It's all about bouncing back

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Knowing Me, Knowing You

Somehow it has already become a running theme in this newly-born blog: finding the funny past age 40 when most of your prior work has been centered on the snarky joys of youth. Maybe that's an inevitable point of fascination for me given my fondness for continuing to follow comedians that I've known and loved for decades; but, the more I start to notice their differing approaches to the problem, the more intriguing find it. And, in addressing this theme, Steve Coogan's story is absolutely one of my favorites.

Coogan originally found fame in England through his self-created role of Alan Partridge: a crass, idiotic and self-absorbed chat-show host with a disconcerting fondness for ABBA. His short BBC series, "Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge" had its first run in 1994 and was an instant hit. Part of the show's odd charm was the way the character frequently reflected Coogan's public tabloid image as -- well -- crass, idiotic and self-absorbed. (Though the real-life Coogan was certainly a good deal smarter, better looking and less socially awkward than poor Alan).

Interestingly, Coogan started to play with the theme of passing one's prime while he was still young. Between 1997 and 2002, he created the follow up series "I'm Alan Partridge" -- in which Alan has fallen from television grace, lost his BBC chat show, gotten divorced and is now reduced to hosting a small-town, rooster-hour show on Radio Norwich. Even funnier than the original, Coogan does an impressive job of somehow causing us to feel sorry for this washed up lout and to (nearly) regret his well-deserved fall. In the great tradition of Basil Fawlty, it is painfully clear that the character is limited primarily by his own choices and flaws, but you somehow can't help but wish that his fate could be a bit less cruel regardless.

I really can't overstate how amazing these shows are -- down to the finest detail. Honestly, even the DVD menu makes me laugh - presenting itself as a combination of the security camera footage and the video-for-purchase television menu of the dismal old residential hotel Partridge inhabits in Norwich. You're forced to go through the whole menu -- with very odd results -- in order to find the shows.

In 2002, Coogan finally leveraged his long-running Partridge success into a movie role that brought him broader international attention: Michael Winterbottom's "24-Hour Party People". Starting a consistent and enjoyable pattern of roles that break the fourth-wall, Coogan addresses the audience directly (though in character) as he plays Tony Wilson, the journalist and TV presenter who co-founded Factory records (label for the Happy Mondays and Joy Division) and owned Manchaster's famous Hacienda nightclub. As a young, passionate and painfully sexy Manchester native himself, Coogan made the role sing -- and the critics began to take notice.

Coogan's fondness for roles that break the barrier between himself, the character and his audience created a fun compliment to the work that, as I mentioned above, seemed to be a reflection of his own public persona. In 2003, Jim Jarmusch decided to play along by casting him in one of the "Coffee and Cigarettes" vignettes opposite Afred Molina. In the brief 5 minute sketch, Molina meets a distant, preening and egotistical Coogan briefly in an American coffee shop with the exciting news that he believes they might be cousins. Molina is thrilled; but Coogan is visibly unimpressed by the notion until a quick call on Molina's cell reveals that he is friends with one of Coogan's favorite directors, Spike Jonze. It was, yet again, an extremely funny and self-depricating send-up on Coogan's own reputation as shallow and narcissistic. Even if you think that you're completely burned out on the excessive "cleverness" of the self-referential comedy of the 90s, just trust me: it's far more enjoyable than you might expect to watch Coogan consistently poke fun at himself this way.

The entire trend came full circle in 2005 when Coogan teamed up with Winterbottom again to make "Tristam Shandy -- A Cock and Bull Story." Winterbottom and Coogan take the joke so far in this film (which is, after all, a purported effort to film the first truly post-modern novel) that the movie includes a scene where Coogan, playing himself as the actor playing the lead role in the movie, is interviewed by the real life Tony Wilson (the person who Coogan played in 24 Hour Party People) and they discuss whether Alan Partridge is an abstract creation or is actually just a reflection of Coogan's true personality (his answer: I'm not saying; but obviously it's a bit of both). How's that for a mind bender? Again: even if you hate everything about post modernism as a movement, you have to laugh at the silliness of it all when you see that scene. It's a send up of a send up of a gag twice-removed. It actually gets funnier, inside your head, hours after you watch the movie. And how often does that happen?

