On the surface An Idiot Abroad – the latest creation from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant – is exactly what it says on the tin: a documentary that follows Karl Pilkington (the idiot) as he visits the Seven Wonders of the World. However, after attending a special preview screening of the first episode, I can report that there is far more to this programme than a nonsensical fool knocking around famous locations, making stupid remarks.

Anyone who has listened to the wildly successful ‘The Ricky Gervais Show’ Podcasts, will be familiar with “the little round-headed buffoon” Karl Pilkington. The show derived humour simply from Gervais and Merchant encouraging Karl to speak his mind; the result was a stomach-aching hilarity. “Karl Pilkington is the most amazing creature I have ever met”, exclaims Ricky at the Q and A that followed the screening. “He has the most unique outlook on life and says things without thinking, which apart from being stupid are also very funny.”

Indeed they are. The best way of describing Karl’s comedy is taking the innocence and fearless naivety of a child and mixing it with the sensibilities of your grandmother. He is so quintessentially British. He’s not easily impressed, and certainly not just because something is lauded as being impressive. He speaks his mind, spouting out what would be considered racial taboos and social faux pas in today’s P.C. society, but does so without the slightest ounce of cynicism or nastiness.

In the episode I viewed, Karl visits China to see the awe-inspiring wonder that is The Great Wall of China, which he correctly notes during the episode is the only man-made monument visible from the Moon. From the moment he learns he is going to be doing this once-in-a-lifetime trip, which most people in the world would kill and kill again to be offered, his face drops and his anguish is palpable. But thanks to his girlfriend’s encouragement, he takes on this mammoth undertaking and sets off on his journey. First stop is China, and it’s quite the baptismal of fire. Literally. Karl is treated to a traditional Chinese massage, which involves a woman wearing latex gloves running her hands through fire then massaging Karl’s legs.

He also eats toad – without vomiting – learns some Kung-fu – without dying – and most importantly explores the wall – the whole wall, in fact, at the instruction of his torturers Merchant and Gervais. “Rubbish” is how Karl describes it upon learning that some of the wall has been refurbished. While he does later re-examine his opinion after travelling into the mountains to see the starting point of the wall and then travelling to where China meets the shore, it still seems clear that Karl would have had more fun spending the weekend at home sanding a set louver doors or constructing a garden shed.

But this is where the humour comes from, taking a reluctant, close-minded character and putting him into situations that he is way out of his comfort zone and forcing him to undertake challenges that are going to push him to the limit in every respect. This week it was fire massage and eating toad in China, next week Camel racing and penis for supper in Egypt? The show writes itself, so to speak – though Gervais and Merchant were fast to point out this was 100% real. They quelled rumours that they were present while filming was going on to create comedy and drama and also laughed off reports that Karl was actually an actor named Graham who they wrote lines of dialogue for.

And I for one believe them. Though Merchant and Gervais have as solid a track record as any for creating unique, rounded characters, I think Karl would surpass even their great imaginations. He is a larger than life character, whose ability to say the most inane comments is surpassed only by his honesty and humility. He comes across as a kind-hearted man, incapable of inflicting harm or pain on anyone, even his perennial tormentors.

The best proof of this came in the answer he gave me when I posed the question, “if you could take revenge on Ricky and Stephen for making you go through this, what would you do?” He his response was, “nothing. I wouldn’t because I’ve won ultimately. I got to do this great journey, they haven’t”.

Although Gervais has gone on record saying this was “the most expensive practical joke he has ever perpetrated”, he certainly doesn’t consider the show itself to be a joke. Quite the contrary. “In an age when reality TV is manipulated and forced and false and phoney and so obviously scripted to create a narrative, this is something that is genuinely real and funny and also heartfelt. It’s the funniest documentary I have ever seen and maybe even the best”.

While I can’t completely agree with him on that, I will say that ‘An Idiot Abroad’ has the potential to be a very memorable TV travel series, packed full of humour, heart and unique insights into other cultures. And if this first episode is a fair reflection on the series as a whole then I will certainly be a regular viewer and recommend you join me.

An Idiot Abroad premieres on Thursday September 23rd on Sky One HD, the first of eight episodes.

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This article was first posted on September 16, 2010