"I feel that Steve could go at any moment, so I really value the time I do have left with him."
Photo by Sky Atlantic
If you're yet to see The Trip—the Michael Winterbottom directed and Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon–starring comedy—then just imagine your dad and your uncle staffing the annual family barbecue. Brought together through obligation rather than desire, and with years of underlying resentment and competitiveness ready to surface, snips, jabs, and patronizing remarks are muttered as beers are passed around. Only, instead of burgers and beers in a backyard, it's five-starred restaurants and fine wine, with the two comedians traveling—as semi-friends—across the north of England, Italy, and in the latest season, Spain.
While a show about a couple of middle-aged guys scoffing food, guzzling booze, and bickering might sound like an exercise in indulgence, The Trip instead manages to be a uniquely poignant show that reflects on age, self-worth, and family. And fortunately all that bitter, cynical back and forth between the two—which is almost entirely improvised—renders the program free of any over-earnest gooeyness.
In real life, the pair are far more warm to each other, as I found out when I met with them in a west London hotel suite to talk about the show.
VICE: On paper, The Trip sounds like a tough thing to pull off—watching a couple of successful guys eating amazing food in beautiful locations as they bicker. But it never really feels smug or gloating.
Rob Brydon: That may be the background to the show, but I think really it's about aging and mortality, getting older and questioning, "How should we be conducting ourselves when we're here with the time we have?"
Steve Coogan: I think we do also deal with that by poking fun at that... but then again that also potentially can be indulgent. The very thing you're pointing out is what made Rob and I reluctant to do the whole thing in the first place: that potential misfire of the whole thing, which is a huge exercise of self-indulgence. Curb Your Enthusiasm did it, Extras did it—here's some famous people pretending to be themselves, poking fun at themselves and saying, "Get a load of how cool I am; I can laugh at myself, aren't I great?" That was our big fear. Then, when we did the first season, we realized it was more than that. We wouldn't have done this with anyone other than Michael Winterbottom. That's crucial, because we knew he'd spin something more nuanced and subtle than just Rob and I waxing lyrical—and he did do that. It's greater than the sum of its parts, because you have this expansiveness that counters the preoccupations of two middle-aged men.
A teaser trailer for season three of The Trip
You both expressed after the second season that it may be the last. Why come back for three?
Coogan: [sarcastically] Cash!
Brydon: Yeah, cash. I usually feel weird about doing stuff so soon after the last one, but then when a little bit of time passes, I feel better about it.
Coogan: There was a degree of becoming less precious, too—a bit more of a, "Oh, it'll be fine." You sort of become less analytical with time: It doesn't really matter because we're all going to be dead one day.
The pair of you are deeply competitive on the screen, both personally and professionally. When you were put together to do this for the first time and forced to improvise and be quick on your feet, did any genuine competitiveness come out?
Brydon: From my perspective, the competition was never there. I was as a huge fan of Steve's before I ever met him; I held him in great esteem and up there with anyone. I'm not a competitive person by nature—I spent a long time trying to gain some success in comedy and acting; I was 35 before I broke through—so for me, to some degree, it's all gravy. The competition, I manufacture it, and Michael has to remind me of it. If I'm with Steve in reality, I delight in his success, and I'm happy for him.
Coogan: I agree with everything Rob says. The competition is manufactured, but I'm more competitive in nature generally, and I might be more picky or precious about choices I make, and Rob is a bit more populist in his approach...
Brydon: But of course Rob does have five children.
Coogan: Yes, and the differences between those approaches in careers I really don't give a damn about. However, when I was younger, or drunker, I might have been more annoyed about it—but what I do is look for that, like a tiny little itch, and then scratch it so it becomes more irritable, and therefore find the comedy in it, find the comedy in that bit of conflict. The conflict between me and Rob is in our different approaches and trying to seek out the differences between us. There's really not that much of a huge difference between us—we're like politicians that are in the same party but have slightly different views on things.
