The Trip – hilarious or cringeworthy… or both?

Are Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon parodying or simply being themselves?

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Yes, it’s self-indulgent. The Trip is a misshapen, semi-improvised series in which two comics, playing themselves, tour the North’s most expensive rural restaurants. Of course it’s self-indulgent. Complaining about that would be, as the saying goes, like complaining 101 Dalmatians has a lot of dogs in it.

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The question is, what have Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon done with this incredible liberty? As it happens, they’ve ritually disembowelled themselves.

At first, The Trip was simply very funny, as we watched two outlandishly talented comedians being endlessly entertaining, off the cuff: trading impersonations and maintaining esoteric running jokes about Abba, The Man with the Golden Gun and cheesy TV dramas. Blokes in pubs everywhere do this sort of thing every day, but Coogan and Brydon are 1,000 times better at it than you and your friends.

On the surface, they’re fantasy travelling companions. Gradually, though, The Trip has become one of the most uncomfortably honest examinations of tearful clowns ever filmed. Beneath every moment of laughter and camaraderie are pain, paranoia and dissatisfaction.

Are the Coogan and Brydon portrayed here – and the portrayal is so laden with details from their real careers, it’s hard not to assume that the gaping character flaws are genuine too – even friends? Coogan is a competitive, distant egotist: he lords it over Brydon, topping all his gags and impressions. Brydon is there to boost Coogan’s ego by being less brilliant.

It doesn’t work. Coogan, an ageing domestic star desperate to become a globally respected actor, is trapped by Alan Partridge’s success – among the blackest moments is Coogan completely alone in a stunning Cumbrian landscape, shouting “A-HA!” at a lake. But he cruelly attacks Brydon for never having created anything at the same level. And yet, Coogan is so insecure, he envies Brydon’s trivial but popular Small Man in a Box iPhone app and tries to do the voice himself, late at night, staring into the mirror.

Brydon doesn’t escape. Like a lot of “funny” people, he’s afraid to stop being funny in case he has to start being himself. He can’t hold a conversation without doing comedy voices. When the pair visit a graveyard, Coogan improvises Brydon’s eulogy, saying he made people laugh but fled from the harsh realities of life: “Behind every pithy, vaguely amusing joke is a cry for help.” Brydon nods with an addict’s fervour at the confirmation that he gets laughs, and ignores the rest.

Coogan ends the series moping round his soulless glass-and-chrome bachelor pad; Brydon goes home to his nice family. So Brydon wins…except he doesn’t, because in episode 4 he made a deliciously cringey pass at Coogan’s young PA. Bleak, bleak, bleak.

Meta-comedies with celebs playing themselves aren’t new, but The Trip makes most of them look tame. Curb Your Enthusiasm focuses on the superficial social embarrassments of a man with a stellar career; Extras let its guests play safe by hamming away at silly, invented foibles.

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Only the great Larry Sanders Show can compete with The Trip’s dissection of its stars’ vanity and inadequacy. The Trip is as funny as hell.