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No serious comedy fan needs an introduction to Steve Coogan. With the character of Alan Partridge, first a thick-skulled sports reporter, then the passive-aggressive host of a TV talk show, and later a night-shift DJ in rural England, he pioneered the comedy of cringe that bore fruit in The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and his roles in 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy have shown an ability to turn his comic gifts toward subtler, more character-driven humor. But the bulk of Coogan’s BBC work has gone unseen in America, a fault handily rectified by The Steve Coogan Collection. Its 14 DVDs introduce Coogan-starved Yanks to such characters as oily Eurovision winner Tony Ferrino and wrinkled horror-show host Dr. Terrible, as well as his newest creation, Tom Saxondale, a onetime heavy-metal roadie who now works as a pest-control man in the sticks. Covering nearly a decade and a half, the boxed set is a weighty argument in favor of Coogan’s qualifications as one of the most influential comic performers of the last two decades. Coogan rang up The A.V. Club from Los Angeles to talk about Tony Blair’s electric guitar, his mixed feelings about career retrospectives, and the long-in-the-works Alan Partridge movie.
The A.V. Club: The boxed set is a massive brick. Is it gratifying to have so much of your work collected in one place?
Steven Coogan: I’m quite impressed at the amount of work, and also slightly worried. I’m only in my early 40s, so I think, “Is that it? Am I allowed to do other stuff?” So I am slightly ambivalent about it. But it’s better than not having done anything. I can assemble that amount of stuff to put out, and I think there’s a consistently high quality to it. There’s a couple of weak spots, but I think it hits pretty high throughout the whole thing.
AVC: Are there things you didn’t feel worked as well the first time around that aged better than you thought?
SC: There is, actually. I did this Tony Ferrino thing. The first time around, it was a very subtle satire, and I think it got better with age. Also, some of the things suffered in being compared directly to Alan Partridge, because people, obviously, when they’re conditioned to see you a certain way, the next thing you do, they see only through the prism of what they’ve seen you do before. In actual fact, seeing things in isolation can be better for you. Dr. Terrible’s House Of Horrible sort of suffers from the same thing, but in isolation, there’s a few of those I’m very pleased with. Coogan’s Run, I think some of those are pretty strong.
Actually, bizarrely, in America, I get more appreciation from the odd, unusual stuff I’ve done, almost because I’m not, if you like, famous in America as I am in England. It means that the stuff’s viewed by a more esoteric crowd of people, who are smarter, basically. They find it. It’s a bit of a cachet. It’s slightly weird, I’ve still got a slight cult following—another way of saying I’m not famous. But it actually helps. It’s quite nice in some ways, because I’ve got a big brick of material, and yet most people haven’t heard of me. It’s nice. I like being here because [in the UK] it’s kind of a lazy view, which is, “Oh yeah, we’ve seen him, and he did that hit show, and we get that,” but they don’t really pay much attention to things like Saxondale, which I’m very proud of. The people who reviewed it here and appreciate it took the trouble to actually do some analysis of it.
AVC: If you trace Alan Partridge back to his first incarnation as part of the radio-news parody On The Hour, and its TV counterpart The Day Today, and then from the host of his own variety show to the central figure in a quasi-documentary series about his like, there’s a tremendous stylish shift over the course of several years. The vérité style of I’m Alan Partridge has become one of the dominant forms of TV comedy, but it’s hard to think of an example that preceded it.
SC: I think we were definitely ahead of the curve. We sort of felt that at the time. We really did feel like we were doing what nobody else was doing. This was 15 years ago. At that time, I wouldn’t have swapped places with anyone, because I knew what we were doing was the most interesting… at that time, the only comedy I was interested in watching was the comedy I was doing. That obviously has changed, because there’s more interesting stuff around now. But that’s a good observation. Some of the early stuff on the radio, when he was a character in On The Hour, which is not on the collection, but you can get somewhere—it incubated on the radio. So at first, it’s just a silly voice, and then the character got developed and talked about as I performed it. I remember Patrick Marber saying, “Lets do a radio talk show.” And I was like, “There’s not enough in the character to sustain half an hour of conversation. What’s the point? It’s just a sort of dumb voice.” He saw that there was more potential and said, “This a really interesting guy.” He started asking questions, like where does he live, who did he marry, what kind of car did he drive? Normally, that kind of character development, you would do before you brought a character to fruition. We were doing it from the get-go. So you see, if you’re nerdy enough, you can trace the development of the character from a rather caricatured voice on the radio right through to a fully-fledged dysfunctional human being.
AVC: Alan Partridge starts off as, basically, a pompous idiot, but he develops into a much more complex character, passive-aggressive and self-loathing and sometimes more uncomfortable than funny. With Saxondale, the rhythms have shifted pretty far from conventional comedy.
