Good gets forgotten

My partner would say I’m obsessed, and I’d have to agree. I’ll listen to Ricky Gervais, Steven Merchant and Karl Pilkington when I’m washing up, when I’m in the shower, when I’m preparing food, and sometimes, like many, many others, when I’m falling asleep. But why? What’s so alluring about a ten-plus year old show which, by the host’s own admission, is an absolute shambles. Why do I keep coming back to old XFM and podcast episodes? The answer: good isn’t memorable.

The show didn’t have a revolutionary format. Its production values weren’t out of this world. Its music selection was unremarkable. Judging by typical standards, it was a below average show with above average hosts. That’s why it sticks. That’s why it has a cult following today, ten years later. Some aspects were awful, but mostly, it was just different: Karl Pilkington has a pop at Stephen Merchant’s appearance, Merchant responds by insulting Karl’s intelligence and orange-like head, and Ricky Gervais eggs them both on, nearly dying of laughter in the process. That sort of thing doesn’t happen on a normal radio show or podcast. The prime example of this is when Karl asks Steve if he’s worried about getting old and being alone:

Karl: I was walking home the other night, and I was thinking about it, and do you worry that when you’re old you’ll be on your own?  
Steve: Well, Karl, I’m glad you’ve brought this up, because for me, I mean, a lightweight frothy entertainment show, on XFM, on a Saturday afternoon, is exactly the place where I want to discuss the desperate lonely future that’s inevitably coming my way.”

This is a show that features monkeys robbing banks and entering the Tour de France, hairy Chinese kids, gays who go out late, and tales of Ricky urinating in sinks. So it’s not surprising to hear that Neil Fox, another broadcaster, didn’t have a high opinion of the show.

Dr. Neil Fox: The award, guys, was called “The Entertainment Award.” Right? Now in itself, I think that should probably tell you something about what should be on the tape. There should be some entertainment. And, uh, it just wasn’t very entertaining, actually. I don’t mean- that sounds quite horrible, sitting here in front of you now, but it just wasn’t very entertaining.

Steve: But fundamentally, what elements did you not find entertaining?

Dr. Neil Fox: Uh, the fact that it didn’t seem to entertain me at all.

Steve: Uh-huh.

Dr. Neil Fox: That was part of it. I mean, it’s a bit of, like, how long is a piece of string, isn’t it? What is entertaining?

Ricky: But we have talked about string on the show before, though.

Dr. Neil Fox: Uh, then there were loads of people I’ve never heard of in my life and some of those were perhaps a bit more entertaining than you. The people that got silver, I think they were called Joe and Twiggy. They worked for a station in the Midlands. Uh, I think Trent FM. They were actually pretty funny.

Ricky: Funnier than our stuff?

Dr. Neil Fox: Yeah, they were, actually. Yeah, they were funny and they seemed to say, seemed to, sort of, seemed to understand their market a bit more.

Steve: Yeah.

Dr. Neil Fox: Then I got on to yours. I’m thinking, “Oh, great! Ricky Gervais, yeah. He‘s really funny in that program, isn‘t he? I must watch that. I’m gonna absolutely die laughing here.” And, uh- oh, God, it was painful.

Steve: How would you have improved it, just listening?

Dr. Fox sighs

Dr. Neil Fox: Bit of humour.

Steve: Right.

Dr. Neil Fox: Be quite good. Bit of humour, essential, I would think, to an entertainment show. Um, a bit of prep, you know–

Steve: Right.

Dr. Neil Fox: Get in there early and actually think about what it’s going to do, perhaps.

Steve: Well, right, okay.”

Foxy was probably right: the show wasn’t “good”. But it was memorable because of its uniqueness, because of its complete disregard for typical radio or podcast production values, because of the host’s indifference to the listener—because of all these things, it’s still listened to by thousands of people over a decade later. 

So perhaps, in the things that we do, we should stop chasing good and try to be different. Perhaps we should do more of what we want to do than what we think the audience or “expert opinion” demands. And maybe, by doing this, we give ourselves a greater chance of creating something that endures.