British comedy fans have long known Steve Coogan as an accomplished stand-up comedian, impressionist, and television creator and performer, but he has yet to become a household name across the Atlantic. Though he's invented a number of memorable characters, he's most closely identified with the buffoonish Alan Partridge, who evolved through Coogan's ventures in TV, radio, and stand-up. In recent years, Coogan has been more active in British and Hollywood movies, with scene-stealing performances as Factory Records boss Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People and as himself in Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story, both directed by Michael Winterbottom. He's also featured alongside Alfred Molina in a hilarious segment in Jim Jarmusch's Coffee And Cigarettes, and has parlayed his association with Ben Stiller into supporting roles in Night At The Museum and the new comedy Tropic Thunder.
Though his breakthrough bid in 2004's Around The World In 80 Days was unsuccessful, Coogan's new comedy Hamlet 2 may finally put him over the top. A hit at Sundance, where it was acquired for a princely Spitfire Grill-like sum, the film stars Coogan as a failed actor logging time as a high-school drama teacher in Tucson, Arizona. When the school threatens to shut down the drama program, Coogan and his ragtag students stage an original musical production inspired very loosely by Shakespeare's defining work. Coogan recently spoke to The A.V. Club about working with kids, the joys of making people cringe, and confusing aggressive assholes for the win.
The A.V. Club: When you play a buffoon like the one in Hamlet 2, is it easy for you to shed any sense of vanity?
Steve Coogan: When I did Alan Partridge, I did bits like one where I had chocolate on my face from having oral sex with a woman, which involved mousse. In England, I've done a whole bunch of stuff where I just make a complete ass of myself. I've been doing it for 20 years, so I just gravitate toward it anyway. I'd rather do that than do the stuff where I'm supposed to be trying to look cool in some way. It's more interesting to me.
AVC: You like to make people cringe?
SC: I do. That discomfort, tension, embarrassment, pain—all of those things interest me, and not through some sort of masochistic or sadistic impulse. It illuminates what being a human being is. It taps into what it is to be human more incisively than stuff that's just very pedestrian.
AVC: Do you think viewers have any kind of threshold for it? Is there any point at which the laughs stop, and it's too much?
SC: I think that it all depends on the context. Comedy works on so many levels. Take an example from The Onion, like "Loved Ones Recall Local Man's Cowardly Battle With Cancer." You could say that's terrible. What if someone you care about just lost someone to cancer? You can't do jokes like that. You can't do comedy like that. But pointing out the lazy journalistic cliché of battling with cancer is a brave thing to do. There's a point behind it, and it's all about context. But is there a threshold? I think some people have a threshold and some people don't. I don't have a threshold. I don't like comedy that I think is bad comedy, where people are trying to be sick for the sake of it, where there's no intellectual point behind it. I like stuff that's got an underlying point of view.
AVC: That's not just silly or gross for the sake of it?
SC: Yeah, it can be gross. It can be silly and gross and offensive, as long as there's sort of a point. Not to deconstruct and have to explain in graphic detail what the point is, but there's an instinctive feeling, you understand why someone's made a joke. You can make a joke that, on the face of it, is racist. Ostensibly someone can appear to be racist, but if you know you're making a point about race, and not just being pig-headed, then you can do that. I don't think there's anything outside what comedy can address. I think some people who don't understand comedy will have a knee-jerk reaction to some stuff, of course, and will always be offended by it because they don't understand it or don't want anything to do with it. Some people react to it in a vociferous way, which is unsophisticated, but there's always going to be those people out there.
AVC: Have you encountered drama teachers like the one in Hamlet 2? Are these touchy-feely techniques common?
SC: Yeah, all drama teachers are very effusive, very demonstrative, very emotionally open, very big, and gesticulate a lot, and are very physical. Those people don't work in banks, don't work at Chase Manhattan, and they don't work for pharmaceutical companies. They teach drama, or they may be theatre directors, or they work in theatre because they're allowed to behave like that. That's why I love people who are openly gay in theatre, because they have license to do what they like, and there's a kind of artistic liberal tolerance thing that goes on. So yeah, there's plenty of people like that, especially on the West Coast of America, who are navel-gazing, emotionally self-indulgent, constantly inward-looking people.
