In some ways, Karl Pilkington is the opposite of everyone who partakes in this little hobby of travel hacking. For starters, he really hates to travel. In fact, he seems to hate trying anything new. He’s like that friend of yours who would be perfectly content sitting on his couch all day. He also doesn’t have to do any “hacking” – it’s his job (for this TV series at least) to be sent to travel around the world and thus all his travel is paid for. Except he absolutely hates it.
But let’s take a step back. An Idiot Abroad is a television program that aired on Sky in the UK from 2010-2012, so in that sense it’s a bit dated. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s timeless. It comes from the minds of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the minds behind the original UK version of The Office, Extras, and a whole load of other things. I’ll get this out of the way now – if you don’t like that particular brand of awkward, sometimes cruel, sometimes politically incorrect, cringe-worthy humor, this show might not be for you. But if you can stomach it, the show is well worth your time.
The premise: Karl Pilkington is a “typical little Englander”, which according to Wikipedia is “an epithet applied in criticisms of English people who are regarded as xenophobic and/or overly nationalistic and are often accused of being ‘ignorant’ and ‘boorish'”. Ricky and Stephen, who are his close friends, send him around the world in an attempt to open his mind. In Series (Season) 1, he visits the seven wonders of the world, in Series 2, he chooses items off of a bucket list to try, and in Series 3 he follows the journey of Marco Polo.
Along the way, however, Ricky and Stephen prepare a set of incredible experiences for him to partake in. They are incredible both in the sense that they are amazing and anyone would be lucky to do them (like trying out land diving in Vanuatu) and incredible in the sense that some of them are so humiliating it’s absolutely hilarious (like sumo wrestling in Japan or training with a Shaolin monk). Karl shows up in any given country and basically follows an itinerary that has been set for him and the series films his reactions to the different cultures he meets and experiences along the way.
To say this man is the star of the show is an understatement – I can think of no other person who they could do this kind of show with. They say he’s like Homer Simpson, and it’s apt – he’s a bit of a buffon, ignorant to a fault at times, but eminently incredibly lovable. What I love most about the series is that he is game for almost everything they put him up to even if he absolutely hates it. And although he can sound very insular at times, as you get to know him better (if you were a fan of Ricky Gervais’ old podcast in the 2000s you already know him), you realize that there is some deep, weird kind of philosophy to the way he thinks. And, frankly, his views often are less offensive than ones you’ll see every day.
I recognize it’s tough to put into words what this series is about, so I’ll just tell you why it appeals to me, a lover of travel. First, in the occasions where Karl visits somewhere I’ve been, I look upon it fondly. Secondly, I’m at times jealous of the things he gets to do – they make him hike across the entire Great Wall! OK, I probably wouldn’t want to do the whole thing, but it’s so awesome he gets to see some of the non tourist invaded parts. Third, the show inspires me to travel more – it almost feels like all these amazing experiences are wasted on someone who often doesn’t appreciate them. Finally, it reminds me that there is always somewhere new to go and something new to experience – that’s exciting.
If you’re not sold yet, let me just say one last thing – the show is absolutely hilarious. From the Fear Factor type stuff Karl has to go through to his reactions it, so much of it is just comedic gold. In fact I was inspired to write this and rewatch the whole thing because I saw a tweet on my timeline from one of the soccer writers I follow who had just discovered the show.
TV- The new show An Idiot Abroad on the Travel Channel is HILARIOUS. Highly recommend it.
— Ives Galarcep (@SoccerByIves) July 1, 2015
He realized later it wasn’t a new show, but you get the point. So fire up Netflix or download the program for one of your long haul flights – my guess is only 1 out of every 4 of you will regret it. I’ll leave you with this gem from the man Karl Pilkington himself, which will give you a taste of his genius.
“I never wanted to travel. Didn’t go abroad until I was 21, 22. And now I’ve been all over the shop…I don’t know if it’s changed me that much…when I go home I still like a biscuit and a cup of tea. A cup of tea and dunking a biscuit, I’m well happy. And that’s the right way to be, innit? You can be into traveling but the world’s only so big, innit? So eventually you’re gonna run out of places to visit. Whereas biscuits, there’s loads of em’.” – Karl Pilkington