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Tall Travelling Tales

2 May 2012 | 7:00 am | Baz McAlister

If Karl Pilkington is the monkey, Stephen Merchant (along with Ricky Gervais) is an organ-grinder on travel show An Idiot Abroad. He tells Baz McAlister about wrangling an international idiot.

Now in its second series, hit travel program with a difference An Idiot Abroad chronicles the voyages of everyman philosopher Karl Pilkington, a mostly dour chap who'd be happier sitting at home in London eating sausage, egg and chips. His sometime benefactors, sometime tormentors are none other than Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, creators of The Office and Extras. They first met Pilkington at London radio station XFM, where he was assigned to them as producer and quickly became the butt of their jokes.

 “My friends who are parents tell me they love watching their kids grow and develop minds of their own,” Merchant says. “They laugh at the silly shit they say, try their best to answer their questions. This is what it's like for me and Ricky. Neither of us have kids but we're like the proud parents of Karl, who we've seen grow from a moron to a simpleton.”

On An Idiot Abroad, the pair plunge Pilky into strange situations all over the globe – wing-walking on a biplane, which Merchant says looked “genuinely terrifying” for Karl, and performing with a Glee-style high school troupe. But Pilkington will invariably respond to these once-in-a-lifetime bucket list moments with horror. “It angers me that he doesn't appreciate getting to swim with sharks,” Merchant says. “True, he thought he would be swimming with dolphins that day – but I always say when you're given lemons, make lemonade. Though he'd probably say 'I fookin' hate lemonade'.”

Merchant says he's had people say to him they hate he and Ricky, and wish they weren't in the show, bullying Karl. “I have to point out that Karl wouldn't do all the stuff they love if we weren't behind him, poking him with a stick the whole time,” Merchant reasons. “And as Karl says, if it is bullying, why is no one coming to his rescue?”

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Despite Pilkington's understandable reticence to do another series – he was dubious enough at the end of series one, which was in many ways far less extreme then series two – Merchant says plans are afoot for a one-off special where Karl goes travelling with actor Warwick Davis, star of Gervais and Merchant's recent sitcom Life's Too Short. “We haven't nailed down the details yet, but it should be interesting to see Karl with a travelling companion, who also happens to be a dwarf,” Merchant says.

Best-known as Gervais's co-writer for TV, Merchant made the decision last year to return to stand-up comedy with a solo show called Hello Ladies, which he toured around the UK. It's all about the 2m-tall comedian's so-far-unsuccessful hunt for a mate, and he says he would love to perform it in Australia. “Originally I joked that the show was going to be me literally trying to find a wife onstage, but then I started getting some crazy love letters in the post and I saw a few odd-balls sat in the audience – so in the end the show was just me talking about why I've failed to find a wife.

“Once The Office took off, I didn't get enough of a kick from performing to warrant driving up and down the motorway to gigs, eating bad food in service stations at midnight. I used to look at Ricky doing stand-up and think, 'Why's he bothering? It's so much effort.' Then I just woke up one day and I had the itch again. When you work in TV you get very insulated. Stand-up is so raw and direct, there's nowhere to hide. It reminds you how hard it is to make people laugh – and hopefully the experience feeds back into the TV writing.”