"With a head like a f*cking orange," Karl Pilkington first came to U. K. prominence during the early 2000s as one of the most distinctly oddball voices of bizarro, deadpan humor in that nation's rich...
Manchester, England, GB
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Pilkington was born Sept. 23, 1972, in Manchester, England, U.K., and grew up in Sale, a town in Greater Manchester. The details of Pilkington's upbringing were convoluted by his own batty tales of childhood, but his father reportedly worked as a cab driver. His homemaker mother often played the radio throughout the house, so at one point, young Karl fancied a career on the air. When he mentioned this desire to teachers, they suggested he set his sights lower. It became something of a pattern throughout his life. Karl attended Ashton-on-Mersey School but reputedly did not do well academically, and finding the aspects he enjoyed - those of art and drama - discouraged by his teachers and father, respectively. He dropped out at age 15 or 16, depending on the account. He did stints working for a garage, a grocer and a printing company, then found a job broadcasting for a micro-radio station in a Manchester hospital, a convention in the U.K. via which hospitals attempted to entertain patients and visitors. From there, he found his way onto an actual Manchester radio station, hosting a late-night show for a time, before making the move to London in the early 1990s to hire on with Xfm. He spent eight years working on various shows at the station, including the popular alternative music show "Studio 68" hosted by Tim Lovejoy, and eventually rising to the post of Xfm's Head of Production.
At the start of the new century, he took up producer duties on "The Ricky Gervais Show," a weekly music and chat program hosted by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, a writer-producer team who, by mid-2001, had made a major splash in the U.K. with their groundbreaking mockumentary-tinged sitcom, "The Office" (BBC, 2001-03). Gervais and Merchant, gabbing with their producer during musical breaks, found he wielded some curious perspectives and encouraged him to share them on air in his distinctive Northern-accented monotone. A hit from the start, Pilkington increasingly became the show's foil and the team's good-natured punching bag, developing his own segments such as "Rock Busters" and "Monkey News;" the latter a short commentary on some irregular simian news from around the globe. On his stand-up DVD "Politics" (2004), Gervais even included an interview with Pilkington on its "special features" menu called "Meet Karl Pilkington." By the end of the Xfm show's run in mid-2005, Pilkington had achieved billing parity and a growing cult status. The three rebooted the show in December 2005 as a podcast via Guardian Unlimited, the multimedia platform of the U.K.'s longtime progressive standard-bearer newspaper, the Manchester-based Guardian. The show now fully turned on Pilkington's stories, with Merchant and Gervais mercilessly challenging his mental competence while commenting and cackling about his near-tragedy-prone childhood and his goofy family - including a flatulent-prone Auntie Nora and a brother reputedly kicked out of the army after taking a tank off the base to buy cigarettes - as well as his doubts with conventional wisdom, such as the true worth of endangered species or the veracity of science. Isaac Newton's "discovery of gravity" did not impress Pilkington, for example, since "gravity wasn't causing any problems so there was no reason to worry about it. If we were floatin' about bumpin' into stuff I'd say, Newton, sort it out, but we're not, so leave it."
The podcast saw downloads of an average 261,670 per episode during its first month on the air, verified by The Guinness Book of World Records as the most listened-to show of the digital age, and went on to become the No. 1 podcast sold via iTunes for two years thereafter. By 2006, Pilkington had enough buzz around him for Gervais to basically compile transcripts from the podcasts to sell the book, Ricky Gervais Presents The World of Karl Pilkington, to publishers in the U.K. and U.S. The cult phenomenon also began popping up in new venues, such as a series of short films under the rubrik of "Some Thoughts by Karl Pilkington" for Channel 4's interstitial series "3 Minute Wonders" (2006- ), narrating, appropriately, the short documentary "Monkey Lovers" (2007) and doing one-off turns on "Comedy Lab" (Channel 4, 1998- ) and "The Culture Show" (BBC, 2004- ). Meanwhile, the seamlessly earnest nature of the character and his persistent, unflappably "off" takes on the world led critics and fans to debate whether Pilkington was a buffoon or brilliant, and even whether he (or at least his on-air character) was a real person or a scripted concoction of Gervais and Merchant, apropos of their growing comic footprint in the U.K. and abroad. Gervais and Merchant repeatedly denied any affectation on their part to "create" Pilkington, stating they could not in their wildest dreams have dreamed up a character such as Karl Pilkington, nor would they have wasted him for years on poorly produced radio shows.
The "K-Man" would go on to pen two more books, 2007's Happyslapped by a Jellyfish, a dry observational travelogue of his trips through Europe, supplemented by his own illustrations; and the next year's Karlology: What I've Learned So Far, a compendium of his twisted takes on science, philosophy and art. He also started a blog under the Karlology imprint. In 2010, Gervais and Merchant continued to expand their Karl-centric empire with an "anti-travel" show for Sky1, sending Pilkington to sundry Wonders of the World. Originally called "Karl Pilkington's Wonders of the World," the program was renamed "An Idiot Abroad" by the network and Pilkington's benefactors, Gervais and Merchant. The ostensibly unscripted show played off Pilkington's disinterest in traveling and tendency to observe the mundanities of foreign cultures even amidst monumental wonders such as the Taj Mahal and the Egyptian pyramids, all with Gervais and Merchant keeping tabs on him from London. The show became one of the satellite TV channel's top draws, and a companion book accompanied its airing. Both Gervais and Merchant hinted that there would be a second "Idiot Abroad" series in the offing, despite the whining complaints of Pilkington who would never leave his flat if he did not have to. Having had a success in the States with both "The Office" and Gervais and Merchant's follow-up series "Extras" (2005-07), HBO greenlit a retread of "The Ricky Gervais Show" (2010- ) in which the show's team took the Guardian podcasts and animated the three presenters and Pilkington's tales as vaguely "Flintstones"-esque cartoons, including "Monkey News." A New York Times Feb. 18, 2010, review of the show singled out Pilkington as its comedic engine, calling him "a cross between the deadpan comedian Steven Wright and Cliff Clavin of 'Cheers' - transposed to a Manchester pub."
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