Easily Distracted (2015) is an autobiography by actor/comedian Steve Coogan. If you’ve seen the film, The Trip (2011), or The Trip to Italy (2014), or The Trip to Spain (2017), you know who Steve Coogan is. Fellow peregrinating gastronome, the affable Welsh comedian Rob Brydon, is the ‘nice’ one of the two. In these very popular films, Coogan and Brydon play versions of themselves on restaurant tours, and act out a version of their real-life competitive professional relationship as impersonators – particularly Michael Caine impersonators. The food and scenery are spectacular, and there are plenty of laughs, as they repeatedly try to ‘out-Caine’ each other in Buddy/Road films in which the buddiehood is just a little bit strained, mostly by the screen version of Coogan’s edginess. That the real-life Coogan is well aware of his reputation as a bit of a bad boy is more than apparent in his book. Recalling a boyhood argument he had with a neighbouring boy about their respective dad’s cars (which the neighbour’s dad’s car won), Coogan reports the following barb:
I knew he was right [about the better car]. I was tormented. But I had an ace up my sleeve. ‘Well,’ I hesitated. ‘Your dad has a limp and walks like this.’ I hobbled around the playground. You can see why I’m not on Twitter.
Easily Distracted is that rara avis among celebrity autobiographies: it is, indeed, rich in nasty personal attacks, but in this case, almost all of the attacks are against the author. Coogan is certainly not afraid to skewer himself, and manages to be very funny about it at the same time.
Structurally, the book is a bit odd. As he played Tristram Shandy in another film, you might expect Coogan to begin his life story with ‘I am born’ (if not ‘I am conceived’ a la Tristram). But no, Part One – roughly one quarter of the book – treats a two-year period when Coogan was in his late forties, before he returns, in Part Two, to his early childhood and adolescence, then, in Part Three, brings us to the present day. This is probably not a Homeric homage, but more likely a reflection of Coogan’s need, perhaps subconscious, to focus the reader’s attention on what he, at least, sees as his greatest successes: not, interestingly, his most famous comic creation, Alan Partridge (a less nasty but equally obtuse Basil Fawlty), but the ‘more important’, and not primarily comedic, Philomena (2013), a film about the tragedy of forced adoption by the Catholic Church in 1950s Ireland, which Coogan co-starred in, and co-wrote. Coogan’s background is Irish, and he was brought up a Catholic in Manchester. Also in Part One, Coogan introduces us to his highly developed social conscience: in 2011 he was one of a few actors and other celebrities who took the British tabloid The News of the World to court – and won – over the phone hacking scandal that eventually spelled the demise of that newspaper. Though even when Coogan is at his most serious, in condemning the immorality of tabloid journalists, he can’t stop making wry jokes: “I wanted to make public the behind-the-scenes behavior of some journalists who think ‘ethics’ is where Page 3 girls with lisps come from”.
In Part One of Easily Distracted, you might be excused for thinking you were reading the autobiography of a social activist rather than a Monty Python-inspired professional comedian. With Part Two, we are on more familiar celebrity autobiography ground: ‘this was my childhood, my parents, my family, my upbringing, and this is how these things helped to shape the artist I became’. Though Parts One and Three (in which Coogan refocuses on his professional career) are more typically titillating, Part Two, treating his growing up in Manchester in the 1960s and 70s, is much more interesting and rewarding. Despite his mature anti-church feelings, there is no escaping his nostalgia for an early life in a traditionally Christian home and community, replete with fondly recalled annual holidays in Ireland. Though now an atheist, Coogan can see in the values instilled in him by his Catholic parents and community the basis for his left-leaning politics. And though now an atheist, he admits to a degree of ambivalence, since, as a child he “once prayed for an Aston Martin in Church”, and now he owns two.
Also in Part Two Coogan perfects the technique latent in all autobiographies by people who are not in themselves important historically: placing his own personal world within the larger historical context. Given that it’s Coogan, the results are often memorably funny:
In September 1972 eleven Israeli athletes [were] killed at the Munich Olympics. The same year Watergate was unfolding, [and] the Bloody Sunday killings. But more importantly, on 14 October that year, I became the first person in my school to invite girls to my birthday party.
In the late 1970s, Coogan was in his mid teens:
It was also around this time that nuclear reactors melted on Three Mile Island, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, and the previous winter of discontent led to the election of Margaret Thatcher, our first female prime minister. More importantly, I put my hand inside a girl’s bra for the first time.
The particular juxtaposition of ‘first female prime minister’ and ‘hand inside a girl’s bra’ sounds the keynote of Coogan’s particular brand of acutely self-aware ironic comedy. It’s the stuff that Alan Partridge is made of.
Elsewhere, Coogan attributes his remarkable abilities in impersonation to having to resort – in pre-VHS days – to audiotaping episodes of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, and endlessly playing them back and imitating the voices to entertain his extended Irish Catholic family; asserts that mocking people – another Coogan staple – is more simply a particularly British sign of affection; that having being brought up a Catholic meant that he found release and reassurance in the ‘ambiguity’ of Shakespeare, and the ‘difference’ of Blake.
He claims that a ‘common denominator of loved British comedy characters’ – a trait that he shares – is that ‘they are all frustrated . . . they are essentially disappointed with their lives’. He admits to being jealous of the nicer Rob Brydon, and that Brydon may even be the funnier of the two. But, he adds. “I don’t care if people don’t think I’m funny. I’d rather make people think and if they laugh as well, that’s a bonus.”
Coogan took his title, Easily Distracted, from a teacher’s assessment in one of his childhood report cards. I think we can see that self-aware ironic comedy at play again there. For Steve Coogan being funny doesn’t mean being distracted at all.