AVC: During your drama-school days, were you ever in a production like this? Do you remember any productions that were particularly poorly conceived?
SC: Yes. I think it's always funny when you see kids do Shakespeare. When I was at school, I was in Hamlet. I played Claudius, who's supposed to be a 60-year-old man, and I was like 18. It's inherently ridiculous seeing 18-year-old boys with gray beards. That's always funny. And we did Noël Coward plays, too. To me, most theatre looks ridiculous. I find it very difficult to do. Personally, if I ever try to do serious stuff, I always end up looking like an asshole, so I might as well try and do comedy, because I'm good at that. So I tried to do the Noël Coward thing, and I had to wear a dinner jacket and smoke a cigarette with a long holder and try to look sophisticated, but I just looked like a jackass.
AVC: You knew early on that comedy was the way you were going to go?
SC: Yeah. And then you become comfortable with that, and you realize that if you're doing your comedy well, then you end up looking like… If you got the balls to follow something through, you can end up being the coolest, smartest guy in the room, because you've literally put your ass on the line.
AVC: Do you have plans to returns to stand-up comedy?
SC: I did a tour about 10 years ago, and I'm doing a big live show ["Steve Coogan Is Alan Partridge And Other Less Successful Characters"] where I do six characters, and I have a live band, and I have dancers, and I do a vaudeville thing. But it's edgy as well. There's a song I do called "Everyone's A Bit Of A Cunt Sometimes." That's the last song in the show. So I do that kind of big show, but I do it in an unorthodox way.
AVC: Given your reputation as an actor who can create on the spot, are you ever scared off by projects that call on you too much to improvise? Does the script really have to be there 100 percent?
SC: No, it doesn't have to be there 100 percent, but improvisation has to be used in a very specific way. The show Curb Your Enthusiasm, which I appeared in for an episode, is one where you can use improv to great ends, but even in Curb Your Enthusiasm, each scene is mapped out quite specifically, and the intention of each scene is properly constructed before the improv takes place. Do I get put off? No, I've used improvisation a lot in the comedy I do, but not actually onscreen. I use improvisation as a writing tool to help produce material that goes into a script, but a well-crafted script shouldn't sound scripted, and oftentimes people confuse something that looks like improvisation for what is actually a very well-written script that is well-acted. It may seem like improv because it flows quite naturally, and a little bit of leeway for improvisation is good, but you have to be judicious with it. So it's good, but sometimes people deify it. You can't improvise your way out of a paper hat.
AVC: You were on Hamlet 2 for a long time. What was your involvement before the film actually came to fruition?
SC: I read the script and I liked it and I understood the comedy. [Writer Pam Brady and writer-director Andrew Fleming] had seen a lot of my material. They were familiar with all the stuff I had done in England, and they liked it. So there was a kind of mutual professional respect, and we used that as a jumping-off point for us to talk crazy about it. There was a little bit of input from me, and things maybe sort of slightly changed, but it was pretty broadly what Pam and Andy wrote in the first place. But I would talk about things like how the character would dress, what his hair would look like, how he would talk, how he would behave… All that was a part of the process.
AVC: A lot of the cast members are very young, kids pulled from Albuquerque, some of whom had more experience than others. Did it require anything special on your end to bring their performances along? Were you playing teacher?
SC: Yes, sometimes, though I don't want to overstate that. Most members of the cast were professional actors, but they were surrounded by real kids from the local school who rehearsed the dance numbers with us and were part of the whole thing. So there was a kind of organic overlap between them. Sometimes you try to make it so people aren't overly demonstrative with the comedy. Occasionally you'd get in a situation where the actors are self-consciously trying to be funny, and they stop being funny. That certainly occurred a few times, I think. You just try and keep your eye on it, and steer people away from that. But Andy had his eye on that the whole time, and was pretty successful. And the same with me. But you know, there was one guy in the cast, Skylar [Astin], who plays the gay student. He actually came up to me and said a couple times, "Hey, why don't you try this? Why don't you try that?" And it was like, "Why is this guy telling me what to do? I've been doing this a long time." But he had good ideas. He was smart.
