The clever man came to town, a sack full of satirical allegory slung across his stooped shoulders. And once his sermon had been delivered, he ensured that the assembled delegates were spat out into the night at exactly the same moment as something called “Premier League Darts” finished in the adjacent venue…
There’s not a great deal of crossover between fans of Stewart Lee and the darts. A shortage of mutual respect. The darts fans were high and mean on overpriced lager and close-up arrows action; skirmishes were reported, and the odd, running battle. Three aficionados of “edgy,” contextualised comedy were found on a roundabout, cowering beneath an impromptu yurt fashioned from copies of The Guardian, and at least seven other liberal/left-wing stereotypes wearing sandals and sallow, vegan complexions were allegedly so traumatised by events that the mung-bean salad they’d had for dinner started to repeat on themselves.
Once the violence had subsided, riot police hauling stragglers from both sides into meat wagons, I caught up with the self-styled leader of this loose, darts militia. A short, podgy middle-aged comedian by the name of Stewart Lee, he was attired in an ill-fitting suit, outsized photograph of Andy “The Viking” Fordham standing proud upon the summit of his plastic helmet. Quite by accident he’d found himself onstage in the wrong venue, and instead of barking out the usual risqué puns at the braying mob between sets, was left to entertain an auditorium full of late night BBC2 comedy advocates politely expecting visceral/cerebral flights of fancy.
I’d wanted to ask him if he’d found an audience much different to his usual a challenge, and if the petty violence he’d subsequently encouraged was an intrinsic reaction against intellectual mirth-making. But he kept repeating the phrase “Got to respect the oche” with an edge of mania to his expression, and with the conversation stalling, I thought it best to blend into the night before he started to wave the giant inflatable dart he’d been clutching too close to my face.
“Can’t beat a bit of bully,” he shouted after me as I walked away. You can’t, Stew. You can’t.
Stewart Lee is a noted deconstructionist who – as he kindly reminds the audience every ten minutes – has been peddling his shtick for a quarter of a century. He guts and fillets his material, then turns the whole thing inside-out, exposing the conventions of stand-up comedy with a smug, satisfied grin smeared across his chops.
Having hauled latest show A Room With A Stew around the provinces these last few months like a sales manager on the verge of nervous collapse, tonight he’s in Glasgow. The Clyde Auditorium, where the décor and the ambiance are homage to an East German airport circa 1983. Not the most prepossessing of venue, but Lee nonetheless arrives onstage and proceeds to gut and fillet in a manner that says yes, he has been doing this for twenty-five years. Twenty-five years of service station food and not enough sunlight, the ghost of long-dead former writing partner Richard Herring* stalking each night’s Premier Inn nightmare with renewed hunger. No wonder Lee looks so old and so ill and so small as he hangs off the microphone stand; all this plays havoc with the soul.
Stewart Lee arrives onstage and informs the audience that he’s been a stand-up comedian for twenty-five years. He informs us that he’s a middle-class, middle-aged liberal, then slips into a series of monologues in which the duration of his career and his socio-political outlook feature heavily – alongside seemingly tangential spins and loops designed to expose the mechanics of erudite, narrative-driven “humour”.
These facets suggest two distinct problems with the Stewart Lee oeuvre. Firstly, as a middle-class liberal, the fuel for his ire – UKIP, political incorrectness, Mock The Week, the Daily Mail – carry an obvious and predisposed slant, as if pillaring elements of modernity that naturally grate with middle-class liberals should take precedence over clever methods through which such scorn is displayed. And secondly, Lee is reliant upon narrative flow that u-turns and crashes. Stalls and takes off. Sub-divides to function on different levels, then coalesces with a judder – only he’s been at this game for such the long time (if only we knew how long) that this very unpredictability has become hallmark. The wordplay may hit as unexpected, and the shifts in temperament and tempo fall like detonation, but too often all these currents and tides can feel subservient to the contours and structure each monologue is given. You know the destination, even if you’re unsure of the route.
A Room With A Stew takes the form of three distinct pieces (buttressed by an encore) that we’re pre-warned are being worked through prior to their eventual appearance in his next Comedy Vehicle series. Thirty minutes on Islamophobia, thirty on English Nationalism, sandwiching a half hour meditation upon urine (that’s urine as theme, rather than Lee standing in a puddle produced by his own frazzled bladder – that came later, after the darts).
Readers of a certain vintage will recall golf casual Ronnie Corbett perched on his recliner, trailing meandering anecdotes (that eventually hit the pay-off) on The Two Ronnies; Lee’s thirty minute vignettes share a certain constructional similarity with this approach; that vague sensation that the words being spoken aren’t quite as important as the cultivation of mood (albeit Lee deploys rather more profanity, absurdism and haranguing of the audience than Corbett went in for).
On the other hand, attempting to draw such a comparison is like understanding comic truth through the prism of a game of darts. For what A Room With A Stew repeatedly demonstrates is that Lee’s comedy is not so much about making people laugh; in many respects, his gigs have more in common with freeform jazz, or one of those weird parapsychology experiments conducted in the basements of prestigious universities. The figure on the stage, he says funny things, makes funny noises, but that’s the show as viewed on one specific wavelength; the rest of his act works on an entire range of frequencies, and you need to have your wits about you to pick up all the subtext, sabotage and subversion he duly sews.
It’s the manner through which he cajoles the audience so that expectations are corralled exactly where the narrative dictates. It’s the cat-like toying with comedic structures, signalling that a theme is travelling in one direction, then whacking in a handbrake turn (or even stepping on the accelerator pedal as the brick wall approaches). And it’s how he folds the narrative in on itself; a deliberately undercooked rumination upon being pissed on suddenly becomes a savage, semi-improvised indictment of the comic soul, the audience labelled cunts, then blamed for murdering Robin Williams. Right wing nationalism is prodded and probed in scatological, self-depreciating detail, only to morph into an increasingly surreal blitz of radio white noise, serving to propel the allegory even further. And he presents each element of this triptych not as continuum or complete statement but as individual etudes, slipping out of character to explain origin, motivation, cause and effect.
It’s from this technical perspective that Lee’s stage presence is to be fully appreciated. It’s something that transcends mere comic timing; his is a persona that never looks entirely in charge of proceedings but always is, even when travelling off-piste. The phraseology, and implications of using each specific word. The skill here is being able to make the comedian/audience axis turn on a sixpence, at will, whenever he so chooses, without the paying punters realising that they’re having their chains jerked until it’s too late – in this regard, Lee has as much in common with some of the great mentalists and magicians of the late nineteenth century as he does with generic, observational humour (the exponents of which take a savage verbal beating in the encore).
This isn’t the perfect show. Not every set piece works quite as well as intended. The targets he aims for have that slight, lazy edge to them, and obviously it’s nowhere near as cultured as the darts. But what A Room With A Stew does do is to underline the distance that mere stand-up can stretch to when in the grip of a professional. It’s comedy taken apart and reassembled in all sorts of stark, new combinations, and for that you can understand why so many commentators insist that he’s the sharpest in the business.
Well, almost as sharp as the late Richard Herring*.
*Stewart Lee is on tour, every night, pretty much for eternity. Richard Herring is not dead.