Friday 22 November 2019

'I don’t think people look at me and think I’m an idiot' - Karl Pilkington talks Idiot Abroad, Sick of It, and early retirement

Karl Pilkington in Sick of It
Karl Pilkington in Sick of It
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

Retirement didn’t go well for unlikely television cult hero Karl Pilkington.

After Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant helped to turn Pilkington into a star on Sky One’s hilarious Idiot Abroad and then in spin off show The Moaning of Life, he decided to walk away from a life under the entertainment spotlight.

It seemed as if we had seen the last of Pilkington and yet now he is back, with a tale that suggests the dream of ending your working life early and retiring to solitude is not as idyllic as ie might expect.

“My dream was to pay off my mortgage and give up work, but it didn’t go well ,” confirmed Pilkington, as he sat down for an exclusive chat in a London hotel.

Karl Pilkington in Sick of It
Karl Pilkington in Sick of It

“I did three series of Idiot Abroad and was starting to recognise pilots and air stewardesses, so it felt like I’d done enough travelling.

“Also, I was not surprised by anything any more. I was talking to guy who was having his anus hair bleached and I just went; oh right, that’s good.

“A few years ago, his story would have amazed me, but I’ve seen so much now working on these shows for Sky that nothing surprises me any more.

“If stuff isn’t shocking you any more, you start making it more and more mad and then it just becomes silly. So that was it, early retirement.

“I’d only done this for the money and as I’d paid for the house, the idea was to relax at home and disappear into my own world. Then I had seven months off and I started to feel a bit bored.

“Early retirement wasn’t for me, so myself and the writer we worked with for Idiot Abroad got talking and we came up with the concept for a new show for Sky.”

Pilkington’s brutal honesty as he described the renovated Great Wall of China as ‘a bad new build home’ and Egypt’s historic pyramids as a ‘massive game of Jenga that has got out of hand’ saw him connect with a huge audience in three series of Idiot Abroad.

It was a travel show that redefined the travel show format and dragged it into a modern era, yet Pilkington admits he believed the project was doomed to failure.

“Calling it Idiot Abroad annoyed me, of course it did,” he stated. “Would you want to be making a show that was sold to you as a travel programme and then to be told, once you’ve agreed to it, that they’ve changed the name and you are to be recast as an idiot? No, I wasn’t happy about that, surprisingly enough!

“Also, I thought that name would ruin it. It sounds like one of those pissed up in Ibiza car crash TV shows, with people throwing up in the streets and fighting each other outside nightclubs, which is clearly not what the show was. Yet somehow it worked and it was very popular, so maybe Ricky was right with Idiot Abroad after all, even if it annoys me to say that.

“I don’t think people look at me and think I’m an idiot. I hope that don’t see me like that anyway.

“This is not an act, even though people come up to me every day and ask if I am putting on a performance for the TV cameras. No I’m not!

“When I did Idiot Abroad, I didn’t go to the Great Wall of China or the pyramids hoping they would be rubbish. I just said what I thought about the places they sent me to and some people seemed to find that funny.”

The first episode of Pilkington’s latest show Sick of It premiered on Sky One last Thursday, with the star of the comedy drama playing himself, accompanied by a voice over his shoulder who offers him advice that’s not always welcome.

It’s an engaging and humorous glance into the mindset of an lovable character who has found a place in the hearts of a huge audience on Sky One since Idiot Abroad burst onto on screens in 2009.  Pilkington is more confused than anyone by his success story.

“I left school with an E in history and not too many prospects,” he told us. “The teachers were always telling my patents I wouldn’t be a high-flier and I always thought it was a bit insulting to write me off before I had ever tried anything.

“Well, it turned out that things have gone okay. My dream was to get into radio, but working on the podcasts opened doors for me and they have stayed open in the decade since.

“Ricky, Steve and I are still mates, even though there are rumours that we have fallen out and I’m just grateful to still have a chance to do things that interest me.

“Sick of It is the latest show. I wasn’t even going to be in it and was just down as a writer, but the idea of a guy going about his business and having a second voice over his shoulder shaping his ideas is basically me, so I had to be in it.

“I am playing myself, but it’s still acting. Let’s be honest, I’m not going to be in a Shakespeare play any time soon, but this is not the worst show on TV and that’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned.”

Sick Of It continues on Sky One on Thursdays.


"You know Stephen Hawking. When he came up with ideas in his mind, did he think in that robot voice we heard him in? I thought he must do, but Ricky Gervais thought I was mad when I said that.

"Life is complicated, especially when you are in my head. I get the impression that a lot of people don’t think the way I do and maybe that’s why these shows have been successful on Sky.

"I have applied for jobs down the years, but I have never got anything in interviews. It was always people saying they knew someone who wanted a helping hand at the printers or they needed an extra hand to lay some turf and I got the call. Maybe interviews are not for me.

"Doing the travel shows changed my mindset. Foreign food used to frighten me, but I am open minded to it now. My taste buds used to be used to pie and chips, but they have broadened their horizons big time.

"People who say they get used to becoming famous must be lying. It’s weird that people want to have photos with you when you are in supermarket and repeat stuff you said on a podcast 10 years ago. I can’t remember what I said yesterday, never mind ten years ago.

"I was thinking of buying a table tennis table, but I wanted to try it out first. So I went to my garage imagined it was there and played a few shots. After a while, I realised that it would be folded up years if I got one. That’s why I think about things before I buys them. People are too impulsive on Amazon these days.

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