SC: The rhythms are different from Partridge, but then it comes down to what gives you visceral pleasure. I do a live tour, and it was all about literal and palpable gags with punchlines, which I loved and enjoyed. It was actually quite enjoyable to do the more nuanced comedy. It’s a different kind of dish to be served up. Alan, although there are subtleties to him, he’s more just a traditional fool, like Malvolio in Twelfth Night. What I love about Saxondale was that unlike Partridge, he would sometimes say things which were genuinely well-observed and insightful and funny, and still in the next heartbeat, be an asshole. That, to me, is more real and less vaudevillian.
AVC: There are times when he is actually aware that he’s saying something funny.
SC: Yeah, he is aware that he’s saying something funny and he’s still a jerk, and that is a more complex dynamic. It’s kind of twisted. He made me laugh because of his pompous attitude, but also because of his attempt at self-awareness. Whereas Alan Partridge, when he verges toward self-awareness, we want to veer away from it, because we don’t want to burst that bubble of the perennial idiot.
AVC: Tommy Saxondale has a real man-out-of-time quality. It’s not that he’s nostalgic so much as that his values and expectations are conditioned by an era that no longer exists.
SC: Our, if you like, game plan with Tom Saxondale was to have a guy who was… We use to talk about Baby Boomers, who kind of thought they changed the world, and didn’t think they’d grow old. You look at 1969 and think that these people have grown old, and it wasn’t part of their vision, in a way. They would always be young, and they would always be in opposition to this perceived establishment, and that was always going to be the case. The thing that tipped me into writing about it was that when Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister, he walked into Downing Street with an electric guitar. And I thought, “Well, that changes perceptions of things.” If the person who can effectively sanction ill-conceived wars can play the electric guitar, which is a symbol of rebellion, then that whole worldview becomes confused. The whole thing about [Saxondale] is, how does he live in that kind of comfort bubble when the world has changed? He’s kind of in denial, trying to construct a worldview that doesn’t gel with reality. We constantly do that in the series. He is self-aware, too. There’s an old rocker that comes along and tries to get drunk and take drugs, and he’s just too old, and Tommy knows that it’s not really like that anymore. He’s a romantic.
AVC: In a way, he might be better off if he wholeheartedly sold out, rather than sustain a kind of low-level employment so the contradiction isn’t too keen. It’s like his girlfriend seems to think that running a shop called Smash The System that sells dirty T-shirts is somehow a challenge to the dominant power structure.
SC: [Laughs.] I know. See, that makes me laugh. I find that kind of cute, too. He would be good company, because he’s someone that reads books. That’s the other thing, is we wanted to do a comedy character who wasn’t stupid. He has a certain kind of knowledge about things, but he just mouths off. He’s very self-opinionated.
AVC: You took the characters on the road last year. Were some harder to take out of mothballs than others?
SC: I wanted to go on the road because I wanted to give myself more of a jolt. Getting in front of an audience and doing a show for two hours—making myself do it. I needed to do it, and I kind of wanted to do it to see if I still could. It gives me reasons to keep myself well-oiled, and I get to see the audience again and make that connection. When you work in the media, it’s so many stages removed, so that was important. And also to go back to doing punchlines. There’s something quite joyful about doing comedy which doesn’t really need much analysis. I’m not elitist. I like to do crowd-pleasing stuff which is a bit smart, but is just about belly laughs.
It was good to do that, good to hear that kind of laughter. It was different with characters like Tom Saxondale. When I went to Australia and toured there, I jettisoned him and brought back Tony Ferrino. Although those characters can work great, they don’t lend themselves especially to live stuff, because you have to broaden the characters out, and broadening him out stopped him being what he was. Alan Partridge, by contrast, you can sort of broaden him a bit onstage. Deliberately make him less dynamic and more ignorant, and you get the laughs more easily.
AVC: Alan is a performer, whereas Tommy Saxondale wouldn’t be on a stage unless he was plugging in an amp.
SC: You sort of have to contrive it. Paul Calf works very well onstage, but there’s no real reason—why is this drunk, out-of-work barroom bore on a stage? There’s no real reason why he’s there, yet he works. Because the basis is, he’s a slightly intoxicated barroom bore, which we all know immediately.
AVC: So what’s the status of the Alan Partridge movie?
SC: The status is that it’s going to happen. I’m taking meetings about it next week. It’s getting the three most important people—we’ve sort of splintered. It’s getting us all in the same space so we can actually focus on it. That’s now starting to happen. It was also something that for a while, I felt ambivalent about, but I want to do it and get it done.
AVC: The three are you, Armando Iannucci, and who else?
SC: Peter Baynham, who is based in America now, and wrote Borat. It’s very difficult trying to get the three of us in one room. We’re having to do Skype and conference calls at the moment. But it’s now become sort of a real thing, and it’s something I want to do. The character, almost despite his success, as a character still makes me laugh. I still find him funny. I still find myself jotting things down, going, “Oh this would be a funny thing for him to do.” Which is a great thing, when a character just exists in your head. You can play with him. The weird thing is that sometimes I play with a character in my head that happens to become very successful, and everybody knows. I have to remember that although it can feel like they own him, they don’t totally own him, and he’s still this thing my pals and I came up with.