They say you sit in seat D4 of the Lyric Theatre in the Lowry Centre listening to a performance of My Favorite Things at a comedy show twice in your career…
The first time was a month ago, when I and eight friends (yes, I do have eight friends; admittedly one of them was my mum, but she still counts, right?) took up half the row watching the I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue stage-show. As part of the show, in which the funny men spontaneously improvised the exact same answers that they had spontaneously improvised when we saw them at the Palace Theatre last year, Jeremy Hardy and Tim Brooke-Taylor performed the old I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again sketch, The Julie Andrews Dirty Songbook. That MP3 cuts off before the best bit, a performance of My Favorite Things in which every single word is buzzed out except “tied up with” and “these are a few of my favourite things”.
The whole audience almost certainly knew the routine off by heart, but that’s hardly the point. I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue is made up entirely of catchphrases, jokes so old they would have got a comic booed off stage in the forties, and new jokes cunningly disguised as old jokes. It’s the comedy of comfort, and it gets by entirely on the charm and timing of its regular performers (and it does so extremely well – Graeme Garden, in particular, is simply the finest comic performer I’ve ever seen).
Tonight, I was sat again in seat D4 of the Lyric Theatre. This is not because I have some sort of fetish for seat D4 – if anything it’s at a very slightly awkward angle for me compared with other seats – but because D4 is the kind of seat you’re going to get if you buy tickets for a popular comedy show that will sell out, but won’t sell out straight away, and you buy them the day they go on sale, but not the very hour they go on sale, and you click “best available tickets” on the Lowry’s confusing and ungainly ticketing system.
As those who have read Stewart Lee’s two books of annotated stand-up routines will know, Lee chooses the music before his shows very carefully, in an effort to both prepare and put off his audience. Last time I saw him at the Lowry, the intro music was extended instrumental jams by Canned Heat, several minutes at a stretch of one-chord chugging boogie, presumably chosen so that it would say to audiences who’d come to see “someone off the telly” that this would be monotonous, extended, variations on one or two ideas, and that they would find it slow and boring.
This time, as I entered the room, My Favorite Things by John Coltrane was playing. Initially we had the studio version, and it was spellbinding. I know the track extremely well, of course, but I don’t have a particularly good sound system or anything, so hearing it coming through a huge theatre PA, McCoy Tyner’s piano and Elvin Jones’ drums coming from the giant speaker near me, Coltrane’s soprano sax in the other speaker seeming to come from a whole other world, feeling immersed in the music, feeling like the space I was in *was* the music, was a powerful experience, hearing Coltrane riff on, improvise around, and play with the melody, taking this simple, trite, few bars and turn it into thirteen minutes and forty-four seconds of pure creativity, wringing every possible variation from it.
While sitting there, I look around at the audience. Lee will later do his usual thing of trying to split the audience, attacking the new people who he pretends aren’t as good as the people who used to come and see him in XS Malarkey ten years ago.
(I saw him at XS Malarkey ten years ago. It was the day John Tyndall, the neo-Nazi founder of the BNP, died. I told Toby Hadoke, the compere, this during the interval, and he quickly adapted an old joke to fit the story and put it in his introduction).
There did seem to be a few people who don’t seem to be Lee’s normal audience there, but most of them were familiar faces, even if I didn’t know them. Sat two seats away from me was the comics internet’s own Illogical Volume, but younger, thinner, and less Scottish. Behind me was the comics internet’s own James Baker, but fatter and more female. There were at least three of the comics internet’s own Andrew Hickey, but with more hair and better-looking. There was also a Haroon from my local comic shop, but a month older, but I suspect that was the actual Haroon from my local comic shop, who I haven’t seen in about a month. This isn’t a Peter Kay audience.
Then the music stopped, and the next piece started. My Favorite Things by John Coltrane. Mono this time, presumably a live version. Impossible to immerse myself this time, as the sound’s all coming from one place. Coltrane taking more risks, being more daring still with the melody, as he’s presumably playing to an audience that’s familiar with his work.
Then the music stopped, and the next piece started. My Favorite Things by John Coltrane. Mono again, and this time he doesn’t bother with the piano introduction, or with stating the melody, he’s just straight in with squawking and skronking, implying bits of the melody, trusting the rhythm section to keep the structure, and trusting the listener to follow him.
Then that cuts out, mid-phrase, we get a blast of some atonal vocal music I don’t recognise, and then Stewart Lee comes on stage to a Jack Nitzsche style surf instrumental.
This year’s show, like last year’s, is Lee trying out material for his TV show. This makes for an interesting experience. Lee is a master of structuring a long-form show, and seeing the compromises he makes between doing half-hour long, delineated bits that can stand alone for the TV and creating a through-line for the show is absolutely fascinating. Tonight’s show broke into roughly four sections – Islamophobia, Urine, The UKIPs, and Panel Show Hack Comedians – which will, in some form, become four episodes of the next series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle.
