Some people think Karl Pilkington is a genius – others think he’s an idiot. his friend Ricky Gervais, whose new book records their ludicrous conversations, says he’s the funniest man in Britain. Nigel Farndale tries to get inside his head
What do we know of Karl Pilkington? I mean, what do we really know? He is 33. He grew up on a council estate in Manchester. For two-and-a-half years he produced The Ricky Gervais Show on Xfm, gradually becoming a part of it – the star, some might say – as he joined in with his eccentric, deadpan and often idiotic musings.
Gervais, indeed, regularly dismissed him as ‘an idiot’. But there was also, sometimes, something oddly philosophical and wise about his observations. A cult following grew. When the show was released as a podcast last year it entered the Guinness Book of Records for the most downloads: five million in a month. Karl Pilkington fan sites began appearing on the web; Karl Pilkington T-shirts and badges became fashionable.
There is now even a book: Ricky Gervais Presents:The World of Karl Pilkington (published September 18). When it was announced six months ago it went straight to number one in the Amazon pre-orders, and has stayed there ever since. He has illustrated it himself – he is a gifted cartoonist. The cover shows him sitting guru-like, in the lotus position.
He is, then, a phenomenon – an unlikely one, but a phenomenon all the same. Beyond that? Well, there is a theory that Karl Pilkington is not a real person at all, but an actor portraying the role of a scripted comic character created by Ricky Gervais and his co-writer Stephen Merchant. He is, in other words, too good – too funny – to be true.
Neither Pilkington the man nor Pilkington the myth has ever given an interview before – so, until now, this theory has not been tested. My first contact with him is promising: a message he leaves on my mobile, delivered in the ponderously slow and flat Mancunian vowels familiar from the podcasts.: ‘All right … Karl ‘ere … Let’s meet in Regent’s Park. There’s a café in the middle and that … Um … Can’t remember its name.’
It turns out there are several cafés, but there is only one Karl Pilkington so I find him soon enough. He is recognisable by his gormless expression: the permanently furrowed brow, the bushy and vulnerably down-turned eyebrows, the protruding lower lip, hanging slack.
There is also the bald and ‘perfectly spherical’ Charlie Brown head to give him away, the one Ricky Gervais couldn’t resist squeezing all the time on air: ‘Just look at that little roundy, baldy, monkey head,’ he would say.
As we sit down at an outside table – the café being too full to get one inside, out of the drizzle – I ask Pilkington if he has considered suing Ricky Gervais for harassment in the workplace.
‘It is a bit odd when people there see him squeezing my head. It’s like: what’s going on there? But he can’t resist it. That’s the problem with having a bald head. It exaggerates the shape … Not that that lets him off … Don’t know why I said that really. Doesn’t mean he can have a squeeze any time he wants.’
Podcasts, I say. Guinness Book of Records. What’s that all about? ‘Yeah, but does anyone read that apart from the people who want to go in it? It’s full of information you don’t want to clog your brain up with really.’
He likes to keep his brain free? ‘Well, just for other bits and pieces.’
Bits and pieces, as in subjects and themes with which he can meander conversationally, going off in unexpected and sometimes surreal comic directions; is that his skill?
‘I don’t know what my skill is,’ he says in a Northern monotone, his face as blank as Buster Keaton’s. ‘At the end of the day, if I wasn’t with Ricky and Steve I don’t think people would go to the podcasts. People go to them to see what Ricky and Steve did next and I just happen to be there.’
Being the butt of their ridicule? ‘Yeah sometimes, but sometimes I, like, manage to say summat they don’t believe and then they look into it and it turns out to be true.’
One of Pilkington’s most popular contributions to the podcasts is ‘Monkey News’, in which he trawls the internet for stories involving monkeys. Other features tie in with his quirky interests and theories, such as ‘Do We Need Them?’, about ‘animals that don’t work that much anymore’ such as camels, canaries and guide dogs; and ‘Songs with a Story’ – Pilkington only likes songs ‘with a little story goin’ on and that’, such as Eric Clapton’s ‘Wonderful Tonight’.
According to Gervais: ‘Received wisdom says there’s a fine line between a genius and an idiot. Not true. Karl’s an idiot, plain and simple. Very simple. Some people have proclaimed him a genius, but they’re idiots.’
Gervais denies that Pilkington – whom he’s also called a ‘moron’ and a ‘dimwit’ – is an invented character, claiming that his unique qualities are beyond his powers of imagination. You can see his point. Once, when Gervais presented him with the idea of having a doppelganger of himself for a day, Pilkington asked: ‘How would I know which one I was?’
