As I wrote in my review of Hope a couple of days ago, I saw a comedian a few days prior to that play, and have been struggling to write about it. Well, I finally feel I have written something I am reasonably happy with, after endless re-reads, what feels like hundreds of cutting this and that and basically putting way more effort into this than was probably justified. Be nice to know that it was worth my time, so please, any comments greatly received…
I think before I start, I need to be honest about this review. For me, Stewart Lee is the greatest comedian alive today, the man can do no wrong, and I would happily watch him every night for a year even if his act descended to just standing on a stage belching, I’m sure he could even do that in a way that would make anyone laugh.
Right, I think that makes it clear that this is not going to be an open and fair review of his show, so if you fancy reading something more unbiased, I suggest you look elsewhere.
Well, maybe there is a slight complaint I want to get out of the way early on so I can then fawn all over his greatness later. And that’s simply that now he seems to be having a good TV run again with his “Stewart Lee Comedy Vehicle” show, he hasn’t done a proper show for about three years, rather the last few times I have seen him have been more work-in-progress shows as he puts together the series for the BBC. Of course, this really just means rather than get a 90 minute show, you get two 30 minute ones with a little extra at the start and middle, and they don’t fit perfectly together like a full show would.
And now I have made my one little criticism, it’s time for those of you who want a balanced view of his current performance to leave for elsewhere, while those who want to hear what a genius he is can hang around and read on.
I was fascinated by an interview a while back between Stewart Lee and former partner-in-crime Richard Herring, when they discuss Stewart Lee the comedian and Stewart Lee the person, and how they are two very different people. And every time I see Stewart Lee now, I can’t help but think of that, and how it does at times appear that to not be able to separate the two can lead to such misunderstanding of him as comedian. (https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/richard-herrings-leicester/id520831548 it’s episode 8, but I would recommend anyone who likes comedy to take a look at some of the others))
For anyone who doesn’t know Stewart Lee, any performance of his takes a very similar format. He might start with a very distinct topic, tonight its split into two segments as he works on his BBC show for next year; firstly it’s Islamaphobe and then it’s urine; he does like to mix up his topics. He will then start with some obvious talk on the topic, but quickly go off on what appears to be completely irrelevant tangents, only to bring it all back together at the end in a way that you realise has been so well constructed you wonder why everyone else isn’t copying his style. Oh and usually at some point or other during all this, he will get very upset, berate half the audience for not getting him, not deserving to be in his audience, wasting his time and that of the few there who are worthy of his time. It’s an act, but for those who have never seen it, it can seem all too real. So real, you get things like this…
Lee delivers a complex comedy performance, there is a need to pay careful attention, nothing is said without a reason, even the smallest throwaway comment is likely to in fact lead up to something later on. At times he will even signposts this, “remember that line, you will need it later” he tells the audience tonight, pointing out that we are too slow to be able to realise it ourselves. It’s this style that gets him a reputation of being arrogant, treating the audience with contempt, when in fact it is this that makes us come time and time again. This is comedy that gets better with repetition, each new viewing offering something new.
And it is the repetition that probably led to this follow up review from the same critic as above…
While Lee could so easily just stand and tell his style of jokes all night, it is when he seems to lose the plot that he really comes into his own. Seeing him stop after a punch line, looking distressed at how poorly a joke has been received, going into a rant of why we should be laughing more, why that joke should have brought the house down. Even when you know it’s coming, it is still one of the most amazing sights of comedy, Lee in full flow.
Tonight was no exception, sounding so genuine in his misery about it being the worse audience of the run (about a dozen sold out nights in the same venue had proceeded tonight) that at times you do start to question if he really means it. He does give the game away at one point when he actually laughs at something he said in his rant, for a brief moment smiling at himself as he tries to look angry again, then berating himself for it, saying he hates comedians who laugh at themselves, that it shows a lack of commitment to what is being said.
The highlight of tonight is when he starts to talk about why so many comedians kill themselves, “it’s audiences like you, basically you are all murderers.” You almost feel guilty in laughing, except you just can’t stop yourself as he gets more extreme in his ranting, and then proceeds to deliver one of the greatest and offensive lines of the night that first brings a shocked gasp from most of the audience, quickly followed by even more laughter. At times he doesn’t even need to talk to berate the audience, having set the scene with ghosts of comedians past around him, some of them calling him to join them, that the glances he makes from one side to the other is more powerful than any words.
Lee is a clever comedian, again some would say arrogant. He knows how to construct a joke, and in knowing this will go about destroying those very rules; he has previously talked about the rule of three, that all good jokes should have three elements, yet he so often pushes that three in four, five, even more, just to ridicule the rules he himself works by. Again though, this is a skill, each new addition becoming more and more absurd and making it funnier each time.
For a comedian who is accused of having such contempt for his audience, he holds us in his hand all night, and when the show is over, he even finds time to sign copies of the free DVD of the last series of his BBC show which he has given out at every performance; yes a clear sign of no respect to his audience isn’t it.
But then you see, the person who gives away the DVD and stays after the performance to sign every copy is Stewart Lee the person, while the arrogant man on stage we had come to watch and witness his contempt for us all was Stewart Lee the comedian, a very different person and it pays not to mix the two up.
Finally, Lee talked of a new tour later in 2016, and anyone who likes their comedy to challenge, to make you work at getting the joke, then I would recommend you keep an eye out for this, it will be worth all the effort you are willing to put in. Just beware, if you do want to go, get your tickets early, he does have a habit of selling out quickly.