You seem friendlier than ever in the third season, actually. Does that reflect the time you've spent together?
Brydon: I'd say we're closer now than we've ever been, and we get on now better than we ever have.
Coogan: Yeah, I think that's to do with familiarity, and as you get older, you sort of say vive la difference.
Brydon: Vive la France?
Coogan: No, not vive la France. I would never say that.
Brydon: Also, I think you appreciate each other because you realize nothing lasts forever. Certainly I feel that Steve could go at any moment, so I really value the time I do have left with him.
Coogan: It is true that I might die of natural causes, but Rob's far more likely to be murdered.
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Given the format of this show, I'm sure a lot of people take all of what is said and done on screen between you quite literally. Has that had any impact on your own personal lives?
Brydon: It doesn't impact personally, but people undoubtedly take it for the truth—but not the people that know me, so it doesn't really matter. They do think it's real, though, and in the second season, there's a part where I sleep with a girl I met on a boat, and that went out on the BBC, and the next day my wife was dropping one of our children off at school, and the teacher put her hand on my wife's shoulder and said, "This must be a very difficult time for you."
Coogan: That was a teacher?
Brydon: Yes, the person responsible for the education of my children.
Coogan: People are very strange. As Rob said, it doesn't really matter because we don't know these people. If a bus driver thinks I'm a mass murderer, it really doesn't affect my life.
Given the unfiltered nature of your dialogue, does this show allow you to say things that you wish you could get away with in real life?
We had a gentleman's agreement that we could try and irritate each other for the purposes of comedy, that we just wouldn't do in real life, so we made a pact to pick arguments purely for the point of entertainment. It's all a bit like fencing, with the body armor and the masks on. Having sharpened swords and doing it naked would have been highly dangerous.
Brydon: There are times we're doing it where I find being unkind to Steve to be hugely tiresome...
Coogan: He disguises it so well.
Brydon: And I think, Oh, I have to do this again now; I have to be unpleasant. And then I think, God, he's going to come right back at me—I better be ready.
Coogan: I probably brush more things off than Rob does.
Coogan: And I do enjoy doing that, and I quite enjoy doing it with a degree of impunity because I'm doing it in The Trip, whereas in reality not only would I not enjoy doing that but I wouldn't want to do it—but that's not to say I don't enjoy the license it gives me to mouth off about things. Although Michael will edit things out so I don't sound like a complete bore.
Brydon: I think the idea of the show allowing us to say things you wouldn't normally be allowed to say doesn't really apply to comedians, because you spend your whole life having a license to say all sorts of things.
Coogan: When you've been doing it for a while, you acquire a sense of courage and judgment, so you know how far to cross the line.
Age is a big part of the show. In the firs season, Steve is still lying about how old he is to get better parts, and there are lots of references to body changes, etc. In the new season, you suggest 50 is the best age. Are you both comfortable with getting older?
Brydon: Well, you have to be—you've got no choice. So saying "at the ripe age of 50"... well, there is a bit of comedy dynamic in it, but also so much truth in that, because how else are you going to look at it?
Coogan: Your worldview alters as you get older.
Brydon: Undoubtedly, and that's what a big part of the program is about.
Coogan: My daughter's boyfriend is a DJ and had a hit record called "Crank It"... [by Kideko & George Kwali feat. Nadia Rose & Sweetie Irie]
Brydon: Oh, I love that record.
Coogan: He was on Top of the Pops on New Year's Eve. I had to drive to a audition, and when I got there they said, "Are you his dad?" I said no, and they said, "Are you the driver?" I said yes, and I got marched through the crowd, and everyone was raving, and they all looked young and sweaty, and I stood at the back of the DJ booth tapping my foot while he played this stomping beat that the young people seemed to love, and I remember thinking, I can't think of anywhere in the world I'd rather be. [Very, very Alan Partridge voice] Ohhh, 30 years ago I would have had a whistle around my neck.
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The new season of The Trip begins on April 6 on Sky Atlantic.