The Underappreciated Genius of Stewart Lee

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In a recent episode of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle—the popular British comedian’s standup showcase that recently concluded its 4th season on The BBC—Stewart Lee takes a moment to address the camera directly after telling a rare, conventional joke.

“See, I can do jokes,” he says, speaking to the critics he imagines are watching at home. “They say I can’t do jokes. I can do jokes, it’s just not something that interests me. Imagine writing jokes for a living…” He continues in a mocking, almost childish tone: “’Ahhh, this sentence has ended differently to how it began.’ Imagine doing that over and over. I mean, it would be awful, wouldn’t it? It would be like working in a factory. I’d kill myself if I had to write jokes.”

If you’re unfamiliar with Stewart Lee’s brand of humour, this short excerpt is a decent, albeit only partially representative introduction to his style of comedy. In addition to highlighting how entirely unconcerned he is with eliciting laughs using the traditional set-up/punchline formula, it also draws attention to an ongoing theme in Lee’s standup where he endlessly dissects his own act. It’s not uncommon for Lee to spend a good portion of each set foregoing jokes, commenting on the audience’s reaction in real time, and scrutinizing his own on-stage persona.  Put another way, Stewart Lee isn’t the type of comedian you’d put on for a group of acquaintances if you were concerned with making everyone in the room laugh.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t large chunks of Stewart Lee’s standup that are broadly appealing. You don’t spend over 25 years working as a touring comedian without some material that is fit for mass consumption. Yet, even within these moments of broad accessibility, Lee finds a way to subvert expectations. The following clip is a good illustration of these outsider tendencies:

The first thing you’ll notice is that there is a very deliberate pacing to the way Stewart Lee speaks. If you’re someone who has a hard time watching Todd Barry because you feel like his comedy is too “low energy,” then Stewart Lee’s comedy is not for you.  Once you’ve adjusted to the pacing, however, you’ll notice that the premise of this bit is not altogether dissimilar to something you might see a more mainstream comic talk about.  The central idea of the bit—that there was a life-sized, inflatable model of E.T at the gates of Princess Diana’s home shortly after her death—is exactly the type of absurdist fodder that usually lends itself to comedy. It’s the delivery of the bit that sets it apart. Telegraphing the punchline from the outset, Lee takes the audience on a five minute detour, pondering exactly which bereaved citizen had thought it an appropriate memorial gesture to leave this piece of memorabilia at the late Princess’s house. By the time the tangent is over, Lee has sufficiently lulled the audience into a distracted state where they almost forget that the punchline is coming, making it all the more gratifying when it finally arrives, and substantially funnier.  

It’s worth noting that this is a relatively old clip that is not altogether reflective of the way Stewart Lee does standup today. Since this special came out in 2004, Lee has ventured further left-field and wholly embraced the more fringe elements of his performances. Asked about his comedic style, Lee often compares himself to an avant-garde jazz musician. If you think this comparison is cringeworthy, you may be comforted to know that Lee acknowledges how utterly insufferable it sounds. Pretentiousness aside, it is nevertheless an apt parallel. The best avant-garde jazz musicians are those who are able to challenge consumers with palette-broadening experiments, while still retaining enough melodic accessibility to avoid alienating audiences. It’s a tough balance to strike, but it’s something Lee attempts to do on a nightly basis.

Selecting an individual clip to showcase these more experimental performance elements is difficult—mostly because the sum is often greater than the parts—but this clip from 2014 offers a decent distillation.

In the span of this short, seven minute clip, Lee manages to do the following: reveal to the audience that everything he’s saying is fictional, pull back the curtain on the comedy writing process,  break character to offer meta-commentary, and make a broader point about the conventional use of stereotypes  in comedy. I gain almost as much insight from watching a run-of-the-mill Stewart Lee bit as I do from watching most TED talks, which is a notable comparison only because TED speakers aren’t also burdened with the expectation of manufacturing a laugh every 30 seconds.

Chief among the criticisms of Stewart Lee are that he is pedantic, smug, and remarkably unconcerned with whether audiences understand his references. Even as a huge fan who has watched his comedy obsessively, I can’t argue that any of these things are untrue. In another recent episode of his Comedy Vehicle series, for example, there is a two minute span where Lee neglects speech altogether, simply opting to make the same irritating sound effect again and again. It’s not easy to watch. I’ve seen enough of Lee’s comedy to understand that he was likely trying to make some sort of broader point, but if he was successful in accomplishing this, it must have gone over my head. For those who are trying to support their predetermined criticisms of Lee, there is no shortage of moments like this to draw from. Unfortunately, this seems to be somewhat of an occupational hazard of attempting to create meaningful art. No one goes to the Museum of Modern Art and expects to have a resonant experience with every painting, nor do they listen to a Radiohead song and expect to be humming the melody for the rest of the week. Only in comedy is there an expectation that the audience should receive immediate gratification en masse. It is exactly this type of outdated notion that Lee attempts to dispel, meaning that the critics who disparage him for doing so are often missing the point.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that, in addition to all of this, Stewart Lee is incredibly funny. It’d be difficult to imagine any of this working if he wasn’t. His consistent ability to win the audience back after his atypical experiments is the glue that holds everything together. If you’re a casual viewer of standup, this is probably all you care about, and that’s perfectly valid. If you’re a bit more of a rabid consumer like myself, however, you may have begun to grow a bit weary of the plethora of watered-down, late-night sets and the endless number of specials/albums that tend to become basically indistinguishable after a while.  In either case, give Stewart Lee’s comedy a shot. It will make you laugh, think, and quite possibly reinvigorate your interest in the form entirely.

Hershal Pandya is a writer based in Toronto whose writing has appeared on popular websites like Pigeons & Planes and Pacific Standard.

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