Like their podcast – which is in the Guinness Book for record downloads – their new series takes the acerbic wit of Gervais and Merchant and mixes it with the often amusing – and perplexing – brand of unintentional humor offered from their friend Karl Pilkington.
It’s this humor that serves as a springboard for topics ranging from theories on life and death – everyone should live to 78 and then a baby should be born from their corpse – to a regular segment called “Monkey News,” in which Pilkington dissects information on the primate world gleaned from the Internet.
Pilkington, whom the duo met while working on a radio show together, has been affectionately dubbed a sort of comedic “moron” due to his rather unusual outlook on life.
“He once described evolution to us as, ‘Everyone knows it goes germ, fish, mermaid, man,’” Merchant says. “Now I don’t remember mermaid being in that equation.”
In an interview at the Television Critics Association Press Tour in Pasadena last month, Merchant opened up about the joys of getting animated with Gervais and Pilkington, the possibility of revisiting ‘Extras,’ and Gervais’ fondness for black v-neck t-shirts.
The animation style seems like a nod to Hanna Barbera, although I can’t imagine Fred and Barney talking about penis devices like you guys do.
[Laughs] No! But wouldn’t that have been great? Can you imagine if they just talked about how they were really having problems in the bedroom? Thirty minutes of them chewing the fat at a bar, chatting about how they’d married the wrong women. Certainly the idea for the animation was that classic feel. We wanted to keep it simple and clean and not be overly complicated so we could allow what we’re talking about to cut through. It’s probably a lot cheaper, too.
Did you have a say in what your character would look like?
Not really. I think they kind of drew what they thought we should look like. As you know – you’re sitting with me now – I’m a pretty sexy guy in real life. Whereas in the animation I’ve allowed them to make me look more like a lanky geek.
How generous of you.
Yeah, it was really sweet of me. Ricky looks pretty much like Fred Flintstone, and Karl Pilkington looks exactly like he does in real life – perfectly round head, kind of idiot, slack-jawed face.
Ricky isn’t dressed in his signature black v-neck t-shirt.
Yeah, that’s pretty much what Ricky wears all the time. It’s instantly slimming, so he won’t be seen in anything but black. He will openly admit that he only owns black t-shirts. I remember there was a phase when he started only wearing trousers with a drawstring, jogging pants.
Like George Costanza, just giving up.
Yeah. That’s what he’s done. He’s had the same girlfriend for a number of years, so who is he trying to impress? Actually, I think Ricky is wearing an orange shirt. Maybe black is a little too gloomy for animation. With black we thought, ‘No one is going to watch this! But if he’s wearing an orange t-shirt, it’ll go through the roof.’
Are you going to have any guests come into the studio and riff with you guys?
We never have guests on there. The key thing about it is it’s not scripted. It’s real people having real conversations about utter nonsense. If you thought it was scripted you’d be like, ‘What the hell am I watching this for?’ But when you realize it’s not, that its just an excuse for us to have a conversation with Karl, probing him for all these mad, weird ideas, his catalogue of misheard information, and stuff he’s picked up on the web that he’s convinced is fact. We’ve tried to make him into a cult star.
Does he want to be a star, though?
No he doesn’t. That’s one of the reasons Ricky is keen on him becoming well known. If he became so famous that he couldn’t leave his house, that would be tremendous.
Paparazzi hounding him.
Yeah, upskirt shots.
Do you ever have conversations together when you’re not recording and you go, ‘Wait, we’ve got to conserve this topic for the show!’ Or do you just not revisit things you’ve already spoken about?
Ricky will say, ‘I spoke to Karl the other day on the phone and he’s said this this and this,’ and we’ll never go back to it because at that point its ruined. We never repeat ourselves. Karl will say the funniest stuff and we won’t have a tape machine around. We need one with him 24 hours a day, because we just miss a lot of stuff.
Anything come to mind?
We were having a conversation with him the other day about the Pyramids. As you know – they’re a tomb. He thought they were ancient accommodations, though. He goes, ‘Well look, its got a huge living room and then a tiny bedroom. What a poor design.’ Only a man who’s that ill informed would have that perspective.
This seems like a pretty freeing gig compared to sitting in a writers room trying to hash out a scripted TV show like ‘The Office’ and ‘Extras.’
Well it all started out with radio, and that’s one of the great things about it – that you don’t have a long laborious manufacturing process. With this you just turn up and start talking and hopefully you get some entertainment out of that. So there is a real freedom. The animators do all the hard work. We just sit around and talk rubbish. Really it’s the best gig you could ever have.
You’ve been incredibly fortunate in the amount of success you’ve had so far.
I know. Honestly it’s baffling to me. It’s really strange.
Do you ever worry, ‘What if it all goes away?’ It only seems natural to be struck with those paranoid fears.
I am struck with fears like that, but the bigger anxiety is that I will never achieve what I really want – which is to become so famous that I’m driven mad.
Do you entertain “Rosebud” fantasies?
Yes, I would dream of that! Dying alone in a vast mansion with eight ex wives. Or even better still – living in my car as a drug fiend. I just like the romanticism of it. And I could make a big wall of all my National Enquirer magazine covers. Then I’d get a reality show, and it’d all come full circle.
I would watch a reality show with you and Ricky. Would you ever do it?
That’s the thing – there’s too many of them. Anyone who has ever done a sitcom walk-on has now got their own reality show. I’m not down on them but there’s just too many. I can’t keep track of what the Kardashians and MC Hammer are doing.
Do you ever think you’d revisit ‘Extras?’
Possibly. I like the idea of always moving forward and not going back to old stuff. It was real fun to do. It was quite stressful to get all the celebrities there. Even once they’d said yes, you know, Kate Winslet is a busy woman. I do like playing an idiot. It beats everything. That I miss.
So moving forward then, what does that mean?
The thing is I never thought of myself as an actor or a comedian. I didn’t really know what to call myself.
That seems so pompous, though. ‘A writer.’ You can say that if you’re Oscar Wilde. Maybe an entertainer. There you go. That also sounds really vague. I can play myself and slight variations of myself. I can’t do accents. Really I can’t act. What you’ve seen is me at the very parameters of my ability. I’m happy to do that. That’s fun.
Do you relish the idea of continuing to be associated with Ricky?
I do. I can imagine doing other stuff particularly as he gets older, and richer, and fatter, and less likely to be able to work.
OK, so what’s your sales pitch on this show?
We started as a radio show, then we did podcasts. Now we have this huge cult following all over the world. But there are still millions of people who have not heard it. This is a great way for people to be introduced to this phenomenon, and particularly, the world of Karl Pilkington. I’m saying you’ve not met an idiot like this. If you are the village idiot, watch this and it will make you feel like Einstein.