Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington have spent the past 10 years antagonising each other. And this, they tell Tom Ellen, is simply because they’re the best of mates
Between ear-splitting shrieks of laughter, Ricky Gervais eventually manages to get out “I’m telling you, ShortList, you could have the last ever photos of Karl here,” he gasps. “He’s a broken man.”
Worryingly, he might be right. Karl Pilkington, a man who has founded a career on grumpy despondence, currently seems grumpier and more despondent than ever. For our circus-themed photoshoot, heralding the DVD release of Season 2 of The Ricky Gervais Show, Karl has spent the afternoon strapped to a rotating piece of wood wearing just a singlet and a pair of women’s tights (which, due to a costume oversight, a generous make-up artist had to take off and lend him).
And now, in a devastating blow to what little good humour remained, he is being asked to crawl around an east London warehouse dressed as a lion.
As noted above, Gervais is not proving hugely supportive in his colleague’s hour(s) of need. Stylishly decked out as a ringmaster, the 51-year-old comedian is strutting gleefully about the room cracking his Indiana Jones-style whip, pausing only to cackle manically at the expression on Karl’s face.
You wouldn’t think these two were best pals. But then, as they explain later that day when they’re sat comfortably munching chicken sandwiches in their own clothes, true male friendship is rooted more in merciless mockery than kindly compassion…
How was the photoshoot?
Ricky: Great fun for me.
Karl: It’ll be annoying if you only use the lion photos because that means
I wore that woman’s tights just for fun.
R: I kept the details [of the photoshoot] from Karl. You see, getting Karl to do stuff for his own good is rather like lying to a child.
You say, “We’re going to the zoo,” but really you’re going to the dentist.
K: Yeah, well that’s it now, innit? You can’t do that again, because I’ll know.
R: [Laughs] I know. My analogy [of the photoshoot] was that it’s like when you take your cat to the vet. At first, it fights and fights, but as soon as the vet puts that thermometer up its arse, it stops fighting. It’s broken. That was Karl when he caught a glimpse of himself dressed as a lion. Broken. He couldn’t even look at me after that [laughs]. He couldn’t even look his best mate in the face.
You met in 2001 when Karl was producing Ricky’s radio show. What were your first impressions of each other?
R: I had never seen a head that spherical. That was literally the first thing I said to Karl. I told him, “God, you’ve got a really round head.” Karl went, “What shape are heads meant to be?” and I laughed. He hooked me in straight away. I thought, “There’s something here. He’s feisty, he fought back.” So, then I went, “But does [your head] make a different noise if I hit it with something – a mobile phone, for example?” So, I hit it with my phone and it just made a normal noise. Right, Karl?
K: Yeah, no difference.
R: Then I noticed he had a little bin with a domed top in his office. And I said, “That [domed top] would fit you like a hat!” And I put that on you, didn’t I?
K: [Nods] Mm.
R: And that was the first minute of our friendship [laughs].
Karl, what are your memories of this incident?
K: Well, I didn’t see as much because it was a flip-top bin. So, it was darker, from what I remember [Gervais cackles].
Why do you think the ability to mock each other is such an important part of male friendship?
R: I think it’s that, when you’re growing up, a sense of humour is everything. If you had a sense of humour, you were bulletproof. And you’d get a pat on the back for taking a joke or coming back with something funnier. What you didn’t get a pat on the back for was being boring or losing your rag. The only people I feel uncomfortable around are people who haven’t got a sense of humour. That’s why me and Karl click: we know what each other are thinking straight away. Most of the time, when we aren’t being filmed, we’ll just be taking the p*ss out of everyone we see.
K: Yeah. We go for a walk for that, don’t we?
R: Yeah, we go walking, just pointing at people in the street, going, “F*ck me, look at him.” We don’t mean it; we’re just making each other laugh. But with real friends, it goes beyond just humour. When someone dies, you’ve got to be able to call them up. That’s why there are so few real friends – there are lots of boxes to tick.
K: When you’re younger, you need more mates around you. It’s different when you get older. These days I don’t even like going out.
R: Thing is, Karl, you don’t need any other mates if you’ve got me. That’s all the trauma and hassle you’ll ever need [laughs].
R: He was once asked how he’d describe me and he said, “He’s like
an iron lung. You need it, but you wish you didn’t.” [Cackles.]
Do you still feel like that, Karl?
K: A bit, yeah. [Laughs.]
R: Being my mate is like a three-year test. It’s like, “If you don’t kill me, you will end up liking me.” [Laughs.]
K: Being friends with you is like having a dangerous pet – it’s just about controlling it [Ricky cackles]. You’re hard work, to be honest.
Do you ever cook for each other?
R: [Instantly] F*ck off! What the f*ck? [Starts to cackle uncontrollably.]
K: I don’t even cook for me, let alone anyone else.
R: [Still cackling] Can you imagine us cooking a meal for each other! [Adopts ‘sickly’ voice] “Oh, Karl, I’ve got a slight headache, could you pop a little lasagne in the oven?”
Karl, what’s Ricky’s most annoying habit?
K: [Thinks] Erm… Hang on…
R: Oh, you’re such a f*cking martyr, you are. I’m so annoying, aren’t I? F*cking hell.
K: [Still thinking] Annoying habits... Well, you’ve stopped trying to squeeze my head as much.
R: Boring. Done that. Moved on.
K: I’d say your most annoying habit is wanting to do stuff like this [the photoshoot/interview]. Nothing against you lot – I like ShortList – but I wouldn’t have bothered with all this.
