An Idiot Abroad 2 and Life’s Too Short: ‘No better than a Victorian freak show?’

Terence Blacker in The Independent described the BBC comedy Life’s Too Short as “Comedy no better than a Victorian freak show”. The story raises questions about creativity, culture, social identity and thought leadership

Tudor Rickards

I had already written a Not a Review for An Idiot Abroad 2 which is reissued below. My post explored the emerging themes within the comedy of Ricky Gervase and Stephen Merchant. Blacker’s article suggests that its discussion points remain pertinent to their subsequent series Life’s Too Short.

It was hard to avoid information about An Idiot Abroad (second series) showing on Sky2. 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, supported by. At the time, Gervase and Merchant had become internationally acclaimed for their achievements first in the cultish British TV series The Office, and later in American media ventures of varying degrees of success.

The big idea

The big idea in the Sky programme was that Gervase and his creative partner Steve 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.

Or 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.

Karl’s adventures

The result is part travel show, part improvisational art. Carl gets to visit touristy places and comment in ways which are more touristy than the accepted tourist show 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 cultures of a tribe whose members worship Prince Philip; Carl in space. [Only one of the above is made up by me].

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 Pilkington 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

Creativity trumps cruelty. There are various psychological defences to protect social identity. 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 which involves yet more light-hearted fun involving a gifted artist, Warwick Davies, who becomes the chosen one to benefit from the Gervase treatment. The focal characteristic of the artist in question is indicated in the title “Life’s too short”

Footnote

The issue is far from unambiguous, but you would not think so from the maedia treatment. Warwick Davis makes the ethical case for the programme by noting that critics of the programmes “just don’t get it”.

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