11 January 2008

The Funniest Man Alive in Britain?

Until the other day I'd never heard of Karl Pilkington. I knew that there was someone else involved in the Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant podcasts, but I had no idea how he was, let alone that he was so distinctive.

Brother the Elder introduced me to him the other night. Not in person, though that would surely have been fun, rather by telling me about Karl's encounter with Will Self in his Channel 4 show 'Satisfied Fool'.

Having watched it myself, it's very funny, especially at the end, though Self does come across as an obnoxious and pretentious snob.

I asked a friend of mine about Karl yesterday:
'Do you know who Karl Pilkington is?'
'Yes, indeedy.'
'Is he really so dim, or is it all an act, do you know?'
'Surely not. He can't be that stupid and still be walking about. He's pretty funny, though. Have you read the books?'
'What books?'
'The Ricky Gervais ones of the podcasts.'
'Oh no, not at all. I've not heard of them. Are they good?'
'Yeah, I was reading one on the bus and kept embarrassing myself. Just couldn't stop laughing.'
I've since watched all of 'Satisfied Fool' -- predictably enough its all on YouTube -- culminating with the revelation of Karl's IQ test result, being a staggeringly low 83. It's very funny, especially when he starts talking about aliens, and about women eating mud, or about how he's pretty sure that his Mancunian education wasn't very good, observing that his English teacher eschewed Shakespeare for Ian Fleming's Dr No.

Of course, there's a problem in this. If he's really so dim, isn't it wrong to laugh at him? Indeed, isn't Ricky Gervais a bully? But is it okay to be a bully if the person you bully is largely oblivious to this and becomes a very wealthy cult hero as a result?

I'm pretty sure it's an act. I know people say that he came across as being this stupid right from the start of the podcasts, and that Gervais and Merchant have repeatedly denied that Karl's inanities are scripted, saying that he's simply too good to have made up and far too good to have wasted on a radio show, but I'm not convinced.

Among other things, the whole programme looked like a very tight operation. I'd be amazed if there was more than one cameraman involved, for instance. Think about that, and then watch the Will Self sequence again.

If you watch it closely, you'll probably count six or seven cuts in the sequence, with there clearly being a sizeable gap between the last two -- utterly priceless -- shots; they have to get down some stairs, after all, and then set up that final shot, with Karl carefully positioned by the mirror. Can you imagine this working in practice if Karl really is as dim as he pretends to be? 'Okay, Karl, can you just stand over there and be stupid while Will insults you, please?'

I know the whole thing looks effortless, but it's really not. A programme like this would be bloody hard work. And besides, Karl's comic timing is too good; there's no way that's not intentional. Hell, if you look at the interviews on his site, the one with Total Film, say, you'll see a cutting intelligence beneath that cretinous veneer:
'Years ago there were loads of freak show tours like the one in Elephant Man, but you don't get them these days. I put it down to the fact that Channel 5 cover them so there is no money in the live tour. A night doesn't go by without them showing something like "The Boy With A Face Like A Cabbage" or "The Girl With Two Arses".'
As documentary television goes, Satisfied Fool is surely far closer to The Office or Brass Eye than it is to, say, the Art Lives show about Graham Linehan I was talking about the other day.

You should watch it.

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