Ricky Gervais won BAFTAs for "The Office", but his greatest work was far less scripted (Photo by Jon Furniss/WireImage)
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20 years of The Ricky Gervais Show

Ricky Gervais’s best comedy survives by fans swapping bootlegged recordings

It was 20 years ago this month that David Brent proudly told a nation he does not give shitty jobs, that when he goes out on the town el vino does flow, and that his staff see him as a friend first, a boss second, and probably an entertainer third.

The Office started as a low-budget sitcom on BBC2, but within a matter of months it catapulted Ricky Gervais to international fame, making him and the sitcom’s co-creator Stephen Merchant two of the UK’s most successful comedy writers and directors.

The legacy of The Office is assured, yet it is another broadcast involving the duo that debuted in 2001 which arguably left the greater emotional, if perhaps not cultural, footprint.

‘The Ricky Gervais Show”, featuring Merchant, and producer-turned-comic genius Karl Pilkington, has helped get people through bouts of depression, fights against serious illness, and even dealing with the death of loved ones.

This is not “The Ricky Gervais Show” podcast that was turned into an Emmy-nominated cartoon programme produced by HBO and Channel 4. This is “The Ricky Gervais Show” which preceded that; the show which was broadcast on London-based radio station Xfm between 2001 and 2005.

The Ricky Gervais Show was unlike The Office in one key regard

The show that was never meant to have a legacy. 

The show that has only survived because fans swap bootleg recordings of the 92 episodes that survive from the original broadcasts.

These recordings have been played more than 6.4million times on YouTube, while last year, as the world coped with various lockdown measures, the show hit the top 20 on the Spotify comedy podcast chart — despite never being “officially” released.

A Reddit thread discussing the broadcasts has more than 30,000 followers, and there’s even a fan-created tribute podcast in production where each episode of the show is debated and discussed.

It was not the first time Gervais and Merchant had worked at Xfm. Indeed, it was while Gervais was working as Head of Speech at the station in 1997 that he hired Merchant as his assistant, and the comedy partnership was formed. The pair even had their own show on the station, but after Xfm was bought out by Capital Radio Group in 1998, they both took voluntary redundancy. 

Three years after leaving, the success of The Office saw the pair invited back (as “conquering heroes”, Gervais would frequently claim) and given their own show.

Airing between 1 and 3pm on Saturday afternoons, The Ricky Gervais Show was unlike The Office in one key regard. Whereas the sitcom had been meticulously planned, with its creators even deciding what font should be used on the show’s promotional materials, the radio programme was characterised by its distinct lack of interest by its hosts.

And not in a faux, oh-aren’t-we-wackily-chaotic manner which radio DJs often aspire to, but in a genuinely unplanned regard. 

Indeed, such was the antipathy Gervais and Merchant seemed to have for the show, they demanded a producer was supplied so they didn’t have to do tedious things such as press play on the records.

And it was that producer which turned the show from two friends attempting to crack-wise on a Saturday afternoon to a frequently bizarre, always hilarious, and sometimes even emotional programme that still resonates with a die-hard following today.

Gervais and Merchant took it upon themselves to bring some education into Pilkington’s life

And he had a head like a fucking orange.

Well, that was the refrain often thrown at sound engineer Karl Pilkington by Gervais.

Unlike the two fronting the show, Pilkington harboured no desire to be a comedy star. Having grown up in the outskirts of Manchester, he left school at 15 without even bothering to collect his GCSE results. 

He trained as a printer, before a stint on hospital radio convinced him to get involved in broadcasting. Pilkington moved to London to work on Xfm, eventually rising to be head of production at the station.

The miserable Mancunian pushed the buttons from the first broadcast, but as the show continued over the next four years, he became the reason many tuned in.

Tales of his childhood in Manchester, including his neighbours who kept a horse in their house, his Auntie Nora “farting for five minutes”, and his strange school contemporaries  — two boys with webbed hands and big heads that weren’t friends with each other as that would have been “too obvious’ — proved to be funnier and more surreal than anything Gervais and Merchant could come up with.

Pilkington eventually began contributing various features to the show, such as Educating Ricky (where he would tell Gervais an ill-informed, barely researched piece of information), Monkey News (a spurious story normally involving a chimpanzee), and the quiz Rockbusters (essentially the TV show Blockbusters but with “cryptic/craptic” clues and the answers as musicians).

Gervais and Merchant took it upon themselves to bring some education into Pilkington’s life, particularly after doing what their new colleague had failed to do and collecting the results of the GCSE exams he had taken some 14 years earlier. 

It turned out Pilkington had taken just one exam — a surprise even to him — receiving an E in History.

As part of a drive to fill in the gaps in Pilkington’s knowledge of the world, discussions of the importance of historical figures such as Che Guevara, Rasputin, Churchill, and Hitler, took place on this Saturday afternoon show, with Pilkington’s unique view on the world providing the entertainment — Hitler was a “bad bloke” apparently.

