Maestro of Mortification

Steve Coogan discusses his alter ego, one of TV's most excruciating comic creations

With his British series about a misanthropic talk show host named Alan Partridge, Steve Coogan forged the way for a breed of excruciating TV comedy now in the ascendant—shows like The Office (now debuting in its American incarnation on NBC), Curb Your Enthusiasm, Nighty Night, and Fat Actress. He's a comedy pioneer, yet in the U.S. he's mostly known, if at all, as the star of movies like 24 Hour Party Peopleand Around the World in 80 Days.

Coogan finally makes his American television debut this spring in The Alan Partridge Experience, a compendium of three short series shown in the U.K. between 1995 and 2002. Taken together, these 19 episodes trace the hilarious downward spiral of a second-rate talk show host. His abject failure on his prime-time program Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge turns into even more palpable humiliation on the two later series, when our hero returns to his provincial hometown with his tail between his pasty legs. Dumped by his wife and living alone in a generic businessman's "travel tavern," he DJs at the local radio station, trying to tempt listeners to stay tuned with promises like "In three minutes' time I'll be talking to Norwich's youngest butcher."

When asked about the inspiration for his character, Coogan explains by phone from London that Partridge was based "on general observation of the inane, cliché-ridden journalism you get on some daytime TV and regional radio shows—just super-lightweight intellect." As written by Coogan and fellow Oxford University buddies Armando Iannucci and Patrick Marber (who went on to write celebrated plays like Closer), Partridge starts out as a smarmy, condescending figure who coasts through his talk show on waves of glib patter, punctuated by sudden eruptions of malice. Routinely mocked by his B-list guests, he retaliates with tactless put-downs and vindictive revelations. "It's almost verbal diarrhea," Coogan says, his own voice much softer and slower than his character's. "Alan verbalizes his thought processes and he doesn't have normal filters, so he says things other people may think but don't say. I suppose we're all just three steps away from being Alan Partridge."

Coogan as talk show host Alan Partridge (before the cataclysmic downfall)
photo: BBC America
Coogan as talk show host Alan Partridge (before the cataclysmic downfall)

Partridge is a beautifully wrought comic creation, hideous but deeply human. Although blinded by his own neediness and egotism, he is utterly transparent to us; Coogan's face reveals every crack in his confidence. The two later series are suffused by loneliness, set in soulless places like the travel tavern or the local gas station, where he befriends the mini-mart attendant. In one episode, he throws a jealous fit when he discovers the attendant hangs out with other middle-aged guys who, like Partridge, have no one else to talk to. "Alan's driven by that feeling of having been cheated, that self-centered attitude that all my problems are caused by other people—a self-delusion that all of us suffer from to a greater or lesser extent," Coogan says, chuckling quietly. "He is the architect of his own problems a lot of the time, but he's not a monster. There has to be some basic level of compassion people feel for him. Otherwise he's just annoying."

You can see foreshadows of The Office's David Brent in Partridge: He's such a bad boss that he fires his production staff via speakerphone and takes all of his frustration out on his frumpy assistant, Lynn. In his memoir, Bouncing Back, he repeats the line "Needless to say, I had the last laugh" 14 times; in fact, he never does. Whenever Partridge actually has a chance with a woman, he ruins the moment with a gross gesture or inappropriate remark. ("I wouldn't go in there for a while," he tells a sexy divorcée, alerting her to the stink he's just made in the bathroom). He frequently grovels before his BBC bosses. And he watches the unsold copies of Bouncing Back being pulped, leaving him with a bagful of mush.

Although he enjoys coaxing comedy out of despair, Coogan admits there's something gratuitous about the way the show delights in mortifying his character. "I remember the writers sometimes saying, 'Let's do this to Alan!' sort of like they were torturing an insect. And I'd get quite annoyed and say, 'I'm not going to let you do that to him.' I was basically arguing for my character's human rights!" But instead of making Partridge more likable, he made sure that the other roles were equally pathetic, like Michael the loopy mini-mart employee, the inexplicably devoted Lynn, and Partridge's ditzy Ukrainian girlfriend, Sonya—a menagerie of eccentrics that results in superb ensemble comedy.

Coogan once told a reporter that he'd rather be funny than vain, and it shows in his willingness to dress Partridge in the most hideous sweaters or do an erotic lap dance clad in a leather G-string. The role obviously acts as a venting mechanism for his subconscious. "You know the kind of dream where you're walking down the street and you look down and you're not wearing any clothes? It's that kind of thing. When you're doing a character, it gives you license to be undignified and humiliate yourself, but you're doing it with a mask, so it liberates you to explore all those things."

Maybe that's why he's so attached to his creation. Coogan has had plenty of post-Partridge success in movies (he's currently filming a supporting role in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette biopic) and started his own production company, through which he's had a hand in many of Britain's edgiest new comedy hits, like Nighty Night. Yet he keeps circling back to Partridge. Coogan says he petitioned the BBC to finally have the series broadcast in the U.S., and he's fantasizing about a Partridge movie. He's also working on a totally new TV project but complains that "when you do something completely beloved, you end up competing against yourself." So he's screwed himself over by being so good? "I wouldn't use those words but . . . yes!" he crows, sounding for just a millisecond exactly like his character. "I feel like calling my new series It's Not as Good as Alan Partridge."

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