An Idiot Abroad had begun its second series on Sky 2 TV before I had overcome my aversion to its title and pre-publicity. Its back story raises disturbing questions about creativity, social identity and thought leadership
It was hard to avoid information about An Idiot Abroad (second series) showing on Sky2 TV. The programme had received extensive advance advertising on Sky as innovative comedy within a travel-show format. Its co-founder Ricky Gervase had been tireless in his enthusiastic plugging of it on the chat show circuit. Gervase and collaborator Steve Merchant had become internationally acclaimed for their achievements first in the cultish British TV series The Office, and later in American media ventures.
The big idea
The big idea in the Sky programme was that Gervase and Merchant had stumbled upon a remarkable non-celebrity whose gnomic observations blew their minds. Said non-celebrity became a challenge, a project to bring to the attention of a wider audience who would share their delight in getting to know him. The title may have been inspired by Mark Twain’s once-famous book An Innocent Abroad which also had its share of disingenuousness built in to its humour.
The idiot Abroad, as Sky puts it:
The man with the spherical head is back! An Idiot Abroad returns this autumn as Karl attempts to tick things off his bucket list [unfulfilled dreams]…. Having struggled to find much to do since returning from 2010’s adventure – as he likes to put it, “when you’ve been in a programme called An Idiot Abroad, other job offers aren’t going to be flying in, are they?” intrepid misanthrope Karl Pilkington sets off for a second time in September. As usual, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant pull the strings from the comfort of their office, as Karl journeys further from his comfort zone and encounters more confused locals and cultural differences.
The result is an imaginative programme which is part travel show, part improvisational art. Carl gets to visit touristy places and comment in ways which are more touristy than the accepted genre. Individual scenes make great U-tube materials: Carl on a camel; Carl and the not so great wall of China; Carl reacting to the non-Mancunian culture of a tribe whose members worship Prince Philip; Carl in space [I might have made up that one].
Carl Pilkington and the making of celebrity
Carl Pilkington was taken up by Gervase and Merchant after working together on a professional assignment. They related to him as a person of unusual quirky personality and saw the potential for celebrity-making. Their undoubted creative talents, so acclaimed in The Office, are evident in the structuring of this project. It shares part of its success with that of celebrity shows and the complex dynamics of social identity including vicarious enjoyment in both the success and the humiliation of ordinary people.
Carl is presented as someone who has celebrity thrust upon him. It the background, the programme supplies the ingredients of humiliation and bullying of an ordinary bloke. The structure is neatly summed up in the blurb above. There’s a big brother somewhere operating in comfort as fools and horses prance for their entertainment.
Creativity trumps cruelty
There are various psychological defences to protect social identity. Creativity trumps cruelty. Art transcends moral values. It is uncool to object to a bit of light-hearted fun. The charge of political correctness gone mad can be wheeled out. And Ricky Gervais can continue to plug this and his next project. It seems this will involves yet more light-hearted fun involving a gifted artist who becomes the chosen one to benefit from the Gervase celebrity makeover treatment. Parallels with shows orchestrated by ringmasters such as Simon Cowell are clear.