One of the great perks of being a good entertainer is that someone else is often footing the bill for your food and drink. And while that itself may not be a good enough reason to take a gig, I (as a musician who has played his fair share of restaurant dates) can attest to the fact that it’s sometimes enough to sway an otherwise take-it-or-leave-it payday. In fact, there have been a few times when the food and drink were so tempting that the band rang up a bigger kitchen bill than we charged for the gig itself.
British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon know the temptations better than most. Their improvisational 2010 film The Trip, based on a series originally broadcast on the BBC, was a freewheeling affair that was directed in name by Michael Winterbottom, but in practice proved to be a blank canvas for the inspired riffing of the two actors. Together, the pair—or at least, the pair playing versions of themselves—traveled northern England on a restaurant tour after Coogan, who had been tapped by The Observer as a reviewer, had his girlfriend back out of the assignment. But Coogan and Brydon, it turned out, had a better relationship than many, even if their barbs sometimes said otherwise. As they downed their comped wine and haute plates, the duo engaged in bits of comic one-upmanship, impersonation contests—being British, they have a great scene where they compare their Michael Caine mimicry—and the sort of needling that is born of respect for one another’s craft.
This week, they’re doing it again in The Trip to Italy, a sort of sequel to the 2010 film in which the pair take off for coastal Italy to sample a half dozen restaurants, once again for The Observer. Of course, it’s not entirely unfair to point out that these reviews benefit the paper as much as, and maybe more than, its readers, but to dwell on the artifice of it will only strip away the fun. The best bet is to treat it like a strange new meal in a foreign country: accept it on its own terms, and dive in.
Do that and you’ll find that Coogan and Brydon are sparkling travel companions, never at a loss for a turn of phrase, even when talking about pop culture’s odder details: the guttural voice of Batman; the value of Alanis Morissette, and whether a sequel is ever a good idea. These are the men you want to have with you on a long car ride: able to ride a conversation’s dips and swells as easily as a buoy rides waves.
But you’ll also find a slightly more serious side to the comedians that illuminates a cultural difference that divides British comedy from most of our own American comedy. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, a comedian like Will Ferrell heading off, as Coogan and Brydon do, on a short Romantic Poetry tour. The side trip, which includes a beachside meditation on the friendship of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, puts the pair, not for the first time, in a pensive mood, as they ponder their own mortality. It’s never particularly heavy, but it’s a welcome reminder that the best comedy is often born of tragedy; if it didn’t matter so much, we wouldn’t laugh so very hard.
Also this week: Fans of Coogan’s BBC comedy routines will be glad to know that his film Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is available to stream via Netflix. In it, Coogan reprises his Alan Partridge character—a superficial, self-involved broadcaster—in a story about a radio station that is in the middle of downsizing. When Partridge selfishly gets his co-worker (Colm Meaney) canned, he finds himself in the middle of a hostage situation.•
Jack Brown can be reached at email@example.com.