THAT Stewart Lee Review In Full...
Sometimes, it’s the most unlikely pieces of writing that provoke the most unexpected reactions. This was never intended anything more than a casual thumbs-up for the first episode of a series I really enjoyed, written in about an hour at the invitation of Off The Telly’s editor, and destined to become Just Another Review that nobody really noticed. Or so I thought. Within a day, it had been quoted in The Guardian. That was the good part. Shortly afterwards came a volley of protest from every imaginable direction, courtesy of comedy fans who had some sort of issue with the show, and with my saying I enjoyed it, that I could never quite figure out, many of them demanding a retraction or apology of some sort (apart from the prat who just said "No" as if it was in some way clever). And it just kept on and on and on and on and on, to the extent that I briefly considered giving up writing altogether out of sheer exasperation. I can’t pretend this is one of my better, cleverer, wittier or more perceptive reviews, but nonetheless it finds its way here out of pure defiance.
Not long ago, Stewart Lee was trading on the fact he hadn’t been on TV in a long time. Though his double act with Richard Herring had a huge following both on television and radio, they disappeared from the nation’s screens at the end of the decade, for reasons that have never been clear – even to the duo themselves – but seemed to involve little more than the personal dislike of a single executive and subsequent reluctance of anyone else to take a chance on them. Indeed, Lee’s most recent live show hinged around the bitterly amusing story of how the cancellation of a planned BBC2 series left him short of work, out of pocket and performing material he wasn’t interested in to an audience who weren’t interested in him while dressed as a giant insect.
Ironically, the success of that same show led to renewed interest from BBC2, resulting in a series that has actually made it to air. Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, rather like the BBC’s seventies mainstay Dave Allen at Large, takes the form of lengthy and laconic ruminations on various subjects in front of a live comedy club audience, with short sketches (featuring longtime associates Paul Putner, Kevin Eldon, Michael Redmond and Simon Munnery) acting as surreal and frivolous punchlines. From the opening sequence of Lee driving his ridiculous ‘Comedy Vehicle’ around in a pastiche of the titles of The Pink Panther Show set to shrill, jaunty music (South African kwela song Tom Hark, most famously a hit for ska band The Piranhas), it’s hard to shake the suspicion this show is a deliberate counterpoint to what has become the norm during his absence from the small screen. Television comedy has changed a good deal in the meantime, with taboo-breaking and an increasing reliance on cutting edge technology and interactivity – something Lee and Herring themselves did much to pioneer – seemingly considered as important as actual jokes.
This show is a step in the absolute opposite direction, albeit one robustly supported by a writer and performer with over two decades of experience and enough time spent away from television to tell what works and what doesn’t. It’s all the better for it. This first edition tackles the subject of ‘toilet books’, with Lee examining several popular tomes he clearly would not have personally chosen to read, among them the works of Dan Brown and Chris Moyles. All of these are subjected to merciless scrutiny, albeit in a manner that seems more tongue-in-cheek than vindictive. Indeed, there is a fair smattering of inspired silliness throughout – notably a superb visual gag about former Grange Hill star Asher D conducting a drive-by sausage-on-forking – and it could be argued some of the more incisive gags (such as Moyles’ choice of the title The Difficult Second Book) had basically already written themselves.
Some will undoubtedly berate the show for an apparent tendency towards ‘predictable’ targets such as The Da Vinci Code, as recent reviews of his live shows have done with regard to sections on Stuart Maconie and Del Boy Falling Through The Bar. The important detail is Lee has plenty to say on these subjects – much of it both new and extremely funny – and any such criticism is doubtless founded more on a personal jadedness with the subject matter than with any problem with the actual material. Indeed, it’s quite refreshing to see such familiar subjects tackled with gags that batter their literary construction, factual veracity and underlying political leanings, rather than just scoffing at the number of people reading popular books in public places.
Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle is a much-needed breath of fresh air, presenting material that is both intellectually and ideologically challenging in an upbeat, laid back and easily accessible format. Lee himself has suggested the show was conceived as a ‘liberal’ mirror to Grumpy Old Men, using the same sort of observational approach to frame less reactionary material, and with a bit of luck it may prove just as popular as the rantings of Clarkson, Wakeman and company. And who knows, maybe it’ll open the door for a couple of other sidelined ‘Nineties Comedians’ who really ought to have been back on the small screen a long time ago…