Monday, March 13, 2006

A gentleman terrorist


When Stewart Lee takes to the stage, he's suited and booted, a far cry from the "gay cowboy" who appeared in Sutton Coldfield last February. Perhaps it's because tonight's shows are being recorded for posterity by an obliging cameraman, potentially for a DVD to be released some time in the future.

The '90s Comedian' show, which debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer, centres on Lee's experiