Karl Pilkington: Ricky Gervais's extra pair of hands

As the odd-thinking fall guy in the 'Office' star's world-conquering podcast, he has become an unlikely hero. Johnny Davis meets 'Britain's funniest man', Baldrick to Gervais's Blackadder

Sunday 17 September 2006 00:00

Three weeks ago, while Ricky Gervais and his writing partner, Stephen Merchant, were in LA basking in Emmy glory for the American version of The Office, their colleague Karl Pilkington was on his back in a London hospital with "a camera up me tackle". The 33-year-old Mancunian, "the funniest man alive in Britain today", according to Gervais, has emerged as the unlikely star of The Ricky Gervais Show, a talk-based podcast with a global reach of eight million - recognised by The Guinness Book of Records as the most downloaded podcast in the world.

After he joined the show as producer, Gervais and Merchant were quick to spot the potential in Pilkington's peculiar worldview and promoted him to equal billing as presenter, though his relationship is perhaps better characterised as Baldrick to their Blackadder.

In each episode he is encouraged to offer his thoughts on various hot potatoes while his more famous chums jackknife with mirth as he draws increasingly muddleheaded conclusions. Consequently, Gervais has called a new book of their podcast scripts The World of Karl Pilkington (Pilkington also provides the illustrations).

Today, though, he's more concerned with kidney stones than his growing reputation as Britain's greatest comic. First off, he blamed Gordon Ramsay. "I was watching him on telly, killing a couple of pigs. I'd just eaten. I thought, 'That's horrible. That's given me a bit of a stomach pain'." But the next morning it was still there. Clutching a cold plate to his belly was no help. Advice from girlfriend Suzanne - jump up and down, if the pain worsens, it's appendicitis - proved inconclusive. So, off to the hospital with him for a "root around" with the penis camera. "The doctors said, 'We do kidney stones every day'. That never reassures me. If you're doing the same job every day, there's room for error. Whereas, if they say, 'You're Siamese twins, we're going to have to separate you', you've got the best doctors in the world."

And that's Pilkington. You can see where he's coming from. It's just that sometimes he never really arrives. Since The Ricky Gervais Show surfaced on London's Xfm radio in 2001, audiences have joined Merchant and Gervais in baffled mirth as they goad their sidekick into firing off another philosophical salvo from Planet Daft, a Greatest Hits of which might include: "If you eat seven bananas in a row, it will kill you", that The Diary of Anne Frank was "an Adrian Mole sort of thing" and that Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight" concerns "a little fella in a wheelchair".

Pilkington's not trying to be funny. It's what he thinks. When a discussion of I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! led him to pronounce he could cope with eating a kangaroo's genitals, so long as it was dark, T-shirts bearing his head and the legend "a knob at night" did brisk trade in halls of residence.

Not everyone's sold. His comments are so daffy and delivered with such hangdog monotone, there's been accusations that he's not real or that he's an actor scripted by the others. He shakes his head. "There's no way Ricky would do it scripted. Anything that involves work ... They have me on because it's easier. It gives them something to talk about."

Indeed, Pilkington in the flesh proves as endearingly free-thinking as the podcast model. While interviews like these traditionally take place in offices or restaurants, he proposes we meet at Bodies - Dr Gunther von Hagens' exhibition of plastinated human remains (he wants to brush up on kidneys). Though some of the things he comes out with are certainly headscratchers - "At the doctors, I had to tick boxes. Does that mean I'll be handed down to him [von Hagens]?" - he's a terrific raconteur, possessed of something that gross generalisation might declare Mancunian wit.

"When I discovered Karl, I felt like Anthony Hopkins in The Elephant Man," says Gervais. "Taking around this sideshow freak. I want the world to see the oddity that is Karl Pilkington."

It may not surprise you to learn that education didn't much agree with Pilkington. He left Ashton on Mersey School sans results and signed up to a YTS printing course. Work at dad's "butty shop" was temporarily halted in 1989 when Pilkington Snr went into Wythenshawe Hospital, an occasion that inspired Pilkington Jnr to sign up as hospital radio newsreader. Deciding he didn't "understand the big issues in the world", he offroaded to concentrate on "and finally ..." style silly stories - something that apparently cheered the patients but aggravated the bosses. Their annoyance translated into the boot when Pilkington used the transmitter to broadcast pirate radio, that cunning plan foiled after he accidentally aired his accomplice's identity.

Somehow, he got a job at Manchester's Piccadilly Radio hosting a 2am-6am show, from which he was let go when his enthusiasm for impenetrable quizzes kept cutting into the music. "I was playing, like, three songs an hour." A mate helped him to the producer job at Xfm, where he met Gervais and Merchant.

Just as The Office and Extras have caused harrumphing over the cruelty of some of the humour, so Gervais and Merchant have faced accusations of bullying Pilkington - one video podcast shows Gervais firing a champagne cork at Pilkington's "perfectly round head". But Pilkington's not bothered. In fact, it's him who edits the shows.

"They've helped me out a lot. When someone's a mate, they're allowed to call you an idiot." Anyway, Gervais phones him "two or three times a day" to discuss trivia, or something he's seen in a science magazine. You can see how they get along: Gervais's stand-ups, "Politics" and "Animals", are built of similar world-wonder as Pilkington's podcast item "Monkey News", albeit rather better researched.

"Since he read on the internet about a monkey that ran a barber's shop, Karl has eagerly devoured all the other codswallop that's out there. If it's a load of old bollocks, Karl will swallow it," says Merchant. "Though he'll only eat a knob at night."

Gervais has encouraged him to try stand-up and there have been offers, notably panel shows, but he's not biting. "I like QI, but it's brainy people who know their stuff. I'd wind them up."

Having quit Xfm, he's currently jobless, a situation that suits him: "It gives me time to roam about and think about stuff."

Still, Britain's Funniest Man might brace himself for job offers: The World of Karl Pilkington is surely a Christmas bestseller. "How does it work with books?" he asks. "Do you have to sell many for it to be a bestseller?"

'The World of Karl Pilkington' is published by Fourth Estate, £10


* Born 1972 in Manchester.

* Trained as a printer before joining Manchester's Piccadilly Radio via a news-reading stint on hospital radio.

* Arrived at London's Xfm radio station as a producer in 2001, where he worked on 'The Ricky Gervais Show'.

* Hosts Gervais and Stephen Merchant recognised a unique wit and promoted him to the programme's third voice.

* The show became a podcast, above, in 2005, and was soon recognised by 'The Guinness Book of Records' as the world's most downloaded podcast. A third series is currently airing to a global audience of eight million.

* Lives in London with his long-term partner Suzanne.

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