R: It’s true. Karl would rather do nothing. Karl would rather work in B&Q part-time.
K: I just think, when I’ve made a programme, I’ve done my bit. I don’t see why I have to come out and chat about it afterwards.
R: Yeah, but I [make you do things you dislike] for fun now. Like, I used to hate Christmas shopping until I went Christmas shopping with Karl last year. Now it’s a f*cking joy.
R: Because he hated it [laughs]. That’s what friends do. They share each other’s pain. He was uncomfortable with people recognising him. You know how animals try to change their outline so predators can’t spot them? Well, Karl does that by wearing a woolly hat [laughs].
K: Yeah, but that doesn’t work when I’m with you because you’re going around with your leather coat and your shades on, looking like the Fonz. So, people immediately go, “Oh, that’s Ricky. Who’s he with? Oh, look, it’s the roundhead.”
R: [Laughs] I like the way I “go around looking like the f*cking Fonz”. Cheers.
K: He said to me, “I’ve got to go Christmas shopping. Come with me and I’ll get you some fish and chips.”
R: [Laughs] Yeah. And we got fish and chips, didn’t we? Actually, you wanted fish fingers but that was on the children’s menu.
K: They wouldn’t let me have fish fingers. How stupid is that?
R: The thing is, when Karl complains, people just laugh because complaining is part of his screen persona. So, people think it’s just him doing a ‘bit’. [Laughs.]
What’s been your strangest experience with a fan since becoming famous?
K: I’m always surprised by older people coming up to me. You know when people are that old they’ve got bandages on? They’re clearly falling over all the time, banging their head. You think, “What are you doing out? You should be in hospital.” Anyway, an old fella like that recognised me recently. That was odd.
R: Actually, a really nice, posh bloke came up to us the other day. He didn’t even look at Karl, but he said to me, “Excuse me, I’m an enormous fan of his, do you mind if I take a picture of him?” Like Karl was my dog or something. I said, “Why are you asking me?” Another good one was just after An Idiot Abroad first came out. Me and Karl were leaving a restaurant with Jane and Suzanne [their partners] and there was loads of paparazzi outside. Karl jumped in the car and I actually heard one of the photographers say, “Was that the idiot?” [Laughs.] I thought, “This is the best day ever.”
Are you both looking forward to the Olympics?
R: Karl’s got a new theory about the Olympics. He thinks no one wants medals. He said, “They should replace the gold with 100 grand, the silver with 50 grand and the bronze… with a caravan.” [Laughs.] He went, “How good would you feel if you came third in a race and they wheeled out a caravan for you?” I said, “You’re thinking of Bullseye.”
K: It’s the same with the Baftas. If you could win a car at the Baftas, I’d think, “Great, I hope I win.” But I don’t want junk. I want something. I want a prize, not an award. But they’re not going to change the system for me, are they?
R: [Sarcastic] No? You reckon? Well, let me put the call in and we’ll find out. I tell you what though, Karl, if we’re up for a Bafta again…
K: [Interrupts] Well, I won’t be going, for a start.
R: No, sure, but if we are and we win, I’ll buy you a car. Seriously, if you come to the Baftas next time and sit through all that f*cking sh*t with me, I’ll buy you a car.
K: I’m glad I didn’t go [to this year’s TV Baftas]. I just stayed home and watched Tinker Tailor Whatsit. And I got more out of that, I reckon.
R: It’s not just the Baftas, though – it’s all award shows. It’s a thankless task. That’s the reason I did the Golden Globes like I did.
Would you present the Globes again?
R: No, I’ve done it three times now. I enjoyed it more each time, but that’s it.
What about presenting the Oscars?
R: No, that’s a really thankless task. The good thing about the Globes was they let me do what I wanted.
K: Going back to the Olympics, though…
R: Yeah, go on.
K: You know that costume thing they do in the [London] marathon? It’s a shame they don’t carry that over to the Olympics. Like, there was a bloke this year doing the marathon dressed as a testicle.
R: You sure it wasn’t a naked fat bloke?
K: No, definitely a testicle.
Finally, Ricky, you have more than 2.5 million followers on Twitter – have you tried to persuade Karl to set up an account?
K: I don’t like the idea of it.
R: I tell you, Karl, you would go mental on Twitter. You’d be like f*cking Bieber without hair [laughs].
K: Yeah, but it’s all basically junk mail, innit?
R: It’s like seeing every toilet wall in the world at the same time. But you can’t take it personally. If people get annoyed at me on there, I’ll just say, “Can someone help this gorp find the ‘unfollow’ button, the dopey c*nt?”
K: The closest thing I’ve done to joining Twitter was signing up for the Desperate Dan fan club when I was a kid and I remember being disappointed by that. I just got a little badge with a cow pie on it. What’s the point of that?
Season 2 of The Ricky Gervais Show is available on DVD now
(Photography: Paul Stewart)
STYLING: ARABELLA BOYCE @ RED REPRESENTS, assisted by Kimberley Dowling GROOMING: EMMA WHITE TURLE @ RED REPRESENTS SHOT AT: SPRING STUDIOS Ricky Wears: White shirt with black buttons £450, Black waistcoat £890, Black tuxedo trousers £490, Black satin bow tie £60, Black leather shoes £890 all by Billionaire Couture; billionairecouture.com. Top Hat and Whip to Hire at Costume Studio photographs: Graeme Robertson/eyevine