I know there’s a steadfast handful who will agree with me when I say that the XFM radio shows, hosted by Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington, are the finest work any of them has produced. Predating their far more well known podcasts, and any of Pilkington’s now ubiquitous solo outings, these bootlegged series have such intensity that it would be impossible to replicate. Considering the more cleanly produced approach of their spiritual sequels, it’s clear that they really did think barely anyone was listening. The freedom this allowed them and the controversy it would occasionally cause would both become key aspects; anarchic madness punctuating the show at every turn.
Exactly how much Pilkington is a a honed and deliberate character is still a matter of some debate. Personally, after a somewhat embarrassing amount of my life spent listening to their conversations, I believe it rests somewhere in the middle. Innately naive, yet gifted with original thought and perspective, these are aspects of himself he embraced, and would allow to flourish under the encouraging shriek of Gervais’ incessant guffaws. He really was just Gervais and Merchant’s humble, yet entirely esoteric and unique, producer, and to hear him come to terms with his own comedic character is fascinating. Long before he deftly masters the art of his now revered Manc whine, it’s also one of the funniest things you’ll ever hear.
A round-table discussion, sidetracked by songs here and there as is the nature of such a radio show, the trio’s meandering conversations are central to the proceedings. Generally, an episode will feature a variety back and forth cacophony as Pilkington fails to comprehend simple ideas – with equal weight given to his own insane concepts, made all the more humorous in their sincerity. With Gervais as the provocative bully and Merchant as the stoic voice of reason, a beautiful social triangle is formed that seems infinite in its potential to entertain and genuinely touching its exaggerated reality. While arguments are common and tension between Merchant and Pilkington often flares, these things only serve to endear you towards their fearless honesty.
A creative edge permeates certain segments too, as the three satirically contribute “features” that are, by and large, surprisingly intelligent parodies of their peers. Such ideas as Songs I’d Like to Play on the Radio evolve from snowballing childishness, finding the protracted work of Chris Moyles or Dr. Fox to be laughable. What really takes centre-stage when it comes to their features, however, are the things Pilkington would bring to the table. Be it Rockbusters, Songs of Phrase, Monkey News or Karl in a Film, the content of each makes me laugh just to consider when writing this sentence. It doesn’t matter how much Pilkington’s in on the joke when the comedic material is this consistent, unique and flawlessly delivered. Building on itself with each passing episode, he’s either a mastermind or, as Gervais would put it, a “mental” so far from our expectations that it stumbles into genius. Of course, he’s somewhere in between.
It’s not even merely humorous either, as The Ricky Gervais Show on XFM was an intelligent, off-the-cuff and experimental forum where the hosts could spoof life’s minutia and big issues alike. Hiding some actually rather deep philosophy between the sheets of their relentless silliness, the three of them land on some conclusions and thoughts that would never have been given a live airing if it weren’t for Gervais’ status. The progressive fantasies of a well-educated, liberal atheist (Gervais) work as an amazing foil and fuel to Pilkington’s down-to-earth, yet idiotic, observations. Something profound comes from their interaction, and it’s extremely appealing.
Perfectly mediated by Merchant, who has a much more reserved personality, his role in The Ricky Gervais Show is all too often underappreciated. Forming his own comic character with each interjection, it’s something that would be the genesis for later projects like Hello Ladies. While that later work is questionable in quality, its roots have a much more likeable edge as Merchant still seems to have a lot of the pathetic paranoia he’s exaggerating. Perhaps in later fame he was too comfortable in himself to deliver such believability, but back on The Ricky Gervais Show he was a fantastic “third-way” to his associates’ social extremism. A document of incredible raw power that can never be achieved again, it’s potency will surely make it notable for some time to come.