Any proper comedy buff will tell you that Steve Coogan is not nearly as famous in the States as he should be. Here comes the proof: The Steve Coogan Collection, a DVD set (out today) of the Mancunian funnyman’s nine most legendary, laughable, and provocative BBC shows. They range from the groundbreaking Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge (Ricky Gervais’ irritating, pipe-dreaming David Brent wouldn’t exist without chat show flunky Alan) to the previously unavailable Paul and Pauline Calf’s Video Diaries (Coogan plays both of the trashy siblings, pictured) and the oddly sweet pest control comedy Saxondale. EW chatted with the shape-shifting actor about the momentous release, the possibility of an Alan Partridge movie, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Does a “best of” Steve Coogan TV collection signify the end of an era for you?
STEVE COOGAN: I wasn’t planning it like that. I’d accumulated a lot of material and the BBC figured that it was enough to make a brick-like compilation. And there is this part of me that worries slightly that it’s like a tombstone.
Are you not returning to the small screen?
No, I’m still intending to do some more TV as long as it’s interesting stuff. I don’t do anything unless there’s something worthwhile. There is a bit of a gap between I’m Alan Partridge and Saxondale, for example. I was doing independent movies and trying different things, so I didn’t go back to do Saxondale until I found something that excited me. It’s not like I changed. I’m sure I’ll do some other TV.
What drew you to play Tommy Saxondale (pictured) after all that time?
I liked the idea of doing a character that’s both foolish and, at times, smart. I liked a character who sometimes said things you laughed at and sometimes things you laughed with. He was smart and funny, and also a bit of an idiot. That’s something I find interesting because I think that’s what a lot of human beings, interesting ones, are like — smart and stupid.
Why did you make him an ex-roadie turned pest control expert?
I also wanted to do something about those baby boomers who were part of that rebellious defining generation. I was thinking about that whole Woodstock thing and how all those people got old. I think they’re almost like a generation of people who didn’t think they would grow old. They thought they would be young forever. And the portrayal of people who are slightly older on TV was kind of clichéd and out of date. People in their fifties and sixties are often not conservative. They’re almost more radical and bolder and more liberal and challenging than the younger generation. I wanted to explore that idea of lost idealism. Saxondale is just the kind of guy who can’t cope with being slightly irrelevant. He’s still fighting. He’s like one of those American soldiers who’s still in the jungle in Vietnam and thinks the war is going on when everyone else has gone home, you know? He’s a romantic. Put it this way, of all the characters I’ve done, if I was going to spend the evening in a pub having a drink with a guy and just talking about stuff, he would be the one I’d chose.
Was it refreshing to play someone who’s in a strong romantic relationship for once?
Yeah, you always see discord, strife, and acrimony as such a source of comedy. I thought, well, sometimes when you’re writing comedy you can liberate yourself by giving yourself constraints. So we made a rule for ourselves that the comedy between he and his girlfriend couldn’t come from them disliking each other. I had to find it elsewhere. And, in some ways, because he’s such a cantankerous idiot, her love for him makes the audience like him. Because however sort of annoying he is, he loves his girlfriend and she loves him.
Where do you think Tommy Saxondale and your other characters are now?
You’re crediting me with having a sort of holistic approach to writing comic characters. I mean, they’re not living. I more likely think of them as being cryogenically preserved and I fish them out and reboot them and see what happens. But they’ve just evolved a bit I suppose. Tom Saxondale is slowly drifting into old age and Alan Partridge is trying to be relevant in a world where he’s not. I suppose it’s his tragedy. I think that’s something we’re going to capitalize on when we start writing for Alan again.
So there’s still a possibility of an Alan Partridge (pictured) movie?
Yeah, we’re doing that. We’re really looking forward to that. He’s less relevant now, honest, but in a good way, I think.
On the I’m Alan Partridge special features, both you and co-creator Armando Ianucci admit you weren’t happy with the second series. Does that still hold true?
Know something? I think it’s better with time. I still think it’s funny, but if you want to be comparative, then I didn’t think it quite hit the high notes that the first series of I’m Alan Partridge did. In some ways it’s bleaker. Less forgiving. But it’s still very strong.
How did you pick which shows to include on the DVD set?
There are things that I was involved in, but I wasn’t central to. I was just a participant and therefore they’re not on there. Anything that I drove forward, and that is specifically TV comedy, it’s there. There are things I’m very proud of—that I wanted on there—that I’d slightly forgotten. And special things that I think are really funny and kind of get overlooked. Like there’s a documentary about Alan Partridge on it, and a documentary about [Portuguese crooner character] Tony Ferrino. They really stand up by themselves. So I would make a point of saying “get that on the box set.”
How did you come up with Tony Ferrino (pictured)?
Oh boy, it’s such a long time ago. I just wanted to do something that sang songs. I like singing.
Who wrote the songs?
I wrote them with a guy called Steve Brown, who is in Knowing Me, Knowing You as band leader Glenn Ponder. He writes all the songs with me for my live shows. I come up with an idea, go down to his house, we sit at the piano and we come up with the songs. I still love composing things that are funny and musical.
Will you ever come out with a compendium of your live shows to compliment this set then?
I’m bringing out the last live tour I did in a few weeks in England. I did three big live shows. I think in the next year at some point I’m going to put all three on something and see if people want to get all the live stuff.
Finally, if someone new to your work was to by this set, which of the shows on it should he or she start with?
Probably [anthology series] Coogan’s Run. It shows I’m someone who does different characters. [Obnoxious salesman] Gareth Cheeseman’s a really good one. I really like Ernest Moss, the handyman in the black-and-white episode I did. I’m a really big fan of that. It’s a nice sweet story. He’s not nasty. He’s just nice. I was probably too young to play that character at the time, but I do love him. Then I’d just go on to Partridge [in Knowing Me, Knowing You]. Saxondale is always the last thing to watch because it’s more mature shades of light and dark. There’s more pathos and I think as you get older you want more than comedy. I love big laughs, by you crave something that has more. You want to say something about being a human being as well. Saxondale does that.