Who is the real Steve Coogan? Is he a famous UK comedian with a nice mainstream movie career building in America? Is he a shape-shifting chameleon who uses brusque, English stereotypes to mock the everyday ideas of Smalltown Britain? Is he Alan Partridge? Paul Calf? Paul’s slutty sister Pauline? A dopey wannabe stand-up named Duncan Thickett or a sleazy Eurovision contest crooner named Tony Ferrino? The easy answer would be “all of the above,” since the Coogan we see today is a relative reinvention of the many interchangeable faces he’s worn over the course of his career. Proof can be found in the recently released DVD collection Steve Coogan Live. Bringing together a series of his one man shows (all previously released on home video), we are treated to a celebration of the man’s mid-’90s follies, the path where he honed his craft and came into his own as something outside a ditzy chat show presenter.
Disc One of this two DVD set treats us to 1994’s Live N Lewd, as well as 1998’s Live-The Man Who Thinks He’s It. The latter is of note for featuring ancillary character work by Simon Pegg and Julia Davis. Finally, we get As Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters. Each one of these concert appearances begin with some self-effacing humor at the expense of the star, then slips into a familiar formula: bring on the bad stand-ups and weird longue singers before gracing the crowd with Coogan’s most famous failed chat show icon. Round it all out with an Emcee or a collection of ancillary stock characters (the bartender, the clueless assistant) and wait for the audience to applaud…and they do. Boy, do they ever.
The second disc stretches our attention span a bit further, finding some highlights from a trip Downunder, as well as some interesting animations featuring Paul and Pauline. The last item, however, is the most intriguing. Imagine This is Spinal Tap as an actual attempted autobiography of a famous UK comedian and you’ve got the basic idea of the approach to Steve Coogan: The Inside Story. Featuring friends in multiple roles and truths that are more foolish than fact, we get a weird amalgamation of information and insolence. As a matter of fact, Coogan’s entire career can be summed up in a single sentiment – he is an amiable asshole, and has somehow managed to translate that “love to hate” persona into a near mythic status both at home and abroad.
The core of Coogan’s appeal can indeed be found in Partridge, a man whose own internal tuning seems permanently placed on random radio static. He’s lousy as a presenter, self-absorbed in the presence of fame, and can’t quite figure out why the world isn’t fawning over itself to turn him into the next global sensation. Within the context of various experimental sitcoms, Partridge has been perfect. He’s nu-media in a mild mannered mansuit. On stage, however, Coogan lacks the necessary control to keep things flawless. The timing can be a bit off and audience reaction has to be measured out, meaning the occasional aside or in-joke gets lost. Still, with hits David Frost meets David Lynch aesthetic and laugh out loud ludicrousness, it’s no wonder Partridge has become Coogan’s calling card.
This shouldn’t diminish the other characters, though. One of the great things about watching these specials is the discovery of different facets to Coogan’s funny business. The best example of this is Duncan Thickett, perennial open mic contestant and absolutely abysmal at the basics of comedy. His delivery is akin to a ADD-addled kindergartener with Tourettes and his level of sophistication barely breaches that of a nappy. But he’s hilarious because of his lack of skill. Only Coogan could come up with character who wins out by the very fact that he’s an abject failure. It definitely puts the silly song stylings of Tony Ferrino to shame.
Then there are the Calfs. Representative of a certain lower middle class Brit whose as lost in pub culture as they are pop, this duo is deranged. Loud, obnoxious, and overly crude, they are meant to reflect a reactive critique of the audience who would normally queue up to see a mindless musical hall revue. They are all fad and facade, able to eek out laughs in large part because of their rancid irreverence. While those who’ve followed Coogan know these siblings well, many outside his sphere of mainstream US influence will probably stare at them in shocked disbelief. It’s like watching early tapes of a favored crooner only to discover that, in his past life, he was a Mohawked punk.
Elsewhere, the appearances by Pegg and Davis are relatively uneventful. Each fulfills a role but then are routinely relegated to the back of Coogan’s established limelight. There is little hint of what each would eventually become within their minor onstage moments. In addition, the age of this material also makes for some awkward appreciations. Jokes that meant something in the mid ’90s have little play a decade and a half later, while cultural and/or current event references always arrive with little sense outside their local frame of reference. Yet Coogan’s enthusiasm and calculation callousness eventually wins out. He may be talking about someone or something we don’t recognize, but he does so in such a delightful way that we don’t really mind the confusion.
Still, this doesn’t answer the main question presented by this release – who is the real Steve Coogan. Perhaps the best resolution lies in the recently released “film” of the comic’s most recent TV series. Entitled The Trip, it pairs Coogan with supposed pal Rob Brydon in a cook’s tour of England. Visiting various restaurants and sharing their love of food and impressions, both men become lost in the various personas that they attempt to excel in. The conclusion one reaches is rather profound – Coogan can be anyone he wants to be. In 2012, he’s an in demand actor who occasionally relives the glory days of his UK TV stardom. Back when these specials were filmed, he was still the same amazing man…just a lot more mannered.