There are three comedians that I think embody the stand-up scene today: Frankie Boyle, talented but toxic; Michael McIntyre, pleasantly babbling like Boris Johnson’s bozo blood brother; and Stewart Lee who is, apparently, the current comedian’s comedian.
Stewart Lee’s stand-up divides opinion. Not fluffy or feel-good (unless you enjoy his riffs), he does upset people. Fortunately he upsets the right people.
A lot of Socialist Review readers will have heard of Lee. For those who haven’t, I strongly advise you to get on the internet, type “Stewart Lee, Top Gear” into a search engine and enjoy.
Lee started out in comedy in the mid-80s in student revues. Back then comedy was defined by the alternative scene and its generally left wing values, values which Lee often defends quite brilliantly. See, for example, his defence of the maligned concept of political correctness, which is usually assumed to have “gone mad”: “a small price to pay for the massive benefits and improvements in the quality of life for millions of people”.
Lee is sometimes compared to Bill Hicks, a man who had to die in order to become truly famous. In terms of content this is fair. However, they have very different styles of delivery. Whereas Hicks operated at various tempos, Lee’s style (or anti-style) is slow and low-profile. Inspired by the cult stand-up Ted Chippington, he deliberately goads his audience with repetition and tedium.
In the first episode of Lee’s new TV series he makes a big joke about how there are only four jokes in the show, deliberately telegraphing them too. In the second episode he unpacks the meaning of one routine (an impossibly minute observation about the stupidity of an estate agent who listed “can see otters from the kitchen window”) by skewing the estate agent into a BBC executive, puzzled by the previous skit, all this delivered in barely more than a whisper. Contrast the average comedy gig, a drunken, churning pit, to Stewart Lee shows, often punctuated by long, rapt silences. Few comedians, especially ones doing TV shows, would dare leave such long pauses.
Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle will be available to watch on BBC iPlayer, until 15 June. Stewart Lee will be appearing at The Strand, Edinburgh, until 29 June
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