Karl Pilkington is depressed. It seems appropriate. He’s sitting in a cold car in a thick coat waiting for phone calls (“the flat’s not that big and my girlfriend, she’s trying to watch the telly”). Never mind, there’s always “Jupiter and Venus – do you get that there?” Um, yes. “They’re really bright tonight.” Pilkington’s series An Idiot Abroad screens on BBC Knowledge from tonight. In it, Pilkington’s good friends Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant send him off to see the Seven Wonders of the World. As a fairly miserable Northerner, he’s usually not impressed. (Warning: rambling answers ahead.)
Ricky Gervais describes An Idiot Abroad as one of the funniest, most expensive practical jokes he’s ever done – did you think it was a mean practical joke when you were filming it? Not really. He annoys me all the time. You’ve got to remember I’ve known Ricky and Steve for getting on 10 or 11 years or something. This isn’t like if he was a total stranger and you didn’t know that this person winding me up was a mate – then you’d think it was out of order. But it’s blokes winding each other up. I don’t know if groups of women do the same, but most of me mates … I don’t have many mates, Ricky’s my best mate by default really, it’s sort-of what blokes do to annoy each other. I like to annoy him, so don’t worry about that.
Do you manage to get your own back on Ricky and Stephen sometimes? Shh. I don’t see Stephen that often, but I annoy Ricky in different ways. He’s always wanting me to do different bits of work and do stuff on the internet, and when I say “no” that really annoys him. He hates it. He can’t make me do it. That’s what people have to remember – he can’t make me do anything. I don’t have to do any of this stuff, it’s just that in the end I think I’m always the winner. I’m the one who sees all these different countries, I might not be happy at the time and I do miss home when I’m away, but at the end of the day, I’ve been there, I’ve seen it, I’ve done it while he’s tucked away in his nice little house. Quite honestly, don’t worry about it too much, it’s not a problem.
Do you get that quite a lot – “aren’t they being jerks to you?” Yeah. When I first started off in radio with Ricky, he was just as annoying back then, but not as many people knew about it. The first thing he did when he met me was hit me on the head with his mobile phone to see what sound it made. That was the greeting. That’s what he’s like – he’s got other mates that he annoys. He’s got a mate called Robin who he buried up to his neck in sand by the sea, it’s just what he does. But you’ve got to control it, there’s certain things he knows he can get away with and then I’ll go, “I’m fed up now” and I’m off. And then he goes, “oh, okay”. It’s like an experiment to him. I did the second series, didn’t I? I didn’t have to do it, and there’s times when I really, really hate it. In the series that you’re getting now, I remember going India, which was the third trip that I did and I was calling up home trying to get out of it, I’d just had enough, but I didn’t call him up because I know that he’d love that. I called up my girlfriend, said “I can’t handle this”. She said, “Just keep at it.” I really, really hated it, but then by the end of it, I’d got better at dealing with things when I’m a bit fed up, I just go, “I’ll go to sleep tonight, I’ll close my eyes and the day’s over and it’s one more day gone, and the next day, I’ll face that.” It’s changed me in the way I am, as a person. It’s not a bad thing, you don’t have to worry, it’s done a lot of good.
Stephen does say at the beginning that travel broadens the mind … It’s not the travel, it’s the fact that … I suppose I’ve had it quite cushy, and normally if you don’t like something you can easily decide I’m not happy with this and walk away and go home. But when you’re in a foreign country and you can’t just walk away and you’ve got to face up to what you don’t like, it changes you. The thing about travel broadening the mind, I dunno if it does, because every country has its own different rules and its own ways of living – you might see someone who’s poor, and hasn’t go much, but at the end of the day, if you’ve grown up in a world where it’s not like that, you’ve seen it and you know it goes on, but when you get back home you don’t change, you don’t feel “I’m not going to have a pudding tonight because I’m really lucky and I’ve already had a main course.” Have a pudding! That’s what you’re used to, you can’t just get changed by having nine days in a poor country. Broadens the mind – I don’t know what that means really, unless I am an idiot and I’m not getting what I’m meant to be getting from it. But I’ve seen a lot of it, and a lot of the world is the same. Especially these days, there’s always a Starbucks and a Gap, you see similar things, you see a nutter in the street, and you see rich people wherever you go.
It’s quite a different sort of travel show – you’re not saying how great everything is. At the same time, I’m sure when Michael Palin, if he ever went to China, I don’t think he’d be stuck in the places I was stuck in, so he probably is having a nice time, so if he was in a nice hotel and eating nice food, everything would be great. That’s the two main things that I need: something to fill me up so my sugar levels aren’t low, because if I get weak I get irritable, and I wasn’t getting that in China because I struggled with the food; and sleep – and I wasn’t sleeping that well. And the fact that I didn’t know what was happening each day, that wore me down. Imagine getting up and someone said, “you’re going to get hit by a bus but you don’t know when it’s going to happen”, you’d be on edge all day wouldn’t you? That’s what it’s like, I’m waking up and I’m thinking, “where are we going today? What are we doing?” It’s things like that, that’s why I probably come across a bit lonely. There’s certain things in life, like some of the Wonders, which is what series one is all about, it’s that thing where people rave about something so everybody else does and you get there and you’ve got to forget what everybody else thinks of this and just go with what you think yourself. Again, some people will watch it and go, “he’s an idiot, he’s missing the point”, but have you got to read a book about something before you go on holiday – how many people want to do that? If you’re working all the hours God sends when you get on holiday you just want to enjoy yourself. So maybe the Wonders of the World aren’t aimed at me. At the end of the day, there’s more idiots in the world than bright people. Some people like sprouts, some don’t. I like potato cakes, some people won’t. I didn’t go out of me way to not like these things, I just was honest. Maybe it was because I was tired, and I get to this thing and it’s meant to be amazing and it isn’t.
