“When the crowd get behind you, you’re probably facing the wrong way.”
In our modern era of comedy, mainstream and observational have become synonymous. The comics who fill stadiums are people like Michael McIntyre who make observations about everyday life phrased in a funny way. In the Independent, Stewart Lee says that McIntyre’s ubiquity means alternative comics do, for the first time since the seventies, have a clearly visible mainstream to define themselves in opposition to. As one of these alternative comics, Stewart Lee is faced with an interesting predicament: he used to play gigs in small venues to fans who understood his high brow form of art. Now that he’s been on the telly with Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, he finds himself playing large theaters, filled mostly with the general tv-watching mainstream public. How is he to cater to both audiences and should he? In a stroke of brilliance, Lee writes a routine that begins as Michael McIntyresque as possible: it’s about going into a cafe. This appeals to the mainstream crowd, but Lee sabotages the bit. Instead of meticulously orchestrating the failure, he simply allows it to go as badly as possible, relying somewhat on his audience as he tries to interact with someone in the front row. This develops into a minor breakdown whereupon Lee tears apart his prop–a large-scale replica of his Cafe Nero loyalty card. By proving that he’s incapable of doing observational comedy, he pokes fun at the genre as well as giving the mainstreamers a laugh.
“I haven’t noticed anything about your lives. They’re not of interest to me. This is a letter from a pirate. It’s not about going to the shops or anything.”
–Stewart Lee, If You Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask for One
The show is essentially broken into three pieces: Cafe Nero, Richard Hammond, and pear cider. There really aren’t any jokes for the length of the show, but that in itself is funny (and alternative, remember). The drawn-out musing on how he hates Richard Hammond is pure persona. Stewart Lee doesn’t care about Richard Hammond, or Michael McIntyre for that matter, but his onstage persona wishes Hammond had been decapitated in his car crash. Even Lee’s decision to not join Twitter is mainly attributed to the fact that, whatever the real Stewart Lee would enjoy, the persona Stewart Lee would hate Twitter, so he can’t possibly join it. Journalists often confuse Stewart Lee with his onstage persona (also named Stewart Lee), and fair enough: some comedians are more like their persona than others. This is so much a problem that Lee makes an aside comment, stepping out of character to say, “I don’t really think Richard Hammond should die. What I was doing there, as everyone here in this room now understands, just in case there’s anyone from the Mail on Sunday watching this, is I was using an exaggerated form of the rhetoric and the implied values of Top Gear to satirise the rhetoric and the implied values of Top Gear.” This is said on the night of the DVD recording, as he was alerted to the fact that someone from the Mail was in the audience, and it didn’t prevent the newspaper from criticizing him for his harsh words about Hammond anyway.
In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien says, “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” O’Brien separates emotional truth from happened truth, finding that he’s able to communicate his time in the war more accurately when fabricating stories that bring readers to the emotional truth than if he just tells what actually happened. Stewart Lee’s style of storytelling seems to follow this philosophy. Yes, it is true that Lee and Hammond attended the same school, but his story about how he saved Hammond from the bullies only for Hammond to turn the bullies on him is a complete fabrication, which he admits to during the show, but it reaches the emotional truth that Lee is trying to get at, which is that’s the sort of person Hammond is and better explains the three Top Gear hosts’ roles as television bullies.
The third section (I’d call it a bit, but it’s 25 minutes long) is the most brilliant comedy routine I’ve seen. The premise is that the phrase, “Give it to me straight like a pear cider that’s made from one hundred percent pears,” is an old expression passed down through generations of Lee’s family and represents not only his life but what it means to exist. He recalls hearing it when his dog died, when he found out he was adopted, when his grandfather talked about the war. Although it’s understood (even if you haven’t heard the phrase before) that he’s making this up, many of the childhood memories are true, like with his school days. After a good ten minutes goes by, Lee says, “So, you can probably imagine my disappointment…” Some of you are second guessing the joke and laughing here because you are familiar with the Magners Pear Cider TV commercial already and recognized the slogan immediately. Others of you wait patiently for the reveal. “…when I was watching television in about May and an advert comes on for this pear cider.” This routine works on multiple levels. To the mainstream ears, this is a typical mockery of banal marketing, highlighted by the line, “You expect me to believe that an advertising creative on hundreds of millions of pounds a year would seriously submit a phrase as cumbersome and unwieldy as that?” He goes on to point out that the voice over man at the end’s slogan, “One hundred percent pear, nought percent disappointment” fails on multiple levels: the plural of pear is pears, you can’t have more than one hundred percent of anything, and you can’t make a drink out of a feeling. Though delivered in a bizarre fashion (running up the stairs to scream from the balcony and pretending this has some significance to his life), these observations are not unlike what you might hear from observational comedians. But that’s not really what this routine is about.
If you happen to know that the actor in the commercial is alt comedian Mark Watson (host of Richard Herring’s least favorite titled TV show Improvisation My Dear Mark Watson), you realize that Stewart Lee is questioning whether doing a paid commercial is selling out and whether there is such thing as selling out in show business. On one hand, you have the Long Ryders doing a Miller beer commercial, to which Lee says, “If I’d heard a Long Ryders song in an advert as a puritanical teenager, there’s no way I’d still be playing their records today,” and then there’s comedian Chris Addison who feels like the minority in saying that doing a commercial is not selling out. Which is true? Or maybe there’s a difference between young comics like Watson and Addison doing commercials so they can afford to keep doing comedy full time and Iggy Pop doing a commercial for a car insurance that initially didn’t even cover musicians. It’s an interesting debate and worth discussing further on this blog in the future.
Stewart Lee does not hide behind the internalized understanding the audience has of how a comedy show is supposed to go. He’ll tell the audience what he’s about to do and how long it will take, and he will carry it out, as one does, in the style of a comedian who’s only just thought of it. When he begins his second nervous breakdown, the massive one, he winds up in the balcony with the audience. He semi-riffs at a woman who is trying to sneak away. “Don’t wander around at this point, madam!…’Cause if you’ve ever seen anything ever, and have any sense of the internal logic of any structured piece of art, this is obviously nearly the fucking end!…I don’t top this bit! ‘Oh, he came out, he ran around, he falsified a satirical nervous breakdown…” Big laugh, because that’s one thing you don’t say when you’re falsifying a satirical nervous breakdown, isn’t it? “This is it! I shout for a bit here, I go down there, obviously I use that guitar, then that’s it!”
So, yes, there’s a song at the end. Audiences, they hate musical comedians, don’t they? Lee recognizes that there’s more tension in the room when he picks up the guitar than when he says he wishes Richard Hammond had been decapitated. But Lee, who this year contributed to a Record Store Day album of Shirley Collins covers, pulls it off, and not without a pear-flavored gag or two at the end.