AVC: How do you go about breaking through in British comedy culture? Is there a pipeline from alternative comedy clubs to television? From afar, it seems like there's a farm system in place.
SC: Not really, no. There is a stand-up comedy circuit in England, which I was a part of a long time ago, and haven't been in for a good many years. And there's the Edinburgh Festival, which is a platform for a lot of comics. I went there and won the Perrier Award, which is kind of like the Fringe Award for comedy, but that was like 16 years ago. That enabled me to become noticed, and try stuff out there, and be quite avant-garde. But it's fairly random. There's no real set way of doing things. In some ways, it's sort of easier than this pilot season you have in America, where people go and try to do a show and see if it gets picked up. You can have a maverick, odd idea in England and have more of a chance of getting it on TV, if it's interesting and different enough.
AVC: There's an avenue for that?
SC: It's not really an avenue. My route was that I did a radio show [Radio 4's On The Hour] that became a TV show. Radio is low-cost and they let you experiment. And then of course that was a way of showing your wares to the BBC. They would see what you were capable of from the radio show and they'd give you a shot at a TV show. There's very little science involved. There's no kind of market- or audience-testing or anything like that. [Television executives] just read the reviews and pick up a vibe. They might look at the viewing figures, but they don't really. I did a show called The Day Today which had a very devoted, underground cult following for a while. The viewing figures were not big, but the BBC didn't really care, because there was the perception that it was a really good, quality show. Sometimes a show gets put out because a guy who's in the department goes, "I like your stuff. You can do a show." If the general perception is that it's good quality, you'll get a second series as well. There's not this bottom line of looking at the numbers all the time.
AVC: But the series themselves are usually brief, and then you have to do something different.
SC: Yeah, but for us, it didn't really matter. Fawlty Towers did, like, 12 episodes. It doesn't matter. No one goes, "Oh, if only they'd done 50." It's funny and it has a life there, and people value it, and it lives out there in its own universe. And it will for a long time. You don't get rich from it, that's for sure. You don't get rich from doing those kinds of shows. What you hope for is to make something really special that's really loved by the people who see it.
AV: The film Tristram Shandy plays off your persona and your reputation in the tabloids. Were you comfortable doing that? Does comedy have a way of defusing things?
SC: It does for me. With anything in your life which potentially makes you vulnerable, if you try to react to the press and defend yourself, and kind of put up the shutters and go [Whimpers.] "Leave me alone," you end up inviting more of it. Instead, you can co-opt it and put it toward what you do. I don't give a shit. I'll fold it all in and use it. So if something happens to me that I think is really bad, I'm just thinking, "Oh, that's interesting. That could be useful. That could be funny." And it sort of neutralizes it as a threat.
Even if I screw up in my personal life, as long as I'm not destroying myself, I just think, "Okay, I screwed up." I'm not Mother Theresa. And people are sort of obsessed with trying to protect a certain kind of image. I'm not like a politician that goes around talking about family values. And I can't get fired from being a funny person because I did something that most people are disapproving of. I think people are just obsessed with this morality that people perceive as being the right and wrong way of doing stuff. And it does make me vulnerable sometimes, but I like putting that in there and just using stuff like that. I talked to [Tristram director] Michael Winterbottom and said, "We should just put that stuff in there." It's just a different way of dealing with it, rather than the normal knee-jerk impulse to try to fight back in an aggressive way. It's like, if you're driving your car and someone winds the window down and gives you the finger and calls you an asshole, instead of giving him the finger back and calling him an asshole back, you just pull a funny face, and he doesn't know how to react to that, because you're using different rules. He doesn't know how to come back at you. You pull a funny face that he doesn't understand. So you confuse him, and therefore you win.