17 May 2009

For those old honky-tonk monkeyshines

The comedy festival’s on in Wellington at the moment, and a number of talented acts from the British comedy scene have made the journey down to New Zealand to help those of us in denial about the ongoing Americanisation of the New Zealand cultural outlook pretend that we still live in a world in which Monty Python, Blackadder and The Young Ones are the acme of the comedic art.  While I would’ve loved to see Dylan Moran again, I reasoned that I’d seen his gig in Wellington three years ago.  (By all accounts the Auckland performance was up to his usual high standards).  So on balance I opted for a two-pronged approach – English actor and comedian Steve Coogan, followed a week later by Irish stand-up Ed Byrne.

Steve Coogan’s most famous comic character is of course the ludicrous Alan Partridge, the idiot sans savant broadcaster whose career and life spiral into a morass of hopelessness due to his unwitting incompetence and obnoxiousness.  Who could forget the legendary payback inflicted upon Alan by disgruntled Norfolk farmers after he insulted them on his Radio Norwich pre-breakfast programme, when they tip a dead cow on top of him as he tries to make a promotional video about canal-boating in Norfolk?  But Coogan’s also created a series of other characters, which are accurately described in the title of his most recent UK tour, ‘Steve Coogan Is Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters’. 

In TV interviews leading up to his New Zealand performances Coogan had emphasised that the touring version of his show would aim for broad laughs rather than ‘chin-stroking humour’.  Damn, I thought.  I like the chin-stroking stuff!  Catherine had kindly arranged tickets to see Coogan at the Michael Fowler Centre last weekend, so we were able to take in his show. 

The first half saw the effortlessly vulgar character Pauline Calf trading earthy witticisms and allowing Coogan his penchant for cross-dressing.  This was followed by a quick costume change and the appearance of Pauline’s brother Paul, the long-term loser who’s always down the boozer.  His monologue focused on the many failures in his love life, and exemplified Coogan’s attempts to localise cultural references in his material.  When wistfully remembering spotting a lost love out shopping, Paul mopes, ‘I saw her in the Pak ‘n Save carpark loading three bags of shopping into the back of her Daihatsu Charade… she was out of my league’. 

The first half was concluded by Coogan’s Portuguese crooner, Tony Ferrino, who is bushy of moustache and smooth with the laydeez, in the style of Engelbert Humperdinck or 70s-era Tom Jones.  Here’s a UK clip of Tony Ferrino performing his signature tune ‘Ordinary Girl’, which was performed on the night:


After the intermission most of the rest of the show was occupied by Partridge, the star turn, who has reinvented himself as a high-tech motivational speaker.  The ‘high-tech’ angle facilitates numerous IT jokes at Alan’s expense, when he uses an interactive pointer glove to control images on a large projection screen and pictures of increasingly inappropriate content from his personal folders appear.  He also conducts a mock live link-up with Radio Norwich talkback callers, and the joke in which he ignores a depressed caller whilst foolishly clicking on a penis enlargement spam ad and then drafting a hurried letter to the spammers claiming that he ‘and his [fictitious] girlfriend’ are more than happy delighted with his existing size girth.

Following Partridge, it only remains for Coogan to perform a jaunty and possibly Avenue Q-cribbing song and dance number with a rather unrepeatable title to round out the show.


On the following Friday night I went with Al and two of his pals to see the Irish comedian Ed Byrne at the Opera House.  Byrne, a genial figure who is probably most famous for his Alanis Morissette baiting in his younger days, when he quite sensibly pointed out that her song ‘Ironic’ displayed a singular lack of comprehension of the concept of irony.     

Byrne is now a regular guest on UK TV panel games that feature comedians, like Have I Got News For You and QI, and has appeared on the popular Friday night comedy show, Live at the Apollo:


In his Wellington performance Byrne touched on the loose concept of social class, quickly learning from his posher friends that buying a big TV was irredeemably working class, and that while eating a pheasant that crashed into his patio windows and broke its own neck was verging on posh (with the extra added poshness of having zero carbon miles because the meal was organic and actually flew under its own muscle power to his house), the fact that he had used the phrase ‘patio windows’ rather than ‘French windows’ was an instant giveaway of working-classness. 

Byrne also touched on the 80s pop culture of his youth, pointing out a rather glaring inconsistency at the heart of Back To The Future, and the holy grail of status symbols when he was a lad, the Sodastream fizzy drink maker.  But it was in the second half when he had changed from his student-style threads into his snappy suit, when his material stretched out well as he told about his recent marriage and the joys of having a posh-sounding but sweary wife, that Byrne showed that he had mellowed somewhat and has the ability to play to a wider audience than the appreciative comedy circuit that has enjoyed his work for over a decade now.  He related the story of how his inebriated fiance initially rejected his marriage proposal (made in a Kaikoura restaurant, by the way) as a rather ill-judged joke, and how this set his mind racing in an instant, imagining a solo retreat to the casinos of Las Vegas to become a comedian in residence.  This was a flight of fancy of course, but it held a kernel of truth: if the Americans found the right role for him, Ed Byrne would find deserved fame and fortune on a much larger scale than the middling level he freely admits to now enjoying.

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