The Ricky Gervais Show started on Xfm just after The Office was first screened in 2002, but before it became hugely popular with the repeats.
‘I thought it was good, The Office,’ Pilkington says. ‘But I prefer documentaries.’
Is he impressed by Gervais’s meteoric rise since then and the global fame he now enjoys? ‘Not really. He’s the same with me as he always was.’
How does he feel about the prospect of becoming famous himself, more famous, I mean, now that he is about to become a bestselling author? ‘I don’t think it’ll happen. I don’t have the confidence Ricky has. I’m always worried about stuff.’
A lot of people think Gervais is the funniest man in Britain, I note, but Gervais thinks Pilkington is. Pilkington often has Gervais in hysterics; that hyena cackle. ‘Yeah, he is like that. But things that make you laugh, it’s weird innit? We speak on the phone a couple of times a day, he’ll call up and run something by me or ask my opinion.’
As we talk, it becomes apparent that Gervais needs Pilkington as much as Pilkington needs Gervais – he mines him for comic gold. ‘I know Ricky gets a bit jealous and that of Suzanne. He asks me what we’ve been talking about. I think he thinks he might be missing out on stuff.’
Pilkington has been with his girlfriend, Suzanne, for 10 years. She works for Match of the Day. They met in Manchester and now share a flat around the corner from where we are sitting in Regent’s Park. ‘It’s really small, the flat. A ridiculous size. Mental.’
They are looking for a bigger place at the moment. They are also planning to go on a safari – they’ll have to do something with all those book royalties. [Pilkington is on a three-way split with Gervais and Merchant.] Is marriage on the cards?
‘To be honest,’ Pilkington says, ‘marriage doesn’t scare me and that, it’s just once you’ve been together for so long, if you haven’t got any kids it’s just a big expensive day out for everyone else to enjoy, isn’t it?’
Well quite, I say – after all, what do you get in return for your money? ‘Nothing. And we’ve got a toaster and everything. So there is no reason for the wedding.’
Although Pilkington hated the academic side of school – he left at 16 without any qualifications – he did enjoy art. ‘It knocked me back a bit that the one thing I was good at, cartoons and that, the teacher said wasn’t proper drawin’.’
He also enjoyed drama. For one school play, though, he had to wear a bellboy hat. When his father saw him trying it on at home and told him he looked ‘bleeding stupid’, that knocked him back, too.
‘I thought, I’m not going to have me parents round to see the play now. It’s been like that with the radio. I never told them I was on. They found out from someone else. And with the podcasts, I thought: that’s good because they haven’t got a computer, so they won’t be able to listen to that. It’s because I think me dad will think: That’s rubbish, that is. Because it’s not a proper job.’
Shortly after leaving school, Pilkington took a job in a printing firm. But after a chance to work in hospital radio came up, he decided that that would be a better career. His father told him he was wasting his time, that he should get a ‘proper job’, but he stuck with radio and ended up presenting an overnight music and talk show in Manchester: ‘My only listeners were nurses and security guards.’
After that he moved to London and had been working as a producer on Xfm for eight years before he met Ricky Gervais.
His father is a taxi-driver. ‘Well he’s done a bit of everything. Taxi-driving. He had a butty shop. Turfin’. I did a bit of that with him. Quite liked it. Keeping the turf wet was the key. Most of the time it didn’t lay well. I used to do a paper round and would see some of the gardens we had done, and some of them didn’t really take. The turf had gone hard. But we weren’t that expensive.’
On the podcasts Gervais not only calls Pilkington an idiot; he calls him lazy, too. His colleague is just a bully, isn’t he? ‘No, I think it’s because we’re close mates. Him calling me, that is something that come about gradually over time. I don’t know whether it is affecting me long-term. You sort of wonder, because I was sat outside a pub in Dorset having a drink and some kid walked past with his mam and dad and he looked like trouble. Shaved head and everything. Earring. Only about six. And his parents were shouting at him all the time, calling him an idiot and I thought: that’s got to affect him.’
Isn’t that partly how the question about his being a fictional character arose; that it seemed incredible that a man could take so much abuse without complaint? ‘I suppose if you hear it for the first time and you don’t know the friendship it could come across as bullying. It doesn’t bother me though, and I’m the one who has got to worry about it. Maybe one day I’ll just flip.’
