This week brings forth “Alan Partridge,” the latest British comedy import, starring Steve Coogan as a loathsome, bottomlessly egotistical DJ. What you might not know — that is, unless you’re a British comedy nerd or an actual Brit — is Partridge has been a comic superstar in England for over 20 years. In fact, he's arguably the father of all the loveable-hateable comedy anti-heroes whose terminal obliviousness makes for enjoyably awkward television and film. If you love “The Office”’s David Brent (or his American equivalent, Michael Scott), then you’ll really love Alan Partridge.
Alan Partridge was born on radio. He was one of the main characters on “On the Hour,” a BBC Radio 4 fake news show that ran from 1991 to 1992. The show was kind of the Avengers (Marvel, that is) for future U.K. comedy legends — not just Coogan but Chris Morris (“Brass Eye,” “Four Lions”), Patrick Marber (the future playwright of “Closer”), Rebecca Front (“The Thick of It”) and producer/writer Armando Iannucci (“The Thick of It,” “Veep”). The show was successful enough to storm TV, where it became “The Day Today.”
Partridge was the sports guy, a position Coogan took because he had no real love for sports. In his earliest incarnation, Partridge is a dense but ultimately meek figure of fun, who strode into sporting events with his massive hair helmet and Cosby sweaters, making inane commentary (“The goalie has got football pie all over his shirt!”) when he wasn’t invading locker rooms for men and women.
Partridge was so popular and interesting that Coogan and his fellow writers began wondering more about his personal life. These inquiries led to him getting his own spin-off show, 1994’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge,” a chat/variety show, on which Partridge — exploiting a stipulation that the BBC has to air regional “talent” — managed to insult untold guests, almost get killed by a scary English gangster, eat animal testicles, enrage his house band and accidentally shoot a guest in the heart with one of Lord Byron’s firing pistols. He also did aterrifically terrible medley devoted to ABBA — one of the clueless Partridge’s favorite bands, as you’ll note from the title of his show. (He also later called Wings “the band The Beatles could have been” — not that there's anything wrong with Wings.)
The show-within-the-show’s ratings started off okay, then nosedived. In real life, “Knowing Me Knowing You” was a big hit, and Partridge came back for two separate series of “I’m Alan Partridge,” which followed him around in the real world, surviving in the wake of his television career’s fiery demise. In the first series, he’s newly divorced and torturing the staff of a travel tavern. In the second, from five years later, he’s more or less accepted his lowly position in a mediocre time slot in a nowhere Norwich, England radio station. He’s also shacked up with a younger Ukrainian girlfriend, whom he hates except for the fact that she’ll happily have sex with him (and that he’s able to brag to others that he has a younger girlfriend).
The character’s survivability has both boosted and haunted Coogan’s career, who’s often felt pigeonholed. That’s not so in the United States, where Partridge has never taken off beyond a strong, passionate cult following. Thus Coogan has been able to gain a following for other characters: Factory Records honcho Tony Wilson (“24 Hour Party People”), a Jackie Chan sidekick (“Around the World in 80 Days”), snooty journo Martin Sixsmith (“Philomena,” one of his now frequent dramas) and as a jerkish version of “himself” in “Coffee and Cigarettes,” “Tristram Shandy” and “The Trip” (and its forthcoming sequel, “The Trip to Italy”).
Instead of embracing Alan Partridge, America fell for Ricky Gervais’ David Brent, who is so close to Alan Partridge that “The Office” co-creator Stephen Merchant often had to shout to Gervais, “Too Partridge! You’ve gone too Partridge!” In his defense, Gervais’ Brent is far more giggly and vulnerable than Partridge. Brent is a need-monster who demands the love of an office; Partridge wants all of England, maybe the world. Brent is crushed by defeat; Partridge may have moments of depression, but he rebounds, hungry for the next comically minor gig, like hosting a local farm show. Of course, this means his falls are much more precipitous; between the two “I’m Alan Partridge” series, he even suffers a nervous breakdown and gains a mass of weight thanks to an addiction to Tolberones. But he always finds his way back to himself. Brent happens upon a bit of self-awareness by “The Office”’s end, whereas Partridge is a master as self-delusion, spinning every disgrace, even if that means outright ignoring it.
As he’s headed deeper into middle age — as seen on the web series "Mid Morning Matters" and read in the faux-memoir "I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan" (though one should spring for the audiobook to hear Coogan-as-Alan's signature drawl) — the character has slightly softened. He’s still out for number one, but he’s less evil, less right wing and no longer noticeably homophobic. Gone are the days when he would be caught watching a hotel porno called “Bangkok Chickboys” — not, he would sternly point out, because he found them erotic, but because he found them “fascinating.” In the film “Alan Partridge” — awarded the subtitle “Alpha Papa” in England, where it beat out “Grown Ups 2” for the top box office spot on its opening weekend — he tries to use a radio station hostage situation for his own personal gain, but does wind up learning a minor lesson, if one he quickly forgets. If Alan Partridge ever remembered a lesson, he would no longer be funny.
There are many reasons why Partridge has endured, and why he may, with this movie, even find a new life in America. He’s not just a guy who obliviously blurts out inappropriate and unpopular beliefs, or makes an ass of himself for our amusement. Parts of all of us are in Alan Partridge. Coogan himself has called him a dumping site for his worst qualities. We all have at least moments, if not more, of acting out of venal self-interest. We all have those times when we prattle on endlessly about topics that interest no one but ourselves. We can all be boring or boorish, or try to play cool about our failures or blurt out terrible ideas, as Partridge’s famous pitch for a show called “Monkey Tennis.” We’re all Alan Partridge — hopefully to lesser extents than most.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge