The Ricky Gervais Show podcast and audiobook phenomenon is one of the odder things I've seen in pop culture in recent years. Odd, in that for something as unquestionably hugely popular as they are, I've never met a single person who has ever heard of them.
First, a brief Ricky Gervais history lesson. By now, most people know who the British comedian is. He created, wrote, directed, and starred in the original version of TV's The Office and its also successful follow-up, Extras. Recent years have seen him break into film, including starring roles in the middling Ghost Town and The Invention Of Lying. Also appearing on his resume are a thriving stand-up comedy career and a series of best-selling children's books, with the latter being a somewhat unpredictable career avenue given the fact that at aged 48 Gervais has no kids and doesn't plan on any with his long-time partner, Jane Fallon. The podcast and audiobooks are offshoots of Gervais' earlier radio career, specifically a weekly show (also called The Ricky Gervais Show) he co-hosted on London alternative music station XFM with Stephen Merchant, his frequent TV and movie creative partner. The pair started at XFM in 1998 and were eventually fired before returning in 2001. The second incarnation of the show paired them with producer Karl Pilkington, who they gradually incorporated more into the program based on the unintentional comedy gold delivered from his quirky outlook on life. After leaving XFM in 2005, the trio released their own free podcasts, which immediately climbed to the #1 spot on the iTunes Top Podcast chart. Several subsequent "seasons" of the podcasts followed, this time with a small fee attached (who can blame them?) and they also instantly took over the top of the charts and were recognized by the Guinness Book Of World Records in 2007 as the world's most downloaded podcast (to date there have been approximately 200 million legal downloads). The podcasts eventually came to an end and December 2008 saw the release of the first in a ten part audiobook series that just concluded this past February, titled The Ricky Gervais Guide To..., with a different topic for each audiobook. Again, it was an instant smash success for each of the installments - in December 2009 they occupied an incredible nine of the top ten spots on the best-selling audiobooks chart (and twelve of the top fifteen). Full disclosure: I am a massive fan of listening to these three chat. In fact, I've listened to them literally on a daily basis for almost four years now, which is both an indication of how entertaining they are and how little of a life I have.
The television version of The Ricky Gervais Show extracts segments of the podcasts verbatim and adds simplistic, Hanna-Barbera-style animation to the trio's free associative ramblings on news stories, philosophical topics, and their personal lives. One could argue just how necessary this whole endeavour is, as the podcasts are more than strong enough to stand on their own and the animation doesn't add much to the overall level of entertainment (the best line on this topic came from Variety, which called it "...a move that amounts to using every part of the chicken"). Many of the scenes in the show are just literal graphical representations of what is being said, with a few extra laughs being generated. The move has paid off for HBO, though. Clearly, the production costs would have to be fairly low and strong ratings have earned the show a second season renewal.
No review of any version of The Ricky Gervais Show would be complete without discussing the idiot genius of Pilkington, who has gone on to become a minor British celebrity and also published several books. The show may have Gervais' name in the title, but by his own admission, the lynchpin of the group is Pilkington and his outside-the-box viewpoints and observations. Gervais' impetus for the shows over the years is basically that he "loves being in a room with Karl Pilkington", who he's seen "blossom - from an imbecile to an idiot". The often unintentionally humorous musings emananting from the man are the source of heavy ridicule and ribbing from Merchant and Gervais, which has invited criticisms that they bully him too much, but it's all in good fun. Pilkington is impressively unflappable and the three are the best of friends off the air. Going back to the XFM days, some have speculated about whether or not Pilkington was even real or just a character created by Gervais and Merchant, which they have always steadfastly denied.
I'm giving HBO's version a 9/10, which is more a reflection of the quality of the source material (which I cannot recommend more highly that you seek out) than the strength of the animated show.