Letting the Cad Out of the Bag

(Revolution Films/picturehouse)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 19, 2006

Hugh Grant was just another poker-faced Brit before "Four Weddings and a Funeral" made him the go-to leading man for Hollywood romantic comedies. More recently, English comedian Ricky Gervais, the obnoxious, goateed manager on BBC's "The Office," has broken into the American scene , too -- as a Golden Globe award, an American version of his TV show and an upcoming project with Christopher Guest demonstrate.

So what will it take for Steve Coogan -- whose mordant, self-referential humor has made him a household name in Britain for about 15 years -- to stake his comic territory here?

It won't be movies such as 2004's "Around the World in 80 Days," in which Coogan -- as the inventor Phileas Fogg, originated by David Niven -- played straight man to Jackie Chan's goofball. Even Coogan diplomatically admits that the Disney remake, which opened to dismal reviews, "didn't utilize what I can do." And his run of smaller-scale movies hasn't helped the cause: In 2005, he was a gay restaurant proprietor who fathered a child with his stepsister (Lisa Kudrow) in "Happy Endings," and a sleazy businessman who developed alibis for cheating husbands in "Alibi."

What really brings Coogan's unique brand of comedy to bear are films like "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story," which opened Friday. Michael Winterbottom's contemporary spin on Lawrence Sterne's 18th-century novel ("The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman") stars Coogan in three parts: as the title character, as Shandy's father and as a well-known British actor named "Steve Coogan" who is playing them.

In the latter role, Coogan (as "Coogan") is a slippery womanizer, whose wife has just had a baby but who is clearly attracted to the beautiful production assistant taking care of his daily schedule. He's also terrified about being upstaged in the film, so he insists his co-star (British actor Rob Brydon as himself) shave his shoe heels to ensure "Coogan" looks taller onscreen. Meanwhile, he does his desperate best to contain a pending tabloid article about his dalliance with a certain lap dancer.

Caddishness and other reprehensible qualities are comedic bread and butter to the real Coogan, who has built a cottage industry of amusingly unappealing characters, from insincere talk-show host Alan Partridge to Paul Calf, a chain-smoking lout whose blond mullet and drunken swagger suggest Rod Stewart's estranged, beery brother.

With a following in England that approaches Jerry Seinfeld's in the United States, Coogan's edgy comic routines and utterances have become common parlance.

Fans soon began mimicking Partridge, Coogan's best-known creation, who was born as a radio sports personality in the 1991 show "On the Hour" before evolving into a socially maladroit, self-absorbed talk show host. In the spirit of his favorite band ABBA, he'd greet all (fictional) guests with the same, obnoxious greeting: "Knowing me, Alan Partridge, knowing you [guest name], Aha!" To which the guest was required to respond: "Aha."

The routine, intentionally cheesy and unamusing, became increasingly funny to Cooganistas for its sheer repetitive banality -- akin to "Seinfeld" mantras "yadda yadda yadda" and "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

After starting off on the wrong foot with his interviewees, Partridge (dressed in a car-salesmanish jacket and tie, observed one British writer, "untouched by natural fibres") would further alienate, ignore, enrage or embarrass them. When one guest came on the show with a head-jerking tic, for example, Partridge was so distracted by the man's frequent convulsions, he could hardly form a question. And when a female singer named Gina Langland talked about her upcoming concert at the Earls Court, then cooed with false modesty, "I never knew I had so many fans," Partridge's response was quintessentially awkward.

"Then why book Earls Court?" he asked her. "It's massive."

This discomforting, quasi-reality-TV humor also resonates in the work of American comedians such as Ben Stiller and Christopher Guest, in Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and in Lisa Kudrow's "The Comeback," in which she plays an erstwhile sitcom star trying to revitalize her career. And, of course, in Garry Shandling's "The Larry Sanders Show," which debuted in late 1992, roughly the same time Partridge's radio show evolved from radio to television.

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