is not that bad when I see what they go through. And at the end of the day he’s a mate. There is no nastiness to it.”
So if it’s not the relentless ridicule that bothers him, why does he want the shows to end? “It doesn’t feel like a proper job,” he explains. “I get more enjoyment out of painting and decorating. When I go on holiday and people ask me what I do, I tell them I do some internet stuff and I’ve done a couple of books and I hope they just leave it at that. If I was a surgeon I’d want them to ask me what I did. I’d show off about it, but this doesn’t seem like a real job.”
Karl’s last real job was as a producer at the XFM radio station. Since he left he has written three books as well as doing the podcasts, which are released about once a month. So what does he do with his copious amounts of free time? “I’m painting my flat at the moment, so that takes up most of my days, and I’ve got a house in Kent that I’m doing up as well. Yesterday, I did some painting then went out to buy an onion and came home and watched University Challenge. The onion was probably the highlight.”
And what will he do if and when the show ends – stand-up comedy? “No,” he replies flatly. “I will never do that. I had a bad experience doing public speaking at school. I had to talk about a pen for five minutes and it was really hard work. I couldn’t wait to get off the stage. If it all ended and I had to get a proper job then that’s what I’d do. I’d be a DIY handyman or work on a building site. Something I would enjoy. A proper, skilled job.”
Would his “fame” not make it difficult to go back to a normal job, I ask? “Not really,” he replies. “It’s not as if it would be like Des O’Connor turning up on site and asking, ‘Where do you want these bricks putting?’”
Listen to the sixth season of podcasts at www.rickygervais.comReuse content