Karl Pilkington rose to fame (reluctantly, he still claims) off the back of his work on London-based alternative music radio station XFM. Initially an off-air producer, Pilkington began popping up on Ricky Gervais’ Saturday afternoon broadcasts in the early 2000s after the host took a liking to his sardonic world view.
It wasn’t long before Pilkington had captured the hearts of listeners, and he went on to star in Sky travel series An Idiot Abroad and The Moaning of Life, both of which followed his real-life adventures around the world. So why the move into sitcom?
“I had a bit of time off work for a while, but there’s only so many times you can descale a kettle,” he says. “I thought I was lucky to retire before the age of 50 but it wasn’t for me.”
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Gervais and long-time collaborator Stephen Merchant were making a triumphant return to radio following the success of The Office when they first noticed Pilkington’s on-air potential. Having proclaimed (one assumes in jest) that they had become ‘too important’ to man the control desk, the comedy duo hired Pilkington, and soon he had the award-winning comedy duo in stitches with his hangdog expression, bizarre stories of growing up in Manchester and general disdain for modern life. A star was born.
“People come up to me quoting bits that I said once over 15 years ago and then are surprised when I have no idea what they’re talking about,” says Pilkington. “If we’d have known the shows would stick around for so long we might have made more of an effort. When I worked in it I stopped enjoying listening to it. Since I’ve been working away from it I enjoy listening again.”
Fans of Pilkington’s radio days will be happy to spot kernels of them in new series Sick of It, in which we follow a fictional taxi driver named Karl and his ‘inner self’.
“My dad had a black cab when I was growing up in Manchester,” Pilkington explains. “I used to go with him and sit in the space in the front that was there for suitcases on a milk crate. Drunk passengers used to give me a couple of quid now and again. I always thought it was quite a good job and if you were prepared to put the hours in you could earn good money.”
Sick of It’s Karl not only shares the same name as his creator, but the same outlook on life, too. It makes sense, then, that Pilkington plays both the cab driver and his ‘inner self’. But he is keen to clarify something about the show’s premise: “None of it is based on anything that has happened in my real life,” Pilkington says. “If people are expecting anything that they know about my life, they are going to be disappointed. I think I’ve spoke about everything about my past on the radio shows and podcasts so there would be no need to act it all out and wouldn’t be very interesting for me either. It was the idea of making stuff up and putting it into little simple stories that interested me the most about making Sick of It.”
Making a scripted comedy proved to be an entirely different experience for Pilkington. “There was a lot more people behind the camera in Sick of It so that was a bit nerve wracking,” he says. “When we went travelling there was only five of us so that was a big difference. But on the good side, with Sick of It I didn’t have to suffer with jet lag or the shits… so, every cloud.”
Sick of It is set in London, despite Pilkington’s dislike of the UK capital. “I don’t spend as much time in London than I need to anymore,” he says. “Some fella years ago said, ‘If you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life,’ but maybe London wasn’t so annoying back when he said it. It was probably easier to find a parking space and there was no congestion charge back then.”
But it’s hard to find anywhere around the world that Pilkington does like. His aversion to travel was comically apparent in An Idiot Abroad and The Moaning of Life. When asked if he still feels the same way, Pilkington says yes – he wouldn’t leave the house if he didn’t have to. “It’s my girlfriend that insists on holidays,” he says. “Three or four nights away twice a year would be enough for me. She’s the one who convinced me to do the travel shows.”
And there’s at least one other person who sees more travel in Pilkington’s future…
“I met a rumpologist on one of my trips,” he says. “His name was Ulf. He read my arse cheeks like some people read palms, and he told me I’d be living abroad in the future. It’s weird how my arse has more of a plan for life than I do.”
Having done radio, TV comedies, drama and documentaries, what’s next for Pilkington?
“God knows. You’ll have to look at my arse as that’s got more of an idea of my future than I have. I’ll just see what comes along. Does your kettle need descaling?”
Sick of It starts Thursday, 27 September on Sky One and NOW TV with a double bill from 10pm.