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Oh, Chimpanzee That! Why the Ricky Gervais Podcast is the Best Cultural Creation of the Decade

December 18, 2009

As we wind down our latest decade’s final days – and as arbitrarily-created time periods go, I’d place “decade” a close third, behind “epoch” and “dynasty”– Katie, bar the door, for here comes the cavalcade of lists. As we face another tens-digit rollover on the odometer, this Final Fortnight provides us wordy-types the impetus to reduce the most significant events of the past 3,635 days into bite-size decagonal scrolls. Like Joe Namath on that fateful drunken evening (#3 on the list of the Ten Most Embarrassing Media Moments of the Decade), I am strug-gle-ing to determine why these compilations are so captivating, but damnit, they just are. Within the next two weeks, I’ll bring you a conglomeration of Best-Of-The-Decades, many with ten items, and some with only one. In the case of Best Creation, there was no contest.

Why “Best Cultural Creation”? I realized that Films, Books, TV Shows, Stand-Up Comedy, Podcasts and Music fill an absolutely excessive percentage of my life, sure. But more importantly, the imaginary walls separating these phenomena have been slowly eroding this entire decade (here’s where Colbert would point to a graphic that says ” Ira Glass-Steagall Act”)[i]. Back in 1999, Conan O’Brien decided to hand the reigns to Janeane Garofalo for one eve. Being offered the chance to choose her guests, the episode featured Bob Odenkirk and David Cross from Mr. Show, Texas rowdy-rockers the Old 97s, and an obscure comic named Zach Galifianakis. After watching this insane swath of awesomnity (or as my friend Twavis referred to as “people I’ve never heard of”)[ii], I looked over at my housemates and half-sarcastically (but half-earnestly) asked, “Am I crazy in thinking that all of the ‘cool’ people not only know each other, but regularly collect to discuss their plans for cultural domination?”

While such a question reflects the naiveté that often remains through our mid-twenties, running concurrent with this decade was an information explosion facilitating communication between people of similar passions. The resulting collections of talented writers and artists crossed over into the fields of each other’s expertise, resulting in unpredictable pop-ups of your favorite performer, never knowing where they might turn up next. Patton Oswalt’s Comedians of Comedy Tour (featuring Maria Bamford, Brian Posehn, Eugene Mirman and Galifianakis) eschewed traditional Chuckle Huts for rock venues, sharing stages with multiple bands, including indie legends Yo La Tengo. Minneapolis piano-violentist Mark Mallman and tense rockers Tapes N’ Tapes both performed with Chuck Klosterman. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Will Oldham appears in John Sayles films and Kanye West videos. NBC’s Thursday Night lineup features numerous stand-up comics and comedy writers (Scott Adsit amongst them). And Ricky Gervais, along with Stephen Merchant, co-creator of The Office and Extras, became the undisputed King of the Podcast.

Most of you may know Gervais from his roles as David Brent and Andy Millman (not to mention his motion pictures, or as I like to call them, “Talkies”), and Merchant as Andy’s manager Darren in Extras. When not appearing on the idiot box, the two lead a double-life as the hosts of a podcast that has netted over eight million legal downloads. When I first became aware of the podcast in the winter of 2005, I was miffed by its purpose for existence. As an admitted non-fan of The Office (at the time!), I wondered if it would merely be a radio-adaptation of the awkward hijinks of Wernham Hogg.  After viewing a few episodes of Extras, I joined the downloading herds, compiling the entire 3-series run by summer of ’06. For silly reasons referenced below, I delayed my first listen until the winter of 2007, when my twice-a-day hour-long bus commutes required audio to aid the ennui of interminable encounters with screeching, salt-encrusted brakes and screaming, snow-grizzled patrons. Within fifteen minutes of the first episode, I completely forgot about the heavy-breathing bank manager sitting next to me. The antics of the two principals were amusing, sure. But the real star was a former technical advisor named Karl Pilkington. With several more hours of podcast madness awaiting, it was like winning the lottery (or more likely for me, a 4-5-6-8-9-10 run of “place bets” at the craps table). And I finally gave that Office show a chance, too – yeah, pretty good. Pretty…pretty…pretty good.[iii]

Prior to that fateful ride, I assumed the Gervais Podcast would hew to the poorly-produced, unevenly-mixed amateur hour that plagued many of the ‘casts I heard that year. I was not aware that Ricky, Steve and Karl were radio veterans, with multiple years at some Limey outpost called XFM (not to be confused with XM, or the Steely Dan song “FM”). While Gervais and Merchant indulged their inner Hornby by playing deleted Smiths singles and original – not re-released – Frank Zappa albums, Karl Pilkington, their producer, intruded with bizarre takes on the news and other what-have-yous. When the higher-ups wanted a change of programming away from their risqué banter, all three blokes got sacked. Gervais’ show had a sizable contingent of fans, and would likely follow him to other media formats. Since this was the mid-Oughties, there was no need for a rocking boat and requisite reimagination of Hendrix album covers. Soon, the podcast was born.

