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Monday, January 27th, 2014

The Long, Brilliant Career of Steve Coogan, the Funniest British Comedian Most Americans Don't Know

Although he's been a wildly popular comedian in the UK for over 20 years now, Steve Coogan has yet to become a household name in the States. Nevertheless, 2014 is may just be the year he finally breaks through here. With a bevy of high-profile projects set to make their US debuts, Coogan may finally become someone who has American fans who aren't just comedy nerds. Coogan recently earned his first two Oscar nominations for producing and co-writing the drama Philomena, which he stars in with Judi Dench, and he's starring in the comedies Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa and The Trip to Italy, which are both set for a US release.

Now, let's take a look back at Coogan's accomplished comedy career as he's on the verge of a big year in the US.

After spending a few years doing voice acting, TV, and standup, Steve Coogan created what would become his most popular character in 1991. Coogan was sought out by Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris, who would become equally influential comedians in their own right, to join the cast of their new satirical BBC radio show On the Hour. There, Coogan co-created the character Alan Partridge with Iannucci. Partridge was a bumbling sports reporter for On the Hour who had minimal knowledge of the sports he was covering. Little did Coogan know he'd be playing Partridge for years – decades even – to come.

On the Hour received such acclaim during its two-season run that BBC Two opted to adapt the program from radio to television in 1994. Coogan came with, continuing to play sports correspondent Alan Partridge on the TV version, called The Day Today. Following The Day Today's six-episode run, Coogan was given his very own Partridge-centric TV show. Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge, which began as a radio show for the BBC, was co-created by Coogan, Iannucci, and Patrick Marber and it turned Partridge from a sports reporter into an inept chat show host, fleshing his character out with the extra room allotted by making him the star of his own series. Coogan followed up the one-season show with Coogan's Run, a one-man BBC Two sketch show in which he played a variety of characters like working class guy Paul Calf before returning to his most famous creation once again.

Created by Iannucci, Coogan, and Peter Baynham, I'm Alan Partridge brought Coogan's beloved character to his very own sitcom, for the first time showing what Partridge's life was like off-camera. Having been fired by BBC television, Partridge is now a divorcee working a late night shift at a radio station in a desperate attempt to get his career back on track while living in a hotel.

Following the first season of I'm Alan Partridge, Coogan founded the company Baby Cow Productions with writing partner Henry Normal in 1999. Baby Cow would go on to produce some major hits like The Mighty Boosh and Gavin and Stacey. During this time, Coogan also parlayed his TV career into starring in a couple British movies. He played the lead character in The Parole Officer, which he co-wrote, and director Michael Winterbottom's music scene dramatization 24 Hour Party People. Following this, he returned for one more season of I'm Alan Partridge, five years after the first in 2002, which finds the character in even more depressing circumstances than before.

Steve Coogan followed up I'm Alan Partridge with his second series focused solely on one character, Saxondale. Co-created by Coogan and Neil Maclennan, Saxondale starred Coogan as a middle-aged ex-roadie for 70s rock bands who now runs his own extermination business and is in court-ordered anger management. While the character of Tommy Saxondale never became as popular as Coogan's previous creation Alan Partridge, it's still an incredibly funny and specific character and show that shouldn't be overlooked.

Having spent 13 years as a major figure in UK television by the time Saxondale ended its run in 2007, Coogan set his sights on US stardom. Fellow Brits Ricky Gervais, Simon Pegg, and Sacha Baron Cohen had recently broken through in America, and Coogan had just played a supporting part in Ben Stiller's hit family film Night at the Museum. Coogan quickly snapped up a supporting role as the director of the movie-within-the-movie in Stiller's Tropic Thunder, reprised his part in Night at the Museum 2, and played a prominent guest starring role opposite Larry David as his misguided therapist in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

He also landed his first — and so far, only — leading role in a American movie with Hamlet 2. Coogan delivers a strong performance as a failed actor-turned-drama teacher staging a musical sequel to Shakespeare's famous play. Unfortunately for Coogan, the underrated comedy, directed by Andrew Fleming (Dick) who co-wrote with Pam Brady (South Park), bombed at the box office and put the brakes on his ascent in the American movie industry.

Following Hamlet 2's release, Coogan continued to play supporting roles in American comedies like The Other Guys and My Idiot Brother while returning to his roots by reviving Alan Partridge in a web series-turned-TV series called Mid Morning Matters, playing a supporting part in Armando Iannucci's Oscar-nominated In the Loop, and reuniting with director Michael Winterbottom, whom he previously worked with on 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.

Winterbottom directed Coogan and his Tristam Shandy co-star Rob Brydon in The Trip, a six-part BBC Two sitcom in 2010 that saw Coogan and Brydon playing fictionalized versions of themselves on a restaurant tour of Northern England. The Trip's six episodes were edited into a feature and released in the US the following year, with both the TV and movie versions receiving a great deal of acclaim and giving Coogan some well-deserved attention. A sequel series, The Trip to Italy, reunites Coogan, Brydon, and Winterbottom and will once again be released as a film Stateside after premiering as a six-part TV series in the UK later this year.

Coogan has gained further momentum in the last couple years with Philomena, which he co-wrote, starred in, and produced via Baby Cow. Based on journalist Martin Sixsmith's book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, which tells the true story of a woman's 50-year search for her lost son, the film received four Oscar nominations, with two noms for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay going to Coogan, and a ton of awards attention for the film and co-star Judi Dench.

Coogan also got his long-awaited Alan Partridge movie made this past year. A project that had been in development since 2005, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa made it into production and came out in the UK in 2013. Following Partridge in a hostage situation at his radio station, the movie is set for a US release later this year, which, alongside The Trip to Italy and Philomena's awards attention, could finally make Steve Coogan as well-known with mainstream audiences as he deserves to be.

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