The man who rocks sexy Jesus

A superstar in Britain, comedian Steve Coogan hopes to ramp up his mojo with the high-school-drama farce "Hamlet 2."

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 22, 2008 11:06AM (EDT)


How can two nations separated by an ocean but united by a common language (more or less) differ so much in their sense of humor? After 230 years of independence, Americans still love the royal family -- in many cases more than the British do -- but British comedy, still rooted in an ancient, insular and constitutionally reticent culture, is another story. Steve Coogan is only the latest in a long line of Britcom superstars who don't quite seem to translate to mainstream Yank audiences. For every Peter Sellers or Dudley Moore or Sacha Baron Cohen who crosses over, there's a pileup of Simon Peggs and Eddie Izzards and Peter Cooks and Spike Milligans and Ian Hislops and Paul Whitehouses, some of them known to the bicoastal Anglophile Terry-Gross-listening audience, but none of them capable of getting arrested in Des Moines.

Based largely on his long-running role as the horrendous radio and TV chat-host Alan Partridge, Coogan is a sufficiently huge star in the United Kingdom to become a favored target of London's legendarily libelous tabloid press. At various times it's been insinuated that he got Courtney Love pregnant (denied by all parties) and supplied Owen Wilson with hard drugs before Wilson's 2007 suicide attempt (also denied by everyone involved). It's possible those reporters were doing Coogan a favor; the Wilson affair probably made his name known to thousands or millions of Americans who've never seen him perform.

Coogan has supplied amusing supporting roles to some disposable Hollywood productions (Phileas Fogg in "Around the World in 80 Days"; the emperor Octavius in "Night at the Museum") and starred in two eccentricities from English director Michael Winterbottom, "24 Hour Party People" (about the legendary music scene in Coogan's native Manchester) and "Tristram Shandy" (as both the title character and the boozing, whoring comedian named Steve Coogan who plays him). Now comes "Hamlet 2," a cheerful, chaotic comedy from "Dick" director Andrew Fleming and "South Park" writer-producer Pam Brady, which offers Coogan his first starring role as an American character.

"Hamlet 2" became the focus of a Sundance bidding war last January (Focus Features got it for $10 million), but removed from that hothouse atmosphere it is, as Coogan himself says, a "Frankenstein's monster" of a film, with a brilliant premise, a lot of uneven sketch-comedy material and a few dynamite musical numbers. Coogan plays a high school drama teacher in Tucson, Ariz., a nellyish but hetero pseudo-self-actualized loser who conceives the notion of saving the school's drama program by writing and producing a musical sequel to "Hamlet." (Yes, almost everyone in "Hamlet" is dead at the end. But what if you had a time machine?)

Certainly the show-stopping musical number "Rock Me Sexy Jesus," with Coogan himself as the buff messiah, will have a long, long run as a YouTube classic. (My favorite moment is the dude who blurts out: "I want to party with you, Jesus.") There's other great stuff in this hit-and-miss flick, notably Amy Poehler's turn as a foul-mouthed ACLU attorney named Cricket Feldstein who keeps announcing "I married a Jew!" with an inscrutable mixture of pride and amazement. But whether Coogan's painfully acute performance as the indomitable but pathetic Dana Marschz -- you know you're in trouble when the protagonist's unpronounceable last name is repeatedly played as a leaden gag -- will put him over the top with American audiences remains to be seen.

I met Steve Coogan at his New York hotel for a brief conversation. (Listen to the interview here.)

This is the first time you've played an American, right? Beyond getting the accent right, what were the challenges involved with this role?

Yeah, it is. I mean, there are people like that character on both sides of the Atlantic. The defining aspect of Dana is his theatricality, his over-demonstrativeness with his feelings. That's actually a very un-British thing, although you do find that among actors. It's more a West Coast American thing.

It's a very physical performance. You do a lot with your hands.

Right, he's very physical. I gesticulate a lot. He's kind of over the top in some ways, a larger-than-life character. But a fun character to do.