While the Gervais Podcast maintains many of the freeform moments of their XFM days, the new show features regularly-occuring segments, including a popular bit from their previous gig called “Monkey News”, featuring the imagination of Pilkington. I love the Wikipedia description, all clinical and detached:

“The stories usually originate from a tale that Karl has made up or extrapolated out of all recognition from a news headline. Monkey News is an easy way to anger Ricky, who often disrupts the show due to being so wound up with disbelief — and even in one XFM show he left the room out of frustration because he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.”

During the first episode, Pilkington regales Ricky and Steve with the history of monkeys in space flight. According to Karl, NASA had trained a few chimps to serve as astronauts for early space missions by utilizing an on-board device that distributed bananas when the monkeys correctly followed the commands on the ground. “Push the left button”, the command center ordered, and if followed correctly, “Here’s a banana.” Anyone that has viewed the outtakes from either of his TV series knows Gervais’ inability to keep a straight face when encountering something slightly humo(u)rous. After hearing Karl’s science fiction, he loses it: “NO! There is no way they made a spacecraft with a banana dispenser! THERE’S NO WAY THEY LET THE MONKEY LAUNCH THE ROCKET!! THAT IS ABSOLUTE BOLLOCKS!! Sure, THAT’S what happened in ‘Apollo XIII’ – ‘This is Houston, please hit the LEFT BUTTON!!”

Karl’s extremely calm response is what really brings it home: “So you are saying that it is easy to send someone into space, but you don’t believe that…there’s a little…banana machine?” (You’d swear he was laughing, but he isn’t).

That’s basically the show: Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant present a subject, then react to Karl’s observations. Sometimes Karl will lead the discussion by mentioning something that happened on ‘oliday or – even better – he’ll bring in some of his writings to share with us. In “Karl’s Diary”, which quickly became my favorite segment, Karl hands his notebook to Steve, who then reads entries describing “inventions” such as placing mirrors on the moon, or a game show called Look What We Can Do with Science, which involved the removal of the contestant’s body parts, one by one, until they either die, or are left with “nuffin’ but the (h)’ead.” Even for fans of what is often dismissed as “British” humor, Karl’s scribblings may require a few listens before you “get” what he’s all about. Once that happens, the show takes on a completely different level of awesome. In another segment called “Karl’s Poetry”, he encapsulated the pain of kidney stones in verse (Perhaps the only occurrence of the phrase “They put a tube up me knob” In the artform). The hits keep on coming – to open Season Two, Rick and Steve ask Karl how he’d feel if he discovered a doppelganger of himself. After explaining the definition of this “new” term, Karl asks “How would I know which one is me?”

In Pitchfork’s Top 100 Songs of the Year, #98 went to a song called “Arming Eritrea”, a blast of energy from Welsh bad-asses Future of the Left. Here’s an excerpt:

“Pity poor Rick, the subject of [singer] Andrew Falkous’ mysterious rage in “Arming Eritrea”. Did anyone suffer a more brutal browbeating in all of pop music in 2009? Each line of the verses begins with Falkous screaming “C’mon RICK!” with an intensity that is at once maniacal and hilarious. Who is Rick? Why does he deserve severe contempt?”

Perhaps it was written from the perspective of Karl, wanting “Rick” Gervais to understand that “I’m not a child, I’m not special or one-of-a-kind…I’m not a drunk…I’M AN ADULT!”

After three seasons of entertaining those of us still lamenting the end of Father Ted, it was over. Or so we thought. Thanks to the wonders of e-mail lists, in late 2006 I was informed that the whole gang was reuniting for a three-part holiday series, cleverly entitled The Podfather. Each one-hour episode examined their views on Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, including Karl’s great idea of eliminating calendars from human existence.

The end, of course, was not nigh – a Season Four was recorded, which I have intentionally saved for my next long drive, so I have yet to hear a single poem or fraudulent primate tale. (The idea of a Culture Bank merits its own article – I have a silo of podcasts awaiting my ears, several of which will be referenced in my Decade In Review.)