Debates like these — and this is without mentioning other features such as Songs of Phrase, Cheap as Chimps, Karl’s Film Quiz, and Cheeky Freak of the Week — are the reason why so many people seek solace in the recordings.

Rosina Campbell, a 30-year-old student from Brighton, started listening to shows when she was 17, and still regularly dips back into the vault.

She considers it to be Gervais and Merchant’s “best work”, saying: “I feel like they really conjured up comedy magic in that radio studio and I can’t imagine anything else being as funny in my lifetime. 

“Maybe that makes me sound a bit obsessed but I guess I am. Thinking of my life without the Xfm shows to sleep to or get ready in the morning to or console me when life is hell is honestly a really depressing thought.”

Jesse Nickerson from New Hampshire, USA, discovered the shows after watching the US version of The Office. 

Keen to learn more about its UK creators, his journey through Gervais and Merchant’s back catalogue saw him stumble on the bootleg recordings of the broadcasts being circulated initially on file sharing networks, and now podcast outlets.

The 38-year-old says the shows went from being “a sporadic listen to almost a daily coping mechanism” after struggling with an autoimmune episode that required multiple hospital trips.

Jesse says: “I spent an awful long time driving around to different medical experts, most of which had very little information to give me. I was going to offices, surrounded by older people who were in various stages of poor health, and I was worried I was on the fast track to that as well. The only thing that kept me sane, especially during all the solo drives to doctors, was the Xfm shows. I listened daily for as much as I needed to.”

Listening to Merchant’s attitude to homeless people raises eyebrows 20 years on

Yet for a show that is still popular, there is a significant amount of material which would see the trio victims of cancel culture if it was broadcast today.

Language which today would be considered homophobic — and in truth probably was at the time — is regularly used. 

Gervais labels Pilkington a “bender” for saying Jonathan Ross is “all right” looking, and one discussion about whether gay men should have their own toilets to stop them looking at other men while at the urinals does little more than reinforce homophobic slurs.

Listening to Merchant’s attitude to homeless people raises eyebrows 20 years on, with him getting angry at one presumed rough sleeper for reading a book in the November 30 2002 broadcast. 

Pilkington was responsible for many of the most offensive comments, including questioning whether a busy restaurant would serve a customer who had deformed legs as “restaurants don’t allow animals in”.

These comments are cringe-inducing, and would see the trio the subject of a social media storm if broadcast today.

Devotees of the show do not wash over these moments, with a number of Reddit threads debating not just whether such comments are appropriate today, but if they were when the show was initially broadcast.

Rosina says: “I definitely don’t think it’s dated well in the politically correct sense but I really don’t care. 

“I’m very left wing so in other contexts, I can imagine disliking what they’re saying. But I think the whole messy nature of the show, and the fact they insult so many types of people — I always think of Ricky saying they haven’t got to insulting everyone yet — makes me shrug it off.  I just accept it as a product of its time that wouldn’t fly now, but it would be so much less funny if it wasn’t as offensive as it was.”

Despite these concerns, it seems be people from the “cancel culture” generation who are keeping the show alive.

According to Spotify statistics, 63 per cent of those listening are aged between 23-34 years old.

John P, a 24-year-old student from New England, USA, has been listening to the shows for the past two years, and says he can relisten to the recordings “without ever feeling bored or exhausted of hearing the same old stories.”

He believes Pilkington’s contributions are what make it timeless, but adds: “Some of it has dated well, in that it’s not really relevant to any time or place in particular. 

“Some of it has not — namely the gay jokes and the lot. But if you keep your sense of humor, and remind yourself that, after all, this is a show where stories of literal monkey bobsled athletes and ‘aliens give man a beard,’ so there’s no need to take anything too seriously.”

Gervais, of course, has gone on to make a career out of shocking comments, although he is always at his best when punching up at the liberal elite — such as in his Golden Globe monologues — instead of kicking people already facing struggles.

The years since the shows were broadcast saw Gervais, Merchant and Pilkington collaborate on numerous projects. 

Wanting to monetise the alchemy, the trio took the radio show format and moved it into podcast form. Many of the stories initially told by Pilkington were repeated, and Gervais and Merchant convincingly acted like they were hearing them for the first time. The animation of the podcasts followed, as did the Pilkington-presented travel show An Idiot Abroad.

Now, the trio no longer work together. No great split, all three are quick to paint out in interviews, but there is a feeling among fans that Gervais and Merchant in particular have suffered a Lennon-McCartney style fallout. 

It seems unlikely the three will ever be in the same room again, and even if they were, they will never be able to recreate the atmosphere of three people genuinely not giving a damn about what they are saying or who is listening. That was the magic. It was unforced. It was delivered without worrying if it would offend. It took risks without making that very act a selling point.

And, bizarrely, it has helped people get through tough times.

Whether Gervais, Merchant and Pilkington know this is unclear. Each of them declined to be interviewed for this piece — all too busy on other projects according to their representatives.

Perhaps one day they’ll come back around.

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