Sunday, 6 March 2016

Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle

In life we all have different guises. There are times at work where we have to dress up our serious side and play the professional. Then at home we can kick off this costume and return to our default role of leading goofball. I mean, this blog I write is another form of characterisation: it is and isn’t me. Despite being far from articulate on this, I’m far more articulate here than I am in real life. In my day-to-day existence I couldn’t hold an audience for five minutes; I don’t have the verbosity to hold someone’s attention. But on here, I have time to pause, to think, to hone and check before pushing send. I don’t see your faces when you read this. Therefore, I’m unconcerned by what you think of me; consequently, I write more personally and honestly about art, religion and politics. In real life I wouldn’t challenge someone on what they watch, practice or think because I’d be worried about hurting someone’s feelings. Herein, lies the pleasure of the arts: it allows you to present your opinions without seeing the reactions of others.

Stewart Lee is a comedian and character. In real-life he is avuncular, a paroxysmal laugher, satisfied with the success he's attained. On stage he is something else: embittered and strained, dissatisfied with the level he's reached. Lee is going through something of a renaissance with this the fourth series of his Comedy Vehicle. No comedian, other than Russell Howard, has had a show devoted to their stand-up for such a sustained period of time (even then Howard’s is more of a magazine show with content deliberately unitised for YouTube viewing). Lee, on the other hand, is a comic that doesn’t ‘chunk’ routines for easy edification- his work will not go viral. Rather, he plots his work with the precision of a playwright: lines that appear inconsequential at the beginning will resonate by the end. Creator of TV masterpiece The Wire, David Simon was once asked his philosophy on screenwriting; his response, ‘Fuck the casual viewer.’ Lee is the same: he is not interested in people who have one eye on Mock The Week whilst they play Candy Crush on their phone, instead he wants people that will invest time in him and be rewarded for their patience. He is the closest thing comedy comes to theatre.

Lee, when he hadn't let himself go.

Lee nearly lost patience with stand-up altogether. Following his successful 90's partnership with Richard Herring, he found himself in a rut. His stand-up was regarded without being celebrated. The routines he wrote were well crafted with a Dali eye for the surreal, but they were no masterpieces. By Lee’s own admission, his character didn’t make sense when he was young. People thought he was too precocious, too studenty to be taken seriously. Considering a move away from comedy, he collaborated with Richard Thomas on Jerry Springer: the Opera, a smash hit that was enjoyed by Joe Public and Seb Critic. Unfortunately, a payday was to elude Lee with the Christian-right picketing the show, crying blasphemy. The ensuing lawsuit ate into Lee's profits, leaving him disconsolate. Unwilling to be silenced, Lee took his rage to the stage, turning in a bravura performance in his show 90’s Comedian. Lee begins the show by drawing a circle in chalk around him, a move conceived by Medieval clowns to protect themselves from heresy. Lee proceeds to use his freedom to rail against the restrictive thinking of the Church. The fact that this is done with a closing 40 minute routine that sails so close to blasphemy that the audiences goodwill could capsize at anytime makes it a career turning-point, proving that people could be receptive to long-form jokes.

Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee

Lee is now one of the most venerated comedians on the circuit. In a Channel 4 poll he ranked 41 in the World’s Best Stand-Up Comedians – just one place behind Bernard Manning. If only he was more racist. He regularly sells out his tour show, writes a weekly column for The Guardian and is the (self) appointed spokesperson for alternative comedy. Comedians such as John Robins argue that this position is undeserved: Lee’s Second Coming has made him rich, which makes his stand against commercial comedy ring hollow. This is true to an extent: I remember seeing Lee play the Channel 4 sponsored Udderbelly venue in Edinburgh 2007, yet today he attacks comedians that play the big venues. On the other hand, he has used his name to promote other comedians through his curated show, The Alternative Comedy Experience, in which left-field acts have gained screen time on Comedy Central. Despite his growing reputation, Lee’s persona comes from the resentment of his wilderness years. The fact he is now critically acclaimed doesn’t make it any better. Instead of objecting to no one liking him, he now objects to the people who don’t get him. Why when he’s got a loyal following are some people not on board? Why when he’s getting 5 star reviews do people write in to the BBC to tell him his show isn’t funny? Why when he’s clearly a genius do people think he’s incompetent?

Lee’s genius lies in using these slights to make his arrogance more palatable. His recent show begins with a joke that falls flat. He turns to the camera and makes a play out of it, remarking, ‘Where do they get this crowd from? Normally, my audience would go ‘Ha, Ha! Imagine liking Mock The Week.’ Lee has orchestrated his own downfall to make his ensuing pomposity seem less cruel and more ridiculous. In reminding the audience he is against the ropes, they root for him when he hits back. (I don’t know James Corden personally, but he’s always going on in interviews about how brilliant I am. And the feeling is not reciprocated. Britain’s loss is America’s loss also). Lee has cultivated too strong a following to ever be up against it: he is Ali, feigning rope-a-dope to floor his opponents. 

First rule of alternative comedy: look like you're failing.

For the comedians on the end of Lee's ire, he is a traitor: comedy is a hard enough fight without its participants turning on one another. For me and many of Lee’s fans, it is refreshing: many of his millionaire targets have made their money through selling cheap observations, therefore it’s gratifying to see them pay the price for this. Opponents would argue that Lee’s televisual status makes these attacks nasty and pernicious - Lee Mack being one- but Lee is no household name: if you showed the casual viewer a picture of him, they would say, ‘Terry Christian has let himself go. Leonardo DiCaprio has let himself go. Todd Carty has let himself go. Morrissey has let himself go. KD Lang has let herself go.’ They wouldn’t know who he is. He remains an obscure figure. As long as that stays the same, he is well within his right to stand outside the tent and piss in.

KD Lang has let herself go.

Even though I love Stewart Lee, I cannot guarantee you will like him. I think this fact alone indicates why he is an artist and not an entertainer. Artists write for themselves; entertainers for an audience. Stewart Lee is not an entertainer. His Comedy Vehicle is not entertainment. But only a fool would deny that it isn’t comedy.

Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle is on BBC Two, Thursday at 10pm.

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