So was India the most challenging country in the series? Out of series one it was. I’ll never forget seeing the Taj Mahal, but I got dragged into all sorts of mad festivals, I met a bloke who’s had his arm in the air for 20-odd years or something and he can’t do anything with it, it’s just stuck in the air. It is an amazing place, and I’ll never forget it, the light that they had there; everything’s colossal. Parts of it smelled grim, but there other parts of it where there’s a certain smell, that if I smelled again, I just go, “I’m in India”. So as much as I absolutely hated it at the time, part of me thinks if I went back I’d enjoy it more and I’d know how to handle it. I got really ill, but there is something about it worth experiencing.
Which country did you enjoy to most? Mexico. Again, dead simple: good food, and I think I got on with everyone there. It’s meant to be dangerous, they say don’t walk about at night, there’s a lot of drug problems, but at the end of the day, I like a chilli.
Food’s really important isn’t it? So important. You can have a bad day, can’t you, but if at night when you go home, you can have something decent to eat. I had a lovely tea tonight, burgers, leek, a load of vege, carrots. I loved it.
I had no idea they ate so much toad in China. You see, sometimes I wonder if it’s made up. I just think, “is that Ricky annoying me?” It could be a woman who got hold of a pet toad and smacked it on the head.
It would be a very elaborate practical joke if it was. I know, but I never know! There’s things that go on, when I see some madness, I think, “this can’t be for real. It can’t be.” It wasn’t that bad. It’s all in the mind, I’ve got better at eating weird stuff, but at first, it’s your mind that plays tricks on you, it’s your brain … my brain always looks on the downside of things anyway and puts me in a bit of a panic and I always think the worst. It was hard to eat a toad. The taste wasn’t that bad, it was just like chicken, but if it’s just like chicken, let’s eat chicken, what do you need toads for?
You’ve done a second series – a bucket list, and bungy jumping in New Zealand is on there. Was that really something you wanted to do before you die? No. The point was that I picked things on a list that I wanted to do. I actually said to Ricky and Steve, “I’m not doing a bungy”. They wanted to do the Natural Wonders of the World and I said, “I don’t want to do that”. What I had a problem with in series one was I had to go and see the Seven Wonders of the World, there was no freedom, so I didn’t want to do the Natural Wonders because I had no choice. And then Ricky and Steve said how about we give you a list of 100 things that people want to do before they die and you can pick them. And I said, “What sort of thing?” and they said, “Bungy jumping” and I said, “Forget it, you know I’m not into that adrenaline junky stuff”. So they said you have to pick, so I picked swimming with dolphins and seeing a gorilla and spending a night on a desert island. But along the way they were trying to get me to do some of the other things on the list and one was a bungy in New Zealand. And we went to Vanuatu, which is just across the water there isn’t it? Have you heard of Vanuatu? So we stayed over in New Zealand … is it a tiny airport in Christchurch? We landed there in a tiny plane and I had a muffin and a cup of tea. It was tiny, you get off the plane and you walk across the runway and walk straight into a café. But I liked what I saw of New Zealand, it was a really nice day, the air was nice and clean, everywhere was clean, it felt new.
Are you quite a pessimistic person, or has all this travel changed your views at all? I am pessimistic, I think it’s because me dad is and it rubs off. Being from the North of England I think most people are, we always expect the worst. But I think that’s the best way to be, because if you’re always expecting the best – the best doesn’t always happen, does it? Nine times out of 10 it doesn’t. I’m surprised when things go smoothly. I don’t know what’s wrong with being pessimistic – unless you are such a pessimist that you don’t do anything, you think, “I’m not going to do that because I might get run over”, that’s no good. I think, “I’ll do stuff, but I’m not going to like it.” Ricky was talking about that the other day, a glass half-empty person. But that way of explaining being a pessimist I don’t think makes sense. Do I tend to moan more? Yeah, definitely. But I think most people where I grew up do as well. People from the North of England who watch this programme, they think, “Yeah, it’s like that, I agree with him”. It’s only in certain other countries where they’ve gone, “oh, doesn’t he moan a lot?” But I’m always suspicious of people walking around with a grin on their face. What are you happy for? Are you daft? A smile is there to show people you’re happy when something good has happened, I don’t think you should walk around with a grin on all the time. Emotions are there so people know what you’re thinking and how you feel about things. I went to America in series two and it kind-of got on my nerves the way everybody was happy. And it’s interesting how everyone in that country has to have more therapy because if everyone’s walking around with a smile no-one knows if you’re fed up and no-one ever says, “Are you alright?” Everyone thinks you’re alright, but you’re not, you’re going mental in your head, so you have to go off and see a therapist. Whereas here, if I look fed up, people say, “What’s up with you, you look a bit miserable” and you get it out of your system because you talk about your problems, but you talk about your problems because you look fed up. But in America, they’re all walking around looking daft and no-one says, “What’s wrong with you?” You know what I mean? It might be a load of old bollocks what I’ve just said, but I think there’s something in it, there’s a bit of theory there.
AN IDIOT ABROAD, BBC Knowledge, Sky 074, Saturdays, 8.30pm.