Okay -- well! -- that's a great deal of background; but in service of a good cause, I assure you! (In addition to, I hope, introducing you to some fun clips you might not have seen before).

Saxondale is Coogan's most recent television effort. It's the story of a washed-up 50+ former rock and roll roadie who still considers himself a critical force in "fighting the system" while he toils away his days working as a pest exterminator. Coogan's character vacillates between the day-to-day drudge and humiliation of fighting bugs and dealing with the fallout of his past, including visits from other aging rocker pals who insist on trying to party as hard they did in their 20s -- until they end up in an ambulance from the effort. Each episode opens with the lead character suffering through a nearly unbearable group anger management session at the local public library. Priceless.

I don't know how Coogan actually feels about getting older (he's only 43; where as Saxondale is clearly identified as post 50); but he certainly has a keen fascination with the subject. Whereas many actors seem focused on continually trying to play roles suited for much younger performers, Coogan does the opposite -- creating characters older than he is -- and ones who are on the downwards slide, whilst he himself is still quite successful (the later years of Partridge where meant to show Alan in his late 40s, when Coogan was still in his early 30s). It's almost as if he is trying to get out in front of the challenge and say "I know I'm going to someday become old and irrelevant and I really don't care -- because I'll find a way to make that funny as well." It's somehow simultaneously bold, silly and ingenious. Or maybe it's just common sense. Maybe it's always funnier to watch aging and suffering than youth and success. If you've seen Saxondale, I would be curious to hear what you think on that subjec.t

p.s. Mike just pointed out to me that BBC America has recently been doing viewers the great favor of running Saxondale and "Knowing Me, Knowing You" back to back some nights, so that you can follow the progression described herein. Well done.


Anonymous said...

I've loved Coogan since "24 Hour Party People" (one of my favorite films ever) and was surprised to find he'd had such a long and popular UK career preceding that role. There was a swell articvle about him in the New Yorker a few months back, did you catch it?

That said, this gives me the opportunity to point something out about BritCom -- especially recent (aka last-15-years-or-so BritCom) -- which is that it's often emotionally painful to watch. "The Office," "Extras," The Partridge stuff, these series are all about egomanical losers being put into the most withering, cringe-inducing situations imaginable. All those shows are generally genius and hilarious, so I don't fault them artistically. But I'm getting a little weary of seeing the same tone struck again and again. After a while it seems sadistic on the part of the comedians, and masochistic on the part of me, the viewer.

Speaking with some ACTUAL Brits in ACTUAL Britain recently, I think I can see where this humor comes from. They will freely admit they are a nation of self-haters. Again, after a while it's tiring watching Brits hate themselves.

So my favorite BritCom of the last many years is "The Mighty Boosh," which is generally speaking far more purely absurd and lighthearted (with a heaping helping of bizarre horror thrown in just to fuck with your head).

Ever see it?

Anonymous said...

I just wrote a hugely long response to this, and then, in the ID verification process, blogger ate the comment. Second time that's happened. Dude, it was the awesomest comment, too; it woulda blown your freaking MIND.

Instead I'll discuss it with you in ACTUAL PERSON when you're in L.A.!

Apryl said...

Now I have something else to add to my TIVO list! Though it sounds thoroughly worthwhile.

Sadly I only know Coogan from "24 Hour Party People," which I, too, loved -- and was completely confused by. Is this real? What the hell am I watching? I love being bamboozled by a movie.

I agree that BritCom is often very painful to watch. That's actually what I love about it. Pain, or any sense of realness, seems to be lacking in most American comedy, which often just makes fun of older people, making characters "stupid" -- at least there's some kind of depth to "sad."

happyreb said...

Indeed, Rico, I am familiar with the many charms of the "Mighty Boosh" (most especially the Mod episode). But did you know, dear friend, that they actually owe much of their success to Coogan's production company, Baby Cow? AHA!

happyreb said...

I'm with Apryl on this one. The reason I still love current Britcom after all these years is because of the great contrast it provides to the "sun will come out tomorrow" strain of American humor. Yes, British comedy is self depricating -- but that explanation doesn't do it full justice. It is, in my view, also simply more real. It strikes a deeper chord with me. Not to say that I don't still enjoy the absurd strain as well; but Coogan's work and the British office simply seem honest. And I appreciate that.