On April 5, 2003, radio producer Karl Pilkington nearly choked to death live on Xfm because Ricky Gervais, host of The Ricky Gervais Show, was trying to get Pilkington into the Guinness Book of World Records by stuffing five burgers and 133 grapes into his mouth. Little did Gervais realize that his antics would get himself, Pilkington, and his co-host Stephen Merchant into the Book of World Records in just four years time.
If you were in London at 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 7, 1998, you might have turned your radio dial to 104.9-FM and heard, “Remember when you taught me to do the dustman’s blow when you hold one nostril and blow it all out the other?” You probably wouldn’t have recognized the voice because the first episode of The Office was still three years away, and Gervais’ chat show hadn’t even aired yet. Yet, as hosts Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant took the mickey out of Paul Simon and made phone calls to Gervais’ mum, you might have been amused enough to listen through the two-hour episode, and by the end of it, you might have even considered yourself a fan of The Ricky Gervais Show on Xfm. This season, a season fans call “series zero” because it was pre-Karl Pilkington, did not have the charm that the post-Capital Records take-over episodes would later have, but the conversations with Ricky and his mother make it well worth listening to, partly because she perplexingly has to remind him that his name is pronounced ger-VAY.
With Capital Records buying out the little station, Gervais and Merchant resigned, using their extra two hours a week to work on a little sitcom idea inspired by the former’s stint working a desk job. Two months later, Capital Records invited the now critically acclaimed Office creators back to host the revival of The Ricky Gervais Show. Like series zero, the show featured silly chat on pop culture news, jokes, and music like Oasis, David Bowie, and Radiohead. Unlike series zero, there was a third person in the studio every week. Xfm had given them their own producer. During series 1, Karl Pilkington’s primary job was to hit the right buttons, occassionally answering questions of the hosts quietly in his Manchester accent. It didn’t take Gervais and Merchant long to realize that everything that came out of Pilkington’s mouth was funnier than anything the award-winning writers could concoct themselves.
Over the next season, the focus shifted from Gervais and Merchant trying to crack each other up to baiting Pilkington in hopes of comedy gold. The mines never ran dry. Eventually, they allowed Pilkington to create his own reoccuring segments, such as Educating Ricky, where Pilkington would find an obscure fact previously unknown to Gervais. These facts turned out to be unhelpful and often untrue. Some of the more famous segments were Pilkington’s games like Rockbusters, where he’d hint at the name of a band Blockbusters–style and give away prizes to listeners. Unfortunately, the clues were almost completely impossible to guess, driving Ricky to the edge of his temper. Merchant, with a longer fuse and the knowledge that Karl was funniest when uninterrupted, frequently reeled Gervais back in (and once kicked him out so that Pilkington could finish his sentence). Monkey News, Knob News, and Cheeky Freak of the Week were popular news segments informed by websites with questionable credibility.
After four years of Pilkington at the helm, in June 2005, shortly after the finale of Gervais and Merchant’s second hit television program, Extras, the show ended to make way for the podcast edition. The podcast was a fairly new medium, so when The Ricky Gervais Show podcast, a somewhat more organized and domesticated edition of the original Xfm show, clocked in at five million downloads, the three lads found themselves with the most downloaded podcast ever. Judging by the now 300+ million downloaded episodes and the subsequent animated TV series, there’s a good chance you’ve heard it already (and if you haven’t, you’ll find it under Audio Books on iTunes). The podcast was not scripted, but it did have some leads, structure, and editing. The Xfm show, on the other hand, was broadcast live and therefore completely unedited and unweildy. What the podcasts lack the most is the tension. For the two hosts, the main prerogative of the radio show was to get as close to being slanderous, homophobic, and racist as allowed in order to make Karl Pilkington squirm.
There are more than 100 hours of the Xfm show. Most of the episodes were at one point available for illegal download in their entirety, having been donated by fans with the foresight to hold onto their guerilla cassette recordings. When Capital Records released the Best Of for purchase (now in three volumes), illegal uploads were wiped from the web, but continually pop up on YouTube. If you’re looking for an episode not featured in the official compilation, the transcripts are free to read on pilkipedia.
Just a handful of Karl’s many segments:
- Rockbusters (“I was in Texas. I landed on my knees in a puddle.” = Whitney Houston)
- That’s Rickydiculous
- Monkey News and Cheap as Chimps
- Knob News and Fanny Facts
- Acid I Would Sort You Out With Some Science
- War Do You Think of That
- Cheeky Freak of the Week
- Karl’s Diary
- Make Ricky Gervais Laugh
- Do We Need ‘Em?
- Songs of Phrase