The methods Lee uses to create a structure in this material actually seem to owe a lot to Harry Hill. Before the TV funnyman blurred the line between parody of hack light entertainer and actual hack light entertainer to the point where maybe he himself no longer knows the difference, Hill was one of the most astonishingly innovative standups I’ve ever seen, doing sets where he would come up with a beautiful comic idea, riff on it for a while, drop the subject, and then five minutes later make a comment as an aside that worked as a punchline for the earlier section. I’d not made the connection before, but a LOT of what Lee does on stage, the callbacks, the non-jokes and the asides, seems to stem from Hill.
(Or maybe Hill got it from Lee. The two worked together in the late 90s, but it’s not something I’ve seen in Lee’s work before the early 2000s, so I’m attributing it to Hill).
Oddly, there are more “actual jokes” in this set than in anything I’ve seen Lee do before. The set needs them. The first half, in particular, is Lee taking all his stylistic tics to the limit. Pretending to have a nervous breakdown on stage, shouting at the audience off mic, deliberately making jokes fail so he can berate the audience, making obvious jokes, stopping before the punchline, and then berating the audience for laughing at nothing, parodying observational comics, talking about how people ask “why don’t you make fun of the Muslims?”, his gran having an unusual family saying, repeating the same phrases over and over… anyone at all familiar with Lee’s work will be, well, familiar with this. But it’s departing further and further from the conventional comedy routines in which those things were originally set.
While the routines are nominally about Islamophobia and urine, in fact the whole first half is actually about the process of writing, and about ageing, and fear of mortality, a multi-layered discussion of the creative process framed with notional subjects but, like all Lee’s best work, really about something other than what it claims to be about. Lee refers in the second half to Brecht’s theatre of alienation (another of his many regular tricks is to explicitly explain, in great academic detail, exactly what he’s just done, in ways that make the show more-or-less immune from criticism.
Lee seems here to be getting closer to what he describes in How I Escaped My Certain Fate as his ambition:
Ideally, routines as told by comedians, as opposed to jokes told by blokes in the pub and cab drivers, will reach a stage where they are impossible to plagiarise. In the year 2525, the futuristic supa-comedian in his silver suit will have developed an act so distinctive and steeped in his own individual specialised world view, that his lines would be incomprehensible in the mouth of anyone else
Lee is getting closer to this all the time, but at the moment he’s had to actually up the quotient of suitable-for-the-pub one-liners, as ways to punctuate sections where he is otherwise performing I Wish I Could Fly, performing the Orville part as Roy “Chubby” Brown and the Keith Harris part as The Comedian Stewart Lee. But these one-liners are mostly marker points, in a first set that’s almost entirely devoted to analysis of itself.
The second set, consisting of a routine about UKIP and a piece which he claims is so new he has to read it from sheets of paper (I say “claims” because another recurring motif in Lee’s work is to pull out a piece of paper to add spurious authority, and while this *looks* to me like Lee genuinely trying out new material, it could be one more layer of performativity) about hack comedians on panel shows. This second set is, on the whole, slightly less successful to my mind.
This is only a relative thing – and actually the single funniest section of the entire show was a multiple-minute routine where Lee merely made noises into a microphone, imitating “the traditional Belgian music of the theremin, the elastic bands stretched over a box full of worms, and an annoyed duck being poked with a stick”, a piece which had me actually crying with laughter and unable to breathe – but I thought the UKIP material was possibly a little more obvious than the earlier material.
(Actually, in the extremely unlikely event that Mr Lee ever reads this, two suggestions about structure, micro and macro. On the micro level, I think that cat diahorrea is probably more disgusting than human excrement to most people, so the build in the UKIP section seems slightly off. On the macro level, if you place the UKIP material at the start of the set, then do the Islamophobia stuff to close the first half, then did the hack comedians bit followed by urine in the second half, that would give the show more of a coherent throughline. The political stuff has an undercurrent of anxiety about the process of writing comedy, which is made more explicit in the hack comedians stuff which in turn intensifies the themes of ageing and being made obsolete, which are stronger still in the urine section. I think doing the same material but in that order would make the whole structure stronger, but it’s a minor point).
That said, even Lee at his most obvious is both funny and has something to say, and the conceit of the UKIP section (of various things which are semi-plausibly named after UKIP members, soiling the English flag in ever more disgusting ways, with the story supposedly being told as a way to get round UKIP’s proposal to ban venues that receive government subsidies from having comedians who criticise them on) is multi-layered, clever, and funny. It’s just not *quite* up to the level of the first half.
It’ll be interesting to see how much further Lee can carry this technique. He’s *almost* skirting the edge of self-parody here – but then, I’ve thought that for a while. Every show gets more… well, more “Stewart Lee”… than the one before, and every time his audiences get larger. It’s fascinating to watch.
On the way home, the tram into Piccadilly station was packed, and the station itself even more so, swarming with drunks thanks to the killer combination of Valentine’s Day and Saturday night. Everyone from the tram seemed in a hurry, but I sauntered up the stairs and then saw that my train was going to leave in thirty seconds. I joined a pack of people all sprinting for the same train, and we jumped in just as the doors closed, and looked at each other breathless and grinning. One of the people in this little cluster turned to another and said “I assume you’ve all come from seeing the same thing we have?”
And the other replied “Yes, Peter Kay”.