If you look at most mainstream comics, you can’t really tell their acts apart. They might have a schtick, but they’re not gimmicky, and there’s certainly an audience for comic after comic of the same style of standup. But Stewart Lee isn’t one of these. You will remember his standup because of its unique qualities, which are these:
(1) His delivery. Now, my favorite comedians tend to be the loud, shouty ones–your Rhod Gilberts or Robin Inces (or if you need an American equivalent, your Bill Burrs and Lee Camps); however Stewart Lee’s delivery is so low key, it’s funny in its own right (though admittedly not to the degree of Lee’s idol Norman Lovett who has been known to stand on stage in absolute silence and get more laughs than some comedians get in their careers of talking). Stewart Lee doesn’t need to project. When he starts talking, you’ll listen. (Not that he never goes off mic and screams because that happens, too.) According to Lee, Robbie Williams said he has a voice better suited for meditation relaxation tapes.
(2) The king of meta. The layers of reality Stewart Lee is able to operate on simultaneously is impressive. If you look at something like the New Statesman piece that appears in the book Dead Funny, there are so many things at work here, from the general narrative of this fictional story, the blurry line into his own reality, the threat this piece poses to the magazine, and of course the threat as a joke. His standup will often be self-aware as well. If someone doesn’t laugh, he’ll back up and break down the routine for the audience, explaining each way that it was funny as well as towns where this joke did and didn’t work. He also diagnoses the different senses of humor in the room by the laughter he gets, noticing that one corner laughs at the high brow topical stories while the other laughs at the cock jokes. He pegs them against each other.
90s Comedian is Go Faster Stripe’s debut comedy DVD and the final performance of this particular set that was retired soon thereafter. I assume the title refers to the fact that Stewart Lee was popular in the 90s and gave up comedy in 2001 before reappearing on the scene three years later with fresh material, some of which is inspired by his stint in the theatre doing Jerry Springer the Opera, which caused widespread accusations of blasphemy. (Fun fact, there is apparently a shop in Worcester where they’ve hung laminated newspaper clippings slagging Lee off for blasphemy, which they’ve gotten him to autograph when he comes to visit his mother.) Annoyed at the unfair accusations, Lee uses this show to see how far he can push the limitations of blasphemy.
But it doesn’t start that way. I was surprised to see that the blurbs on the back of the DVD cite this production as extremely edgy and something no network would run, even for free. We begin with the wrap-around narrative of waking up on July 7, 2005 to dozens of emails from friends around the world: “Are you all right?” Unaware of the bombing, he interprets this as the British phrase meaning, “Hi, how’s it going?” I watched this DVD a few hours after the building next door to me exploded and I was flooded with similar text messages, so this bit resonated with me.
One trick to his success is his repetition of strange word groupings like “third-length floral print hospital gown” and “cat’s feet towel,” not only capitalizing on a good turn of phrase but also flaunting his ability to memorize his set word for word. We move on to talk about the pope lollies they sell outside the Vatican and his question to his girlfriend, “If you drink holy water and do a wee, is the wee now magic?” But that’s not too edgy for TV, surely. So what’s the big deal? Well, it starts with, “I’m not saying I’m Jesus. That’s for you to think about,” and ends with the most blasphemous scenario he (or indeed anyone) could think of. In true Stewart Lee fashion, he diagnoses the tension in the room, recognizing that he’s betrayed the audience and they might need to end their comedian-audience relationship. This is where he gets weepy and enters the audience to confess his love for them. After his breakdown, we’re back to some more vomit and masturbation, which gets tied up in a forgiveness bow that says if you want to put your religious icon out there, you shouldn’t be offended when it ends up in places you didn’t expect. What we take away is, wow, that Jerry Springer thing must have upset him more than we thought.
This region-free DVD, which I highly recommend you purchase, comes with an interview in which he talks about the show and the making of the DVD but also about things like how comedy is different in German because the language is too precise to allow for misunderstandings and double meanings. If you don’t want the interview, you can download the video for just 5 pounds on Go Faster Stripe.