Curse my last minute ticket purchase! – Resulting in ‘worst seat in the house’ at Brighton Dome Theatre; Row Z, half behind a pillar. Even with glasses, I can’t quite get the nuances in Stew’s facial expressions. It probably won’t matter. I’ve had a crush on him since the Fist of Fun days and should be able to predict exactly where the eyebrow raises, denoting the commencement of each carefully monitored pregnant pause, will lie within his material. After all this time, his stand-up may be formulaic and predictable in flow, but Stew is the original creator of a winning recipe and surely, inimitable in the flare and precision with which he delivers it, every time…
…not that I can imagine any chump brave enough to try and rip a whole act structure from the deconstruction-master himself. We all know Stew’s response to unworthy appropriators. Those fools are treated with the same contempt as his critics; publicly stripped bare and dissected with their own sharp words. Tonight, Stew is every bit as harsh on himself and his audience as he is on, say, Rod Liddell, who meets a sticky fate – metaphorically tarred and feathered with gravy and Angel Delight.
Luckily, the pillar complete with fire hydrant, the elongated Egon Schielesque head of the man in front and his wife’s giant cloud of hair don’t impair my view of an ancient gent who takes it upon himself to shout abuse at Stew from the dress circle: ‘I’m dying of cancer and you’re not funny’.
After pointing out the “carelessness” of buying a ticket to see a comedian without first checking YouTube for some idea of what to expect, Stew blows him down with gentle philosophy: “I am as much a prisoner of my expectations of myself as you are of yours and that’s the common ground we have”. It’s a truism close to Stewart Lee’s heart.
For all his self-congratulatory spiel, Stew never fully transcends that signature air of self-loathing and misanthropy. Nothing he does will ever be good enough for him, and it’s the same for us, his over-privileged, middle-class audience. We’re ashamed of ourselves for having let the world get into this awful fucking state whilst purporting to be smart enough to see through the media’s reality sham…
And that’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? – Group therapy for the collective guilty conscience, not an evening of cheap laughs. Someone should have told the heckler; you will often wait a good half hour for a punch line, with Stew providing no more than a few sniggers to keep you going. He’ll test your endurance to the limit before you’re allowed an emotional climax. Even then, it’s often a dry orgasm; you find yourself at the end of a winding thread, having followed it for miles, thinking, ‘fuck, that was seriously clever’, not ‘oh no, I think a little bit of wee came out.’ But that is enough. It’s more than enough because what we’re really being offered is something much bigger than comedy – we’re being given a space in which we can unite in social opinion and political stance:
Stewart Lee has become a badge you wear to show the world you’re a liberal, a politically correct, Guardian reading, religion eschewing, comfortably dissatisfied fringe-culture enthusiast. Every few months, us badge-wearers congregate in auditoriums to offer ourselves up to his ridicule, because despite our right-on attitudes, our daily struggles see our privilege get the better of our feelings of social responsibility. We are the Union that takes no action and we deserve our punishment. Stew, both our leader and detractor, berates and reminds us; “Don’t laugh. Don’t clap. Let’s just get through this”.
He uses all the usual colourful tools with which to beat us; absurd visual imagery that sticks in your memory (a monkey with a Fez nailed to it’s face), shock tactics (I know you all want me to do some jokes about Islam), pre-apologising as a way to absolve himself of the responsibility of trying to cause maximum offense (is it too soon to say ‘Jim’ll Fix It t-shirt’ on a stage?) to drag us in and out of our comfort zones. It works exceptionally well using a subverted version of the Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman walk into a bar joke: a Muslim woman, a Jehovah’s Witness and a Jewish man get on a bus… it’s worth going to see Stew on this tour just for the pay-off on that one. Whatever you’re thinking now, I can guarantee you’re half a mile wide. Every phrase that sounds for a millisecond like unexpected racism is really a carefully crafted lesson in cultural relativism and the need to challenge our internal prejudices.
Stew suggests that one of his later skits (think an anthropomorphised cat plus some bargain basement England flags) is “a stupid, scatological, childish attempt to satirise the rise of the far right in contemporary politics”. I agree. It’s totally awful, puerile, relentlessly hollow and offensive – just like UKIP and their policies – the target. He labours the point and for a couple of minutes my attention is lost, as it was a few years ago when he did that sketch about vomiting into the gaping anus of Christ. You get over the initial shock of what you’re hearing and then you just want it to end…
…And after Stew’s diatribe tonight about comedians committing suicide and his fake nervous breakdown on stage, I’m starting to get the impression that he wants it all to end too. His smug, downtrodden, neurotic on-stage persona is by now at odds with the rather famous Stewart Lee who pens call-to-action newspaper articles and backs worthy causes.
Is Stewart getting sick of Stew? What if the two became one? What if the comedian and the activist melded and started shouting the odds on Newsnight? Oh, hang on, apparently someone’s already gone down that route. So, I suppose Stew will have to keep finding new angles and abstract concepts in order to challenge our illusions, which he seems to be finding a task right now – my favourite quote of the night: “It’s not possible to write anything at the moment because the world is more stupid than anything you can think of.”
Words and illustration by Rachel James