Animating the discussion

KARL Pilkington is the gift that just keeps on giving for Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.

They always portray him as a kind of adopted idiot nephew - a ''little round-headed buffoon'', as Gervais describes him with typical lack of charity in the intro to each episode - but Pilkington has become a small industry and mid-size pop-culture phenomenon in his own right.

Brits were first introduced to Pilkington's offbeat, grumpy and frequently bizarre way of looking at the world several years ago when he was producing Gervais' and Merchant's London radio show, and became an increasingly integral part of it on air.

Later, Pilkington's verbal meanderings - a never-predictable blend of homespun wisdom, quotidian anecdotes and obstinate clinging to bone-headed misconceptions - were the entire basis of Gervais' astonishingly successful podcast, which has been downloaded more than 300 million times.

And Pilkington has since starred in two series of An Idiot Abroad (a third is on the way) and penned a bunch of books.

But it is the podcast that has been recycled for the past three years (with an animated veneer) as this show. And the oddball, taciturn Pilkington remains the star.

Each of the ''pointless conversations'' begins with Gervais and Merchant asking Pilkington a question, drawing him out, goading him on and mocking him relentlessly.

Tonight, they begin by asking him to provide some words of inspiration for British troops abroad. Pilkington can think of none to give, and veers off instead to talk about how his older brother was in the army and how he got kicked out. There were various reasons for the discharge, Pilkington explains, including the fact that he borrowed a tank to go to buy cigarettes, and the fact that Pilkington's mother wrote a letter to his brother's sergeant asking that he be excused from deployment to Northern Ireland on the grounds that he was new to the army and hadn't had enough practice.

It might sound like a tall story but, as always, there's something about Pilkington's po-faced matter-of-factness and apparently guileless conviction that makes you believe it - or at least want to believe it.

Perhaps the best part of the episode comes when Gervais and Merchant ask Pilkington to recall a time when he showed real courage, and the best he can come up with is the time he dragged a drunken neighbour off the street.

It's not all comedy gold, but Pilkington fans won't care. The Hanna-Barbera-style animation is clever and charming and highlights the absurdity of the stories he tells. No self-respecting Pilkington fan should miss it.

The story Animating the discussion first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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