When Gervais squeezes his head once too often? ‘Yeah, well I’ve had to start controlling that, now I’m not at Xfm anymore. When I worked there, there were times he couldn’t do it – when I had serious production work to do. I think Ricky thinks he is allowed more head-squeezing time now that I have left Xfm to do my own stuff.’ [Channel 4 has just screened some short films, Three Minute Wonders, that Pilkington made. Needless to say, he didn’t tell his parents they were going to be on. He is also doing more podcasts with Gervais and Merchant.]
Might he not miss it though, if the squeezing stopped? ‘Yeah, I’d get a bit jealous if Ricky found another head to squeeze; if he found someone else with a little round head.’
As an experiment to see if Karl Pilkington is an invention, I ask him the sort of question Gervais might typically ask: if he had to sacrifice a pound of flesh, where would he take it from? He is baffled. I explain about Shylock and The Merchant of Venice.
‘So hang on,’ he says. ‘What’s his name again? Shylock? He says to his mate: ‘I need you to do something for me,’ and his mate says: ‘Yeah.’ And Shylock says: ‘If you don’t do it I want a pound of your flesh?’ More or less.
‘But what does he do with it once he’s got it?’ He doesn’t want to do anything with it.
‘But why are people working with him?’ He’s a money-lender.
‘OK. A pound of flesh, yeah? Well, the thing is, back then it was all manual labour so you couldn’t take it from your arms or legs because you’d need them …’
He broods for a moment. ‘Could you take a bit off here and a bit off there, as long as it’s a bag of flesh?’
Now it’s my turn to be baffled. I’m not sure.
‘Does he know it’s your flesh? Are you just handing over a bag?’ Um …
‘So it could be from anywhere. You could take it from a pig and just limp a bit?’ I’m pretty sure it had to be your own flesh.
Karl shakes his head. ‘That’s the thing, isn’t it? We live in easier times. You can get a loan now even if you don’t have a job. I mean, there are only so many times you could do that, before you started wasting away because you had bits missing. It’s a rubbish system.’
As Gervais would say, brilliant.
On the theme of ‘knowledge’, by the way, Pilkington has this to say: ‘Sometimes you can know too much. A lot of brainy people like Stephen Fry are quite depressive. When you are on a downer, you put the telly on to relax and you hear about the war and you understand what’s going on and it gets you down even more and you say, ‘I’m sick of this,’ and you want to call it a day. Whereas if you’re not dragged down by all the world’s problems you live longer.’
Pilkington prefers science news to current affairs. ‘There was summat on the news the other day about two new types of fly found close together … So not only were they new, but they were knocking around together … That interested me because, in a way, that would happen. Like at school if two new kids join, they stick together, don’t they?’
The appeal of his comments is partly to do with the way he phrases them. On the subject of an infinite universe, for example, he tells me: ‘Yeah, but we don’t know that do we? Just because it’s come from a scientist everyone is like “Oh yeah, it must be.” But if I said it everyone would say: “Don’t be daft.” ‘
We talk about the meaning of existence and agree that the table we are sitting at exists. But what if I told him there was one like it around the corner out of sight, how would he know whether this was true or not? ‘Well, I’d believe you because it’s not worth lying about.’
What if I said there was a table round the corner with an elephant’s trunk transplanted onto it? ‘What? Just the trunk? Not the rest of the elephant?’ Just the trunk. ‘I wouldn’t believe it, but partly because London Zoo is just over there and there’s no way they would allow that to happen so close.’
He likes coming here to Regent’s Park, incidentally, because he enjoys ‘seeing the tops of the giraffes for free’.
We discuss the meaning of life. ‘I don’t know what it’s about, really,’ he says, his face a mask of earnestness. ‘You go through your day, learn bits and think about stuff and before you know it, it’s Tuesday. Where did Monday go?’
Why does he think it is that as you get older time seems to go by more quickly? ‘I hear about people dying and they’re told they have three months to live and they start doing all good stuff like swimming with dolphins, and you think: well, the time is going to seem to pass quicker. If you’ve only got three months left you should do rubbish stuff, then it will make it drag.’
Pilkington believes in euthanasia … well, his version of it. ‘I mean, look at that lot in there,’ he nods towards the café. ‘They’re all about 90, taking up space. They forced us to sit out here in the rain and we’ll probably get flu. They’re messing up the cycle of nature because we’ll go first.’
He thinks there should come a point where doctors say: enough. ‘No more operations. You can only live to be so old then you gotta let go. If you knew the day you were going to die, you could get all your paperwork done and have a big party. You could even get in your own coffin, ready. Cause that worries me. You hear of them dragging you around naked and that at the morgue. You might have a couple of work-experience boys messing about at the end of their working day.’
