Comedy: Knowing me, knowing who?

At a recent Royal Television Society dinner, the BBC's head of comedy, Geoffrey Perkins, used a clip from BBC2's I'm Alan Partridge as the climax to a state-of-the-nation address about the sitcom. It was greeted - even by an audience of jaded industry insiders - with rapturous applause.

If that series is not looked back on in 10 years' time as one of the seminal 1990s comedies, then I'm Alan Partridge. Written by Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci and Peter Baynham, it featured many laugh-out-loud scenes - remember the excruciating lunch where failed TV presenter Alan (played by Coogan) pitched to an excruciated commissioning editor such gruesome programme ideas as monkey tennis, youth hostelling with Chris Eubank, and Knowing ME, Knowing You?

But what truly marked I'm Alan Partridge out for greatness was its willingness to dip more than a toe into some very dark waters indeed - think of the sadness of Alan dismantling his motel trouser-press because he had nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon, or the genuinely creepy sequence in which Alan fled from a scary King of Comedy-style stalker.

The show's loyal following should ensure a good turn-out for Coogan's first live tour in some years. "Even though Alan's a berk, people like him despite themselves," the comedian says. "The Little Englander in him is in all of us. He gives vent to those things we'd all like to say but daren't. He's a mirror showing us our own hideousness."

Partridge will be joined on stage by Coogan's other deathless inventions, the endlessly student-hating "bag'o'shite" Mancunian yob Paul Calf and his slapper of a sister, Pauline, and the slimy Latino Lothario singer, Tony Ferrino.

All these creations demonstrate Coogan's uncanny ability to merge with a character so completely that you can no longer tell where he ends and the role begins. He is reluctant to be too analytical about his work, however. "I just do the characters and they're funny. Only afterwards do I read articles about them and discover they were deeper than I thought.

"I have a standing joke that journalists say to me, `I bet you don't know who you are'. Give me a break. I'm waiting for some tabloid rent-a-shrink to say that all my characters are exorcisms of my inner self. That sort of psycho-analysis is mildly irritating. Articles that deconstruct comedy are environmentally unfriendly to South American rainforests. It seems the antithesis of comedy to deconstruct it, and it's certainly dangerous for comedians to do it. Hancock went bonkers trying to do it."

Steve Coogan plays Watford Colosseum (01923 445000) tonight; the spiritual home of Alan Partridge - Norwich Theatre Royal (01603 630000) Sat, Mon & Tue; Cambridge Corn Exchange (01223 357851) Wed; and Leicester De Montfort Hall (0116-233 3111) Fri

COMEDY EXTRA

People as diverse as David Baddiel and Dodgy have expressed their admiration for Johnny Vegas's strikingly original man-potter's wheel two-hander. Check out for yourself whether you should believe the hype on his "Balls of Clay" national tour which this week comes to The Talk of London, Parker St, Drury Lane, WC2 (0171-494 5494) 8pm Wed & Thur

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