Steve "Cumbo" Cumberland is the creation of comedian David Earl, a scene-stealer known to many as crass pisshead Kevin in Derek and café-perv Brian Gittins. But gigless media personality Cumbo, who now has his own Vimeo series, owes more to Ricky Gervais's earlier work: it is a modern masterpiece of character comedy, a relentlessly inventive depiction of wrong-side-of-forty solitude, Brent's amiable nephew or a Vice-gen Partridge.
Earl's performance is impossibly nuanced. The haggard good looks, the hollow cackle, the sound effects, the voices, the questions-to-self, the changes of clothes, the hair, the perpendicular glances-to-camera and the jump-cuts offer a taintless view of a fantasist and his emotional cataracts. He tempers nonchalance - boasts about drugs, blowjobs, Sussex clubs and The Energisers, a "new set of buddies" half his age - with despair: the opening minute of episode two, where Cumbo explains his plan to drive The Energisers to Jingles and still be able to drink himself, is funnier and more illuminating than most entire series.
Cumbo transcends mere satire of vlogger narcissism for something genuinely moving, a rare first-person monologue that deserves comparison with Marion and Geoff, which also began in ten-minute vignettes. Like Rob Brydon's chipper Keith, tragicomic truths seep through the cracks of Cumbo's delusions. Compare divorcee Keith's "I don't feel I've lost a wife, I've gained a friend" to Cumbo's "I will be forever grateful to her that she severed all ties with me", or "I'm really pleased I invited myself over. Don't ask, don't get." Cumbo's Marion is "Dazzy Baby", a former flatmate who's just moved in with fiancée Jenny and who clearly has less time for Cumbo than Cumbo has for him.
Fame, as a theme, is precarious and overflogged, but the hope of converting a non-specific social-media-following into anything of substance has never been handled this perceptively. Keats felt fame, like love, "dotes the more upon a heart at ease" and Cumbo's "don't ask, don't get" approach is the opposite: pushy, fruitless, rain-scented. He's a foster-child of slow time and singledom, dieted with Twitter-praise and drowsy with the fumes of nostalgia: "because they know NOTHING about the nineties, I think it's important to stop them sometimes and go, 'Hey, what you're listening to is great, but just have a listen to this.'"
On which note the music choices are impeccable, a mix of mind-distillers ('The Show Must Go On', 'Mr Lonely', 'Shape Of My Heart', 'Out Of Touch') and Cumbo's own dated tastes (the image of Cumbo hoist on his own Spotify playlist of 'Tubthumping', 'Zombie' and 'Millennium' in a passengerless car is particularly grim). It frames the silence with his own youth in a way that's almost Beckettian, a kind of Krapp's Last Now 38.
Over simple plots (a Sunday lunch, a night out), we intuit a sort of mad loneliness, the low-level madness of the mediocre, a malaria cloud of a man's inner language and DJ machine-gun reloads. But Earl's choreography of a heavy-duty emotional repertoire is balletic, the delivery hummingbird-light. Cumbo is fated to repeat himself (particularly over the phone, like Partridge trying to book tickets for Inception) and only improves with repeated views.
It's exciting and significant that Cumbo only exists online. The new Vimeo series (three episodes released so far with more to come) gives Earl the freedom to refine a character he's developed for years, from webcam experiments via fun-but-formally-conservative-Blaps to more ambitious set pieces (there's an excellent episode of the latter with Seb Cardinal, where inane flirty frissons give way to a horrible on-camera realisation and semi-recovery). In this brave online world of BBC Three and The Independent, the Internet seems to be the breeding ground for the boldest talent (like the People Time gang), with a yellow brick road to TV a mirage of High Maintenance's crossover to HBO.
Like Partridge with the magnificent Mid Morning Matters (essentially two mini-episodes per half-hour), the older Cumbo is, the sadder and funnier he becomes. A doubled-edged habit of character-comedians is to master one character more completely than any other. As versatile as he is, you almost want David Earl to devote himself to Cumbo forever, adding threads to the same tapestry over decades like a Haywards Heath Proust. Gone are the nineties, and today's dance is to the sleety whistle of online. But CUMBO the show is as savvy, subtle and contemporary as Cumbo the man isn't. Long may his shorts continue.Suggest a correction