Sunday 26 January 2014

TV: Stewart Lee – Much A Stew About Nothing, Nottingham Playhouse

“Come to Nottingham – learn humility.”  

Stewart Lee, 41st best stand-up comedian, came to Nottingham last Thursday to preview material from the forthcoming 3rd Comedy Vehicle series(1).  “I’m going to do, in the first half, about two half hour sections from two episodes of the new series and then in the, er, in the second half, about half an hour which will make up a third episode of the new series and then we can all go home”(2).

According to some critics Stewart Lee comes over as unbearably smug, obnoxious and doesn’t tell any proper jokes; according to others this is true, but he is also hilarious. He’s usually critically acclaimed on the left and panned on the right, as is the way with people who are even slightly experimental in form(3).

It’s quite easy to see why people don’t like him. I mean it is true, he doesn’t do punchy one-liners; on the odd occasion that he does, it is normally followed up immediately with some meta-textual explanation that this is out of character and is unlikely to happen again. During the show, he uses a one-liner as a way to get to a routine about how he was described by Lee Mack as "A cultural bully from the Oxbridge Mafia who wants to appear morally superior but couldn't cut the mustard on a panel game." (Lee's riposte: “You don’t cut mustard – you spread it”) This does raise one of the points Lee quite often raises in his books(4) – do we really want our comedians to see being on a panel game as the apex of their career? It’s a clever device – doing something Mack accuses him of not being able to do in order to lead into a bit about Mack’s criticism.

Another technique, frequently used, is bringing out a piece of paper which supposedly has some quote written on it (as with, for example, the Lee Mack quote). And yet another is explaining to the audience why it’s their own fault for not finding something funny (“look, I’ve tried, I’ve done that bit all over the country and it always gets a laugh round about there… I mean, some of you were laughing there and that’s good but the rest of you – well, you might want to raise your game a bit.”) I think the audiences who see Stewart Lee as being smug might think his onstage persona as what he’s really like as a human being offstage. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that this is not the case(5). Certainly when he starts genuinely laughing at something(6) onstage he looks slightly embarrassed and semi-apologises for breaking character(7). And he’s thoroughly charming to people when he’s signing things for people after the show(8).

The main skill Stewart Lee has as a comedian however, in my opinion, is his skill at using repetition in many different ways. Sometimes it’s the relatively simple device of just repeating a particular sentence over and over again until the repetition is what the audience laughs at. More often, and more interestingly, it is taking the repetition of an idea by putting it into different contexts, pushing it into ever increasingly ridiculous areas until the idea’s internal logic becomes absurd. A brilliant example of this is where he mocks Paul Nutall(s) of the UKIP(s) claim “You need to ensure that your brightest stay and make your own country economically prosperous instead of coming to the UK to serve tea and coffee,” by putting it into different contexts until we slowly but logically arrive at “You Coelacanths need to ensure that your brightest stay in the sea and make it prosperous instead of coming on land and starting life on land.(9)

After an extended bit of improvisation where, amongst the many call backs to earlier parts of the show, he explicitly explains to the audience(10) that he is trying to make up an ending to the show on the spot, he does an extra 20 minutes and it’s at this point that it becomes clear that what Lee is is a very generous comedian to audiences who are willing to engage and not be passive(11). He’s not only willing to lift the curtain on his writing process in front of an audience(12) but to reward them with a bit more tried and tested stuff in case they’re not at all interested in seeing the comedic process at work. Even if we take the ‘Smug Stewart Lee’ stage persona at face value, it is harder to think of him as treating an audience with as much contempt as a comedian who is willing to do the same material verbatim night after night – of which, sadly there are many.

So, I look forward to the third series of Comedy Vehicle(13), because he really is one of the most verbally innovative comedians in this country. And I look forward to reading his next book of collected material. Which will no doubt be heavily annotated.

(1) This is why this live show is being labelled as a TV review. It is unlikely that I will do enough comedy reviews to make a ‘Comedy’ category worthwhile on the blog. So there.

(2) Lee often does this kind of post-modern stripping away of the illusion of a stand-up routine as being one man being conversationally funny off the top of his head like this. His honesty with his audience – making it clear that this is 90 minutes of prepared material – is refreshing. And the flipside is that when he also makes it clear that the audience is watching improvisation towards the end of the show it makes it genuinely enthralling.

(3) The Right love to hate comedians like Frankie Boyle and Russell Brand because they don’t like what’s being said but they at least understand how the jokes work. They just hate Stewart Lee because they don’t understand him and that makes them feel stupid.

(4) Which are heavily annotated with footnotes…

(5) And therefore such audiences may want to raise their game a bit.

(6) In a genial cackle very much at odds with his normally deadpan delivery.

(7) Similarly, he humorously suggests that the reason he thought the first half wasn’t going as well was because the sound levels were wrong and he’s going slightly deaf. Lee’s deafness, incidentally, gets a massive laugh – such are Nottingham audiences. We enjoy your physical failings.

(8) My friend bought a copy of ‘How I Escaped My Certain Fate’ (his heavily annotated book – heavily annotated… see what I’m doing here…) he was very nice and talked about Birmingham with him, and didn’t merely snatch his money and cackle (not even genially).

(9) The fact that this is not particularly funny on paper – because I’ve omitted many of the repetitions made to get to this final image – is testament to how the repetition is absolutely crucial to Lee’s jokes working.

(10) Albeit through the proxy of an imaginary man down an imaginary telephone.

(11) Although he is being slightly sarcastic when he imagines that parts of the audience aren’t laughing because they aren’t engaging with the images he’s coming up with but are just waiting for the end of his sentences to see if he’s being funny, he’s probably right.

(12) The kind of thing The Fall do at gigs as well. This, as well as the focus on repetition as a creative device shows Mark E Smith’s influence on Lee. Incidentally, the same friend who got his book signed (the one with all those annotations, yeah?) came up with the nickname Salfordor Dali for Mark E Smith, which is genius regardless of what you may think.

(13) See? Totally a TV review. Totally.

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