On The Ricky Gervais Show, Karl Pilkington and the autistic experience

There are few pieces of media I love more than The Ricky Gervais Show. The XFM years? Love em. The podcasts? Love em. The guides? Love em. An Idiot Abroad? Love it. I have sat around with this material on a loop many times and 9 years after finding it have yet to tire of it.

This go around however has been different. For the uninitiated, the show consists of Gervais, his (now former) writing partner Stephen Merchant, and their former producer Karl Pilkington simply sitting around and talking with the goal of getting Karl to say something “stupid.” Given that Karl is prone to absurd ideas, it’s easy to see this as a fairly mean and even ableist show. So much of the humor is at his expense.

But I’ve always felt a profound kinship to Karl as I listened. Initially, yes I laughed at him but the longer that I listened the more I started to laugh because what he said was funny in its own right. An Idiot Abroad particularly helped me see how dry witted he was. Thus as I listened this time, I was hit with a startling revelation: Listening to The Ricky Gervais Show and putting yourself in Karl’s shoes is a perfect example of the common autistic experience.

After all, to listen to 30 minutes of the show is to experience an awkward social situation. It’s obvious there’s affection between these three men but there’s tension. Gervais is legendary for his ego and Merchant doesn’t seem a lot less sure of himself here. Karl is the unassuming everyman in the midst of these two characters, not unlike all of us at a party. I’ve been in rooms where I desperately wanted to escape.

So much of the show follows an all too familiar series of patterns for us. Karl finds himself expressing his views, either with regular features or with random topics and he speaks up. Inevitably he’s ridiculed for them. Honestly much of the humor is just this.

The thing is, almost everything he’s saying either comes from a logical place or one where you can see his reasoning even if it’s odd. That’s what I find so distinctly autistic about the show. Karl is terrible at expressing himself. His words get lost in his filter. But he’s not wrong. How often have I been in his shoes? I’ve spoken up with an opinion that came out wrong but my idea wasn’t. This show captures that in a rare way.

Karl is also somewhat naive. He seemingly believes a lot of strange things and is locked into patterns of thought. These are things I’ve seen in us though the naivete tends to fade. But we’re open. I definitely am. I especially get his view of order when there isn’t any. It’s just an easier way to view life.

But perhaps what I relate to the most is his bluntness. Karl doesn’t hold back. He says what he thinks. He’s not exactly the most adept at faking social niceties. The stories he tells are ones of social blindness. Suffice it to say I believe we can all relate to this.

Seriously, for a more perfect display of our traits in audio, you’d have to find something made by one of us. And yes, the argument has been made convincingly that Karl might be one of us. But that’s irresponsible and not our place to judge. What I can say is I relate.

I realize that suggesting a series where someone gets bullied might not sound entertaining but I want to go back to my point of listening to it from Karl’s POV. Listened to from his perspective, it’s a show about a thoroughly decent, very funny person who has to endure two outsized egos. Karl is all of us dealing with society. And as it goes on he puts up with less and less. Once An Idiot Abroad starts, he’s cursing them out. Karl finds his strength.

Karl’s victory is that he never changes. He’s resolutely himself. And by the end, you’re with him.

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