Similar to the Podfather, Season Five features episodes based around one subject, titled “The Ricky Gervais Guide To…” Instead of holidays, this series examines ideas like Philosophy, Medicine, the Arts, and the most recent release, Law and Order. While Karl remains an amusing Manc with a head like a f-in’ orange, Season Five offers insights into the lives of Gervais and Merchant, and specifically their adjustments to the fame resulting from two hit series and a wildly-successful side project. In “The Ricky Gervais Guide to Law and Order”, Karl recounts his interaction with the company that monitors the burglar alarm at his flat. “I asked them how much it would cost, and the guy said ‘400 quid a year’, so I said ‘I thought the alarm was supposed to stop me from getting robbed!'” This leads Ricky to recount a ghastly event where he received a call asking if he had purchased $200,000 in gold bouillon. After sarcastically asking his significant other if she had done so, he replied “No, definitely not.” The bank eventually ascertains that the quagmire was an inside job, and sets up a sting to capture the thieves as they attempt to offload the loot. Following the successful actions of the Bobbies, Gervais asked an officer to elaborate on the criminals’ plans. The miscreants planned to skedaddle with the cash from the sale of gold (hopefully they weren’t dumb enough to try the bottom-feeding shysters at Cash4gold.com)[iv], and had created a fake passport to enable their departure. When describing the plans to Gervais, the officer could not stop laughing, due to the poorly-done attempt at a “Ricky Gervais” passport. When Gervais saw their shoddy work, he burst out like he just heard more of Karl’s poetry. For the photo, the grifters had simply cut out the insert from the first season DVD of The Office, which features the ol’ morale-booster David Brent leaning back in his chair. One can only ask what stopped them from choosing a pic of Ray Stokes, his character from “When the Whistle Blows”, the sub-Martin Lawrencian sitcom from Extras‘ second season. Talk about ‘avin’ a laugh!

According to RickyGervais.com, their next podcast is the “Guide to The Future”, dropping at iTunes on December 29.  Chimpanzee That!

UPDATE: According to Punchline, the Gervais Podcast will be recast as an animated series (!) on HBO this spring. The network plans to run 13 half-hour episodes based on the original podcasts.


[i] Glass-Steagall – my prediction for Comeback Player of the Year, 2010.

 

[ii] Sorry – when you’ve worked up your WWE “intro strut”, including synchronized choreography with your fictional tag-team partner, your social criticism card has expired.

[iii] Needless to say, I loved it. I believe this is how Larry David would express his opinion of said show.

[iv] No, I didn’t fall for that. Like I have any gold…

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16 Comments
  1. HARRY PEARSON permalink
    December 26, 2009 4:35 pm

    Interesting account of your Pilkington exploits. As a seasoned listener, I advise you visit the ‘pilkipedia.com’ website and download the 92+ hours of the old XFM shows. They see a less confident Karl ‘discovered’ by Ricky and Steve. Its where it all began…. awesome stuff.

  2. HARRY PEARSON permalink
    December 26, 2009 4:36 pm

    Interesting account of your Pilkington exploits. As a seasoned listener, I advise you visit the ‘pilkipedia.com’ website and download the 92+ hours of the old XFM shows. They see a less confident Karl ‘discovered’ by Ricky and Steve. Its where it all began…. awesome stuff.

  3. Jay St. Orts permalink
    December 26, 2009 6:50 pm

    The wifey and I have made up this fun game that we play while listening to Monkey News: we try to predict when Rick will yell “Don’t talk SHIT all yer life” or “Absolute Bollocks” or “Next!” by yelling them out right before we think he’ll (charmingly, not unlike The Party Animal) bellow them, not unlike a sort of BINGO. There’s a point system and amended rules and such, but we usually end up laughing so hard that we have to rewind to hear what we’ve missed.

  4. Sumit permalink
    December 28, 2009 3:32 am

    Great article sir! I have been a huge fan of Ricky Gervais since the first Office, and when I stumbled upon the first 3 seasons of the podcast I was in heaven. But the XFM treasure trove is really the best part of it all – you MUST have them if you’re a fan. I must have listened to them all at least 3 times each, and still am not bored. I get the new audiobooks the instant they’re available, because I just can’t wait.

  5. umbargo permalink
    December 28, 2009 7:10 pm

    Good article, the only thing that stuck out as a fanboy was the bit about them all getting sacked from XFM – Ricky and Steve got sacked a long time before even meeting Karl, afterwards they found success with The Office and decided to come back and be pretty much the biggest stars on a Saturday afternoon local radio show. This was the point when they were given Karl as a producer.

    In the end it was pretty much other commitments that forced them to stop… or maybe just boredom.

  6. Matt Blackburn permalink
    December 28, 2009 9:29 pm

    Excellent article, thanks. I find it so difficult to find peoples opinions on the podcasts because none of my friends listen and all you usually find on the net is a journalist you can tell has barely listened to a full episode.
    I am also a huge fan of the podcasts, audiobooks and radio shows. I always manage to find time in my day to listen to the guys ramblings. While Karl may not be the brightest bulb in the house I find that listening to all the topics they have covered over the years has given me a greater understanding of subjects such as evolution, the animal kingdom, science etc, which is a huge bonus to get from a comedy show!
    A slight correction though, the Podfather series of podacsts is regarded as Series 4 making the following 4 episodes Series 5.
    Right i’m off to listen to Guide to the….Future, cant wait!

  7. Lucky7 permalink
    January 13, 2010 9:33 am

    Great article. Just one thing – I think the description of season 5 is wrong. Season 5 is a straight-up season. The “Guides” were one-offs that followed season 5 and are still in production.

  8. July 23, 2010 9:53 pm

    It really is like winning the lottery, better than anything. I can’t control myself lauging out loud in public because of this podcast.

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