Comfortable Comedy: Nothing New Here
Like Steve Coogan's previous live video, Live 'n' Lewd, The Man Who Thinks He's It shies away from Coogan's earlier impression-based stand-up, and instead showcases a number of comic characters: smutty shop girl Pauline Calf; nervous comedian Duncan Thickett; Portuguese pop sensation Tony Ferrino; unemployable drunkard Paul Calf; blunt, oblivious chat show host Alan Partridge; and the self-absorbed comedian Steve Coogan.
At the beginning of The Man, in one of its many faux-interviews with Steve Coogan in pretentious actor mode, Coogan vows that this show will be "different from all those other live videos." This promise is somewhat upheld, but at a loss for the viewers at home.
By 1998, Coogan's The Man characters were all fairly well-established, having had their own series, shorts, or at least previous video appearances. For Alan Partridge, this meant having a well-known catchphrase and the expectation that he would get down to some chat, but for the other characters as well, a formula seemed to have developed for their stage performances. Pauline Calf, as she did in Live 'n' Lewd, crassly discusses her wanton lifestyle, and then reads an excerpt from her newest book. Duncan Thickett botches his attempts at the latest fads in comedy (including some meta "character comedy"). Tony Ferrino deplores matrimony, and then sings some songs winking at infidelity. Paul Calf drunkenly mumbles about unemployment and females. Alan Partridge has a chat and then sings a "medley" from a female vocalist's oeuvre (this time Kate Bush). This is quite a variety of very different performances, but for anyone familiar with Coogan's work, it's no surprise. A first-time viewer might giggle at the fact that crude Pauline Calf has written a book; a Coogan aficionado is just waiting to hear the name of her newest Mary-Sue character. Someone unfamiliar with Thickett might cackle at the fact that someone so out-of-touch is even attempting to do observational comedy; the well-versed viewer just wants to see what embarrassing bit of personal information he will give away in his attempts to relate with the audience. The characters themselves - much like Tony Ferrino's song selection - have become variations on a theme. Who will Paul Calf insult? Who will Alan Partridge awkwardly interview? These are humorous routines, but for a Coogan enthusiast, they are comfortable comedy, as comfy and familiar as sports casual clothing; nothing new or exciting here.
In order to fulfill that above-mentioned promise to be unlike other live shows, The Man Who Thinks He's It, features many of those cut-aways to "Steve the Comedian," as well as bits with his fellow performers Julia Davis and Simon Pegg. The inclusion of co-performers is a key change from Live 'n' Lewd, and The Man often depends heavily on them for its laughs. Julia Davis plays Pauline Calf's homely best friend, Tony Ferrino's soon-to-be-late wife, a feminist singer Paul Calf mistakenly invites to play a song, Alan Partridge's depressed, bulimic builder guest, and herself. Though Julia Davis is always a funny presence, rather than refresh Coogan's characters with some on-stage banter, her roles seem to just interrupt the sketches, and then drag them on without many actual jokes written for this interaction. With Paul Calf, Julia Davis performs a quintessential man-hating tune, and Paul just dances around in the background, lazily miming killing himself. With these other characters to rely on, the center of the show - Coogan's creations - seem underwritten. The aforementioned same-old formula is used with a new friend in lieu of new jokes.
In their interview interstitials, Davis and Pegg paint a portrait of Coogan as a very self-obsessed, but desperate man. In one moment, overhearing Simon receiving big laughs while emceeing, Steve asks Simon not to tell that joke next time. This is a humorous poke at the egotism that comes with success, but it is also the only time we get to see Pegg in his emceeing role, unlike John Thomson as Bernard Righton in Live 'n' Lewd. With these frequent cutaways to documentary segments, once even interrupting Tony Ferrino mid-song, The Man Who Thinks He's It definitely does not feel like any other live show: it doesn't feel like a live show at all. The lampooning of the Comic Steve Coogan has become one of Coogan's funniest devices (in The Trip, Cock & Bull, Coffee & Cigarettes, etc.), but here, it's used almost too much. Like the addition of co-performers, the frequency of these documentary interstitials stops seeming refreshing and new, and starts to feel like a crutch to distract from an otherwise lackluster bill of performances.
In The Man Who Thinks He's It, Coogan is of course funny, but his characters (including "Steve Coogan" himself) have all had more hilarious, fresh, and enthusiastic performances. The Man showcases consistent, comfortable comedy, but nothing brilliant.