You probably won’t like Stewart Lee, which will mean he’s doing his job. That job, being a professional stand up comedian, which he celebrates when viewing it through a lens of improvisational jazz and performance art.
Yet he’ll be simultaneously mocking and tearing it down as a stupid line of work, compared to prostitution that kills the very soul of himself. I almost feel like I love his work so much he’d hate me the most, far more than the people who actually, actively hate him.
If you’re like me and “stateside”, in “the colonies” and “across the pond” the chances are very good that you’ve never heard of Stewart Lee. I’m friends with many people in the stand up community and when his name is mentioned it often seems remotely familiar or totally foreign. You won’t know about his coming of age during the alternative comedy boom in Britain in the 1980s (you probably aren’t even aware of the alternative comedy boom, though you’re more than likely familiar with the after effects), his popular 90s sketch show with Richard Herring (another name totally foreign despite its piscatorial associations), his retirement from performing, his stand up come back, his writing of Jerry Springer: The Opera which led to massive public backlash from Christian Right groups in the UK, or the continuing development of his stage persona and comedy legacy leading to his BBC2 television series Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle (SLCV) which just finished it’s fourth series this week.
His show is the inverse of the comedy programs in America that are centered around a comic and their world view. Over here, through shows like Chapelle’s Show or Inside Amy Schumer, the audience is treated to momentary bursts of the performer’s routine, just enough to set up a barrage of sketches that will, at least at first, tangentially connect with the just seen comedy snippet. But on SLCV the show is almost nothing but Lee’s performance. The live act flow is interrupted briefly and occasionally by Christopher Morris (himself a UK comedy God, being the mind behind such cult shows as Brasseye and The Day Today) who acts as an agitated interrogator, attacking the very episode that it itself is a part of and tearing down the philosophies that Lee seems to espouse. Almost always ending in a short sketch that works to take one prominent idea from the preceding episode and create as genuinely disturbing yet genuinely hilarious (and sometimes genuinely moving) spectacle of Lee’s constant stream of absurdist, satirical language.
One episode from this past series was centered around the theme of Islamaphobia, which is as much of a problem in the UK as it is in America. During the 28 minute episode Lee talks about living near Quakers and invents a series of hilarious yet ridiculous interactions with the Quaker community of his London borough wherein they trash all the porridge in local shops and destroy all the chocolate. This small segment of a much bigger theme and discussion is brought to life at the end of the episode through the incredible sketch performance from SLCV regulars Kevin Eldon and Paul Puttner creating a horror movie parody that is bizarrely funny while being creepy beyond belief.
Another episode, one dealing with death and the childhood conception of death ends with a reenactment of the prior routine wherein young Lee as a boy checks to see if his mouse came back to life after his mother had tried to revive it with brandy and a blow dryer. At first we see the mouse looking like Dave Hill from the UK 70s glam outfit Slade, playing their ubiquitous Christmas novelty hit, “Merry Xmas Everybody” while dozens of real mice scurry about a tiny mouse sized version of the Top Of The Pops studio. A delighted and enchanted Lee watches on at the magical Christmas miracle until the light fades away and the boy is left gazing at the corpse of his pet mouse, staring back at him from a sock, no festive music, no tiny mouse party.
It’s hard to write about what Stewart Lee does, to explain his performance to the uninitiated, because so much of his live act needs to be seen to be understood. It possibly explains why there aren’t (to my knowledge) comedy albums of his sets. He’s released live DVDs but no comedy LPs and that’s probably because you need to watch him as well as listen to him. He may joke about how horribly he’s aged (or mention how people have compared him to a “squashed Albert Finney” or a “crumpled Morrissey”) but that doesn’t seem to have taken away from his physical comedic prowess when he’ll explode in seeming rage at the audience for either their inability to follow along or their laughing at the wrong part.
The episode titles for this just finished series are; Wealth, Islamaphobia, Patriotism, Death, Migrants and Childhood. They sound like they could be a list of talking points from a dreadful topical news debate show, but here they act as springboard’s into Lee’s seemingly bottomless well of self-hatred, self parody, caustic satirical take downs of prominent figures and constant self-aware stand up comedy deconstruction.
Lee often compares himself to Miles Davis and his work to free form jazz and he’s not off the mark. There are two stages of Stewart Lee fandom I’ve discovered; the first where you’re blown away by the imagination and daring-do of his on stage persona and the second where you’ve discovered the actual brilliance at what he actually does through his constant dedication to exploring the craft of comedy publicly and with the dedication of a scholar. It’s true Lee did go to Oxford, but as Morris says during one particular interview segment, “You sound like someone who went to Oxford but didn’t pay attention.”
