British comedian Ricky Gervais’ third television series, after “The Office” and “Extras,” is a cartoon called “The Ricky Gervais Show.” Its audio is lifted from a series of podcasts, also titled “The Ricky Gervais Show,” that began at the end of 2005 as a free online feature of the British newspaper the Guardian and was a successor to a radio show on London’s XFM. (It moved on to a pay-to-listen “audio book” version.) It is described here as “a series of pointless conversations.”
The cartoon show, which begins Friday night on HBO -- it’s Gervais’ American home away from home -- is the least of his series, but it is generally amusing and pretty to watch, and I like the way it rambles. (Rambling is a quality largely absent from professional television.) It stars Gervais, Stephen Merchant (his co-writer on “The Office,” and co-writer and costar in “Extras”) and Karl Pilkington, a “producer” of the original radio show and now a star in his own right.
Where Gervais dominates the original broad- and podcasts, the present version has been edited to focus on Pilkington, a man of apparently strange beliefs and spotty learning whom Gervais has declared the funniest man alive. The show exists, he says, “because I love to be in a room with Karl Pilkington,” and indeed, he has largely reduced his role here to that of straight man.
The gist of the series is this: Gervais and Merchant solicit Pilkington’s opinion on a number of issues, then laughingly mock his replies. Part of the premise, if that’s the word, is that Pilkington is a fool: “I’ve seen him blossom from an idiot into an imbecile,” says Gervais, who also calls him “brain dead” and a “buffoon” and compares his observations to “the ramblings of someone in a hospital eating flies.”
But while the deadpan Pilkington may be a special sort of original thinker, who sometimes builds his theories on bad information, he is not stupid. Fundamentally, he thinks like a comedian, turning an issue on its side, noticing what seems out of place, asking questions other people would not bother to ask, whether it’s about space tourism, superpowers, the homeless, monkeys (a recurring subject) or his already famous formulation, not reprintable here, of the best time of day to eat kangaroo penis. Mostly he makes a kind of sense.
The question of his self-awareness is an open one; although Gervais insists that Pilkington is genuinely clueless, I don’t quite buy it. (He’s put out three books and has proved an able, interested TV interviewer on his own.) What he does seems more like the comedy equivalent of folk art, neither wholly random nor wholly calculated, something between artifice and mere honesty.
“You are living in a cartoon world,” Gervais tells Pilkington, and so they all are here. The attractive animation, by the Wildbrain studio -- who also produce the Nickelodeon kids’ show “Yo Gabba Gabba!” -- smacks of classic Hanna-Barbera and UPA. Gervais is drawn sort of like the “Flintstone Kids” version of Fred Flintstone; Merchant’s animated self is all grin and glasses; and Pilkington, who has the perfectly round head Gervais always accuses him of having, permanently wears the worried look he wears in life.
On one level, the animation is just a way to get the soundtrack onto television -- to give you something to look at while the talk happens. But at its best, it points up the way that conversation works -- it can follow its twists and turns, even word for word. In doing so, in making all their stories and characters concrete, it can distract from what’s being said as much as underscore it, but you can always close your eyes; the jokes will work just as well.