Considering that Americans were only too happy to enthusiastically embrace the all too idiosyncratic Eddie Izzard—how many English crossdressers can sell out the Hollywood Bowl or 1500 seat theaters in Texas?—it’s a shame that his fellow ultra-cerebral and famously circuitous British comic, Stewart Lee is less well-known on these shores. Frankly that seems unlikely to change anytime soon for the smartypants stand-up who casually drops dog whistle references to Karlheinz Stockhausen, Albert Ayler and John Cage in his act. I just can’t see Lee dumbing down his high IQ, gleefully elitist comedy for America. I’m not sure he could if he wanted and I very much doubt that it’s something the “officially 41st best stand-up” in Britain (“ever”) has even aspired to.
Better late than never (it aired in the UK back in March) I’m currently in the middle of series three of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, Lee’s highly rated BBC Two program. Like the series before it, the show features Lee’s (seemingly) improvisational musings, meandering anecdotes and rambling philosophical discursions with his highly original method of simultaneously deconstructing his stand-up comedy about stand up comedy whilst he is delivering it. (There’s even one camera reserved to address the home audience directly about what’s going on in the room.) Lee is aided this time around by the dark lord of comedy Chris Morris acting as his non sequitur confessor, quasi-shrink and “Number Two” in short cutaways from the performance.
If you are new to Stewart Lee’s work, series three is a great place to start and Lee’s at the height of his powers. Some feel that Lee is hit or miss (my wife is one of them, so is this guy who writes for The Telegraph) but so far series three has blown me away and each episode seen me laughing through tears. The first episode—nominally about pornography and the Internet, or at least it starts out that way was a masterpiece of sustained, highly complex, intricately woven anti-comedy that had elements of Bob Newhart (when you see it, I refer to the incredible bit where he’s on the telephone), Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and yes Eddie Izzard, but still very different, too. The man can play a multi-level chess game with words and ideas. Far from being merely “the 41st best stand-up” (“ever”) I’d suggest instead that when he’s on, Lee is vying with Doug Stanhope for the title of the current world heavyweight champion of deep comedy. The man is good. Damned good. Lee’s knife is fucking sharp. When he got to the end, the way he wrapped it all up so neatly, I wanted to give him a standing ovation in our living room. That shit required concentration! (Sadly it’s the the sole episode from the entire series not to be found on YouTube, Vimeo or Daily Motion).
Here’s something from the third episode, “Satire”: Lee on the meaning of the end of Planet of the Apes...
Episode 3, “Context” about words, racism, political correctness and Lee’s imaginary black wife. You have to stay with him and pay attention, at minimum, that’s the requirement. I like that. What working comic is “smarter” than Stewart Lee?