Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The late show

So, Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle has driven off into the sunset once again - what to say about the second series?

Well, first of all, much was made of its new later positioning in the schedule - after 11pm on a Wednesday night. You could argue the toss as to whether this was a good thing. A classic graveyard slot, some grumbled, and certainly it's unlikely to have won him many new fans - he will have been mainly preaching to the converted (or confirming the Daily Mail's prejudices about BBC2 audiences, as he put it himself), something it might seem a bit defeatist to accept. But, on the other hand, the pressure to rack up viewing figures in the millions is far lower if not non-existent at that time of night, meaning there will presumably have been less editorial pressure to deliver bland populist entertainment (not that Lee would have done that anyway...) and greater creative freedom to experiment.

And experiment he did, in his usual way - pushing boundaries, testing patience, contemptuously questioning the conventions of comedy, spending the first show (nominally about charity) talking almost exclusively about crisps and his grandfather's dislike of anything Japanese... Certainly it wasn't to all tastes, and he will have come across as annoying, boring and smug to some. But I loved it, and more so than the first series.

A large part of the reason was simply that I'm a huge fan, But another factor was that it showed he'd stretched and sharpened the material that formed last year's Vegetable Stew show, teasing everything out to maximum effect from what at the time felt very much like a work in progress. It was also performed with greater skill and assurance. (That said, the routine about William Wallace that made up a large chunk of the fifth episode, on national identity, was recycled from his first comeback stand-up show, Stand-Up Comedian.)

The change of format was also a significant improvement. The stand-up material in the first series was punctuated by sketches, most of which were quite weak, as though it was felt such interludes were necessary. Meanwhile, hilarious head-to-heads between Lee and producer Armando Iannucci were restricted to red button content. This time around the improvised head-to-heads (in which Iannucci continually and wickedly tries to wrongfoot Lee) were wisely brought within the structure of the show, with the sketch content generally reduced to one longer set-piece at the end of the show.

Add in some pithily acerbic commentary and a few clever gags and trademark Lee rhetorical flourishes - the routine about Russell Howard's charity cycle ride and the long anecdote about David Cameron and the Bullingdon Club in particular - and you'd hope there was more than enough to convince the BBC to welcome him back for a third series.

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