Part comedy show, part travel documentary, An Idiot Abroad works by taking British comedian Karl Pilkington (friend of influential comedian Ricky Gervais) and putting him in an unfamiliar situation in exotic locations, under the guise of getting him out there to experience somewhere else other than England.

The comedy comes from the way Pilkington reacts to places and cultures he isn’t familiar with, and the exceedingly bizarre situations he’s put in. Although the experiences are planned and staged, Pilkington doesn’t know what to expect, and his reactions are spontaneous and genuine.

You can be forgiven if you think that Ricky Gervais has a lot to do with the show, and he does, behind the scenes. You can constantly sense him pulling the puppet strings. But besides an appearance at the start of every episode in which he’ll emit a laugh that will set your teeth on edge, the series is thankfully Gervais free.

It’s Pilkington who’s the real star of the show. He seems out of his depth in every situation. He’s overwhelmed, panicked, curious, and distressed about everything that’s thrown at him, and it’s this discomfort that Gervais seems to take delight in. “Nothing’s funnier than Karl, in a corner, being poked by a stick. I am that stick.”

The first episode on One HD on Monday night saw him off to see the Great Wall of China in all its glory. His trip has him being clensed, learning some martial arts, encountering squat toilets and walking a length of the wall. His biggest worry? That he’d eat fried frogs, really like them, and find his life a little sadder back in England where he can’t find them anywhere. It’s the little things.

Most of the Chinese way of life leaves him a mixture of horrified, sick and confused. He can’t understand why they spit in plastic bags on bus trips, eat unborn chickens and scorpions, and have their own coffin ready to go outside their house. He spends the entire episode on edge and uncomfortable. His genuine reactions to these situations are hilarious, and it makes for compulsive viewing.

Routinely prodded into new directions by phone calls from either Gervais or his inanely grinning yes man Stephen Merchant, an ever reluctant Pilkington is constantly reminded that he’s there to work, not to enjoy himself. There are times when you can’t help but feel sorry for him, he really does just want to be left alone.

From a travel documentary perspective, the show also of interest. I’d never seen the end of the great wall of China, and it’s also refreshing, for once, to see the reality of a location, not just the bits that are prepared for tourists.

Future episodes see Karl travelling to Egypt to see the pyramids, Mexico to visit Chichen Itza and Brazil to see Christ the Redeemer (amongst other places). There’s plenty to look forward to in the coming weeks, with eight episodes in total with a second series (subtitled The Bucket List) currently filming.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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