Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The delivery man


Stewart Lee is a talented bastard.

Co-writer of genius 90s series 'Fist Of Fun' and 'This Morning With Richard, Not Judy' with Richard Herring.

Contributor to Chris Morris's infamous 'On The Hour' and, as such, co-creator of Alan Partridge.

Co-writer of 'Jerry Springer - The Opera' with Richard Thomas.

Collaborator with Armando Ianucci, Kevin Eldon and Simon Munnery, amongst others.

Novelist - well, he's written one, at least.

Astute music critic for the Sunday Times.

Occasional DJ.

And yet here he is, perched on a tiny stage in the cramped upstairs room of The Station pub in Sutton Coldfield. Something somewhere has gone wrong, hasn't it? How did he end up here?

The answer is simple: because he wanted to. He's no egotistical careerist. He doesn't see the stand-up circuit simply as the first step towards national prominence. Both Graham Norton and Ben Elton are used as punchbags in his set, the latter distinguished from Osama Bin Laden because "At least Osama Bin Laden's lived by a consistent set of moral principles".

Ricky Gervais may have called him "cliche-free", but Lee doesn't dispense entirely with the unwritten rules of stand-up comedy. The first of these, for instance, states that you need a distinctive hairstyle or item of clothing that unmistakeably marks you out as a "funnyman". Tonight he's plumped for the latter, a bright orange Midwest-style shirt that makes him look like a gay cowboy.

He's got us in the palm of his hand already, deviating from a joke to simply commentate on the level of audience response which itself perpetuates the ripples of laughter - and yet he's only introducing his support act, the highly rated Josie Long, who in a short set flits from the surreal to the twisted bravely delivering a succession of clever non-punchlines.

That timing is the key to great comedy is something of a truism, but it's most glaringly obvious with Stewart Lee.

One of the badges he's selling tonight is emblazoned with the comments of a critic from the Independent: "surly, arrogant, laboured". The fact that being described in such terms is a matter of pride for Lee says a lot in itself, but "laboured" is not the right word for what he does.

It's a very careful and deliberate momentum, new facets of a joke gradually revealed with each clause or part-sentence, new ideas slowly implanted in the audience's minds, almost to the point that the joke itself doesn't matter and the art is all in the delivery. Unlike many comics he's not afraid of silence, of significant gaps between the laughter - his pauses are always pregnant.

Of course, that's not to say his material isn't hilarious.

With his trademark dryness, cleverness and sarcasm, Lee tackles everything from September 11th (or November 9th, as he insists on referring to it) to the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, from his Scottish roots to Ron Atkinson's racist outburst.

He argues that if Al-Qaeda wanted to cause some real damage and confusion in America they should have carpet-bombed the country with "geography exam papers, bad dentistry and the concept of shame".

At one point he implies that Gary Lineker may have a sexual predilection for watching obese young boys die. At this suggestion, some of our number are a bit taken aback.

There's only the briefest of allusions to the brouhaha surrounding Channel 4's screening of 'Jerry Springer - The Opera': "I know you're thinking, 'Oh, he's mentioned Jesus, what's he going to say now?' Believe me, it's really not worth it..."

This hardly does the show justice, but in the interest of not COMPLETELY spoiling the fun for those like Skif who are awaiting his arrival in their neck of the woods, I'll leave it there.

Afterwards, my mind and vision wine-fogged, I stumble over to the back of the room. He is stood chuffing nonchalently on a cigarette, telling the compere he felt the last fifteen minutes tailed off a bit. I gormlessly thrust under his nose my newly-purchased copy of his novel, 'The Perfect Fool', and, after a brief search for a biro, he scrawls "Thanks for coming" on the title page, and signs it.

No, thank YOU for coming.

You talented bastard.

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