There’s a formula you can pick up when you immerse yourself in his work. Even if you just know of him through the television series, even if you just start your Stewart Lee education with the most recent one, you can begin to pick up on the formula of his craft. It’s the difference between someone like me enjoys music (that is someone with no real musical knowledge or education) where I hear something I like and think, “That’s good I like the way that sounds.” and that’s about the end of the thought. Whereas someone who KNOWS music and UNDERSTANDS the mechanics of it can get frustrated with an uninspired remark like that, insisting that the true brilliance is in the chord arrangements or the bass…level…settings. It’s like I said, I don’t know anything about music.
Lee follows a pattern that goes something like “Disconnected opening > Funny transition regarding the nature of transitions > Attempt at topic > Become distracted by the audience > Go off topic obsessively > Genuine improvisation > Brutal repetition > Deconstruction of stand up comedy > Attempt to bring it home.”
This is formula and formula is different from content because formula allows the constant creating of unique and different experiences but from within established, proven confines that allow for creative comedic experiments. Some comics, Louis CK for example, seemingly have an opposite approach, where it’s the content, rather than the formula that is repeated over and over and over again in special after special.
If you haven’t seen a Louis CK comedy special, let me give you the complete experience, “I’m physically detestable > I’m obsessed with sex > Men and women are different > I’m famous and rich but I’m still sad and a loser > My partner either hates me or has divorced me > I have kids > I was a child once > I’m mad at young people > Maybe something genuinely inspired if there’s time.” I just saved you 6 hours on Youtube, you’re welcome.
It’s always nice to have someone to compare to when trying to introduce a foreign subject and make it relatable and I’m sure that people have compared Lee to Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks, probably focusing on his more challenging, counter culture, anti-authoritarian views and routines. Yet that avoids what really makes Lee so in step with those holy, stand up legends because the answer is (like Lee’s comedy) more nuanced than that.
You can see Lenny Bruce’s jazz inspired comedy performance in Lee, creating subtle hypnotizing rhythms and being unafraid to treat ridiculous words and over the top sartorial scenarios as high art. You can see Lee work in the manner of Hicks by maintaining an attitude of smug superiority over the audience while simultaneously insisting that they themselves are a willing martyr for the same group of people they’ve just admonished. Another Hicksian device Lee makes his own (and really has practically built his career around) is the format of taking a joke and beginning to repeat it over and over and over again while the audience moves from finding it funny, to finding it annoying to finding it hilarious to finding it obnoxious to finding it hilarious again. In fact Lee has worked this angle so hard and for so long, I almost hesitate to give Hicks credit for it since Lee has done so much more with it. Though that may be a tad unfair to Bill since he’s been dead for over 20 years.
Lee is aware of his avant garde, comedy experience and there’s much discussion given to it throughout the course of the series, both on stage and in the quiet moments with Morris. “What kind of stand up do people like?” asks Lee at one point, “It’s not this.” “This isn’t entertaining, no one would think that” he says at another while discussing the show’s loss at a British award show.
When you watch a Stewart Lee program you get all of this, comedy wisdom from a grandmaster, a constant war with the audience, a constant war with himself (that is so meta it would make Charlie Kauffman disappear into a portal in the back of his own head), and a constant war with the world in roughly 28 minutes making it a viewing experience totally unlike anything else you’ve seen. Not only can I not compare it to anything being done in American stand up, I can’t think to compare it to anything being done by anyone, anywhere.
What keeps Lee from becoming a grating, obnoxious, lampoon of himself is that his war against the world, far from being an attempt to come off as a hip, counter culture guru (Russell Brand), is done through a more focused war against himself. He’ll take on the world but only if he can first take himself apart to do it. It’s almost like comedy inception trying to follow, that he not only writes the entire performance (and really when you watch it, it takes a lot of scrutiny to be able to pick up on the bits that are genuinely improv and the bits that are just written to sound like it. It’s like a stand up version of Exit Through The Gift Shop where you’re never entirely certain if what you’re watching was actually real or not) but he also then writes a complete and total attack on the entire performance and uses Morris to dismantle his own opinions and bleak world view. He’s his own worst enemy and greatest supporter, which makes him hate himself more, which makes him take his own side more seriously and with greater compassion, only to enrage his stage persona more and on and on and on.
Over the course of the series Lee decries how he’ll be forced into performing well into his 70s to pay for his children and his house. His skills have become so sharp over the last 25 years of performing it’s like trying to wrap your mind around the inner dimensions of a black hole trying to imagine what his performance will look like given another 25. It may be a depressing nightmare for Lee, but it’s a blessing for fans of comedy not only challenging and intelligent, but also hilarious and surprising.
If you’re in the UK you can see episodes on the BBC iPlayer. If you’re elsewhere in the world you’ll need a VPN and a bit of luck and fortitude. I believe at least one of his specials is available on YouYube and you owe it to yourself to give him a chance to bring you into his world.