So this guy gets the somewhat improbable idea of saving his school's drama program by doing a sequel to "Hamlet."

Well, Andy Fleming and Pam Brady were trying to come up with funny ideas, bad ideas. As bad ideas go, a sequel to "Hamlet" is a pretty good one.

I have to say, it doesn't have a lot to do with the original.

No, it doesn't. But it doesn't need to. The whole idea was that you'll see snatches of the play that Dana Marschz has written. And it should be so disparate and disconnected, because you don't get to see the whole play, that when you're watching it you're thinking, "What the hell must that play have been like?" Any random things that may tenuously have been part of someone going back in a time machine to save all the characters in "Hamlet" -- anything that works, anything that's funny, just throw it in.

Jesus Christ, for example -- not found in "Hamlet" that I recall.

No, he isn't. But you see, with a time machine Hamlet could easily have gone back 2,000 years in time and gotten Jesus Christ to help him. If you're going to enlist somebody to help you change the course of history, he's a good candidate.

You seem to me to come out of that long tradition of satire and sketch comedy in Britain, especially in the '60s and '70s, including a lot of comedians who aren't especially well-known in America.

Oh sure, all the guys in Monty Python. John Cleese in "Fawlty Towers." Also British comedy in the '60s, including people like Peter Sellers and Dudley Moore, who did manage to cross over in America. Those people were very formative. And there's a lot of parochial British humor that's very difficult to translate: TV comedies like "Blackadder," or a series called "The Young Ones." And all the great British sitcoms, which often got remade into American versions. "Man About the House" became "Three's Company." "All in the Family" was originally a British sitcom called "Till Death Do Us Part." Although our comedies didn't necessarily translate, the DNA was used in American sitcoms for years.

What about British comedy that predates you? The great postwar stuff, like "The Goon Show"?

That's how Peter Sellers got his start. That was one of my early influences. My father was into "The Goon Show." Of course there were no VCRs, so I listened to comedy on vinyl. You could hear it, but you couldn't watch it, and in some ways it makes you more familiar with it. I used to listen to the Goons and Monty Python on vinyl. We didn't have anything on tape. When you're forced to listen to comedy rather than watch it, you develop a better ear. You listen to every little idiosyncrasy.

Sure. Did you have that Monty Python record that played completely different versions, depending on where you put the needle down in the groove?

Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Wow, you're a real nerd.

Sad but true. Moving back to "Hamlet 2," when you were reading the script or talking to Andy Fleming, what made you say, "Yeah, this role is for me"?

Well, you know, I've done a lot of different things, but I wasn't entirely sure that I could play it. I just knew that it made me laugh a lot. And I figured, well, if there's any candidate that can do this, I should have a shot. Lots of things make you laugh, but it's great when something makes you laugh and you've not read anything like it before. You don't quite know why it makes you laugh, why it works. This is one of those things. It defies categorization. Maybe that's the problem when you're telling people to go see it, because it's very difficult to describe. It's a mad, crazy, funny, feel-good movie that isn't full of clichés. It's a Frankenstein's monster of different component parts.

It's always funny when you've got a guy who believes in himself in the face of ample evidence to the contrary.

Why is self-belief a funny thing? It should be an inspiring thing, and it is sometimes. But it's a funny thing, especially when someone is being told everything to the contrary, and they carry on. It's one of those comic facets that makes you like someone, no matter how stupid and foolish it looks. It makes you admire the character. The one thing the director kept saying to me was, "Make sure you really believe everything you're saying." If the audience doesn't believe that I believe what I'm saying, as a character, than the whole thing falls apart.

The audience laughs at Dana, at first. But you can't do that for a full hour and a half. At some point, the audience has to give a damn about him, and I think they're slowly won round by him. Basically what he's doing is not cynical. He's trying to do the right thing. He's trying desperately and passionately to make a difference in these kids' lives. He has a kind of integrity. Maybe he's not as smart as everyone else, but he's also not as cynical as everyone else. We could all learn something from that.

"Hamlet 2" is now playing at roughly 100 theaters around the country, with wider release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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