But if he knew the day was approaching when he would have to climb into his coffin, wouldn’t that be a bit depressing? ‘Maybe you don’t know the day. Maybe everyone else does and you are just told the year. You know, like: I don’t know I’m going to die a week on Thursday but Suzanne does and she is sorting stuff out, telling me mam and dad.’
I see. But surely she would give it away. She wouldn’t be able to meet his eye when he came back to the flat. ‘I mean, don’t have a coffin in the hallway, but just organise everything else.’
What if she said goodbye in a really meaningful way, a lingering hug when he was, say, just popping out to the paper shop. Then he’d guess, surely? ‘I’d be a bit annoyed if she knew I was going to die and she’s sending me out to the paper shop. I mean, she should be doing that.’
What if he and Suzanne were given the same day to die and they were both planning each other’s paperwork, in the same flat, without letting the other know? Long and thoughtful pause. ‘What are the odds on that, though?’
They, whoever they are, seem to figure large in Karl Pilkington’s world view.
On the subject of evolutionary mutation, for example, he says: ‘The way we have nails on our toes, it would be good to have the same protective stuff on our heads and knees, because it can take a battering. Cyclists wouldn’t need the helmets and that. But they wouldn’t let it happen, would they? If you were born with a big nail on your head, they’d get the clippers out. With animals and insects they let them get on with it. Those two new flies, they haven’t gone: quick, kill ’em. They’ve said: let’s see what ‘appens.
‘In a way, they’ve interfered with evolution because we’re not likely to evolve wings now because we’ve got planes. There are supposed to be more bald fellas about than there used to be, that’s because we don’t need hair as much. And supposedly nostrils are going to get bigger because the air is getting thinner, so there will be little changes like that, but they won’t allow the big things to evolve, like three legs. They’d cut one of them off. They won’t just let someone have an extra one and invent a bike with three pedals. Three legs could help a lot of businesses: bikes and shoe shops and stuff.’
Maybe, I suggest, his head is as round as it is for reasons of natural selection – he may be paving the way for mankind. ‘Maybe … Do you think it is that round? I’ve got used to it now.’
It’s round in a nice way, I say.
‘It’s weird, the body,’ he continues. ‘I don’t even like thinking about it. The way it works, with this heart pumping away and that. If I think about it I panic a bit. It’s not plugged into anything. I think it’s covered by skin for a reason. We shouldn’t see what’s going on in there … I don’t like going to the doctors because they can find things that might not be a problem and they start prodding and it gets worse.’
In August he had to go into hospital to have an operation on his kidney stones. ‘It were agony,’ he says. ‘They shove everything up your tackle.’
Pilkington has, he tells me, filled out a donor card, but: ‘I was a bit worried about the eyes. That’s the one thing which I didn’t want them to have. It bothers me because you don’t know what will happen when you die. If I come back as a ghost I don’t want to be a blind one – because you stay in the condition you died in, don’t you. That’s why you have headless horsemen. So I don’t want to be a blind ghost bumping into stuff.’
When I point out that ghosts don’t exist he counters: ‘What about this then? When we were buying a flat we looked at one near Haymarket and it was quite old and the fella showing us round said under his breath: “There’s a ghost in this room.” And I said: “What was that?” And he said it’s law now. If there’s a ghost we have to tell you. If there’s bin sightings.’
Now Karl, I say, we both know that didn’t happen. ‘No, honestly,’ he insists. ‘That is the law. They have to tell you.’
So is Karl Pilkington a real person or a work of fiction? Well, he may exaggerate his quirks for comic effect, but they do seem genuine. He appears to have no filter. He never laughs. And his pulse is almost inhumanly slow.
If he is an idiot, he is also a savant, an amiable, literal-minded one like Chauncey Gardener, the character played by Peter Sellers in Being There. In fact, in his company you soon suspect he is at least as clever and funny as Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, if not cleverer and funnier. It is telling, indeed, that when they affect to mock him, they do so with obvious affection and not a little awe.
The question is, does he really live in a cartoon world, or in a comic conceit of his own making? He describes himself as ‘just a bloke from Manchester’. Whatever the answer, he doesn’t seem to care what other people think, and that is disarming. As Ricky Gervais has said, he is either one of the greatest comedy talents of his generation, or a partially shaved monkey that can talk.
And ramble. I can’t remember how we got on to the subject but, after a few hours, I realise he has a recurring theme: a morbid fear of being naked, or as he puts it: ‘having nowt on’. Surely he must walk around his flat naked sometimes?
‘No,’ he says, his mouth hanging open. ‘Even if I’m the only one in I always pop some underpants on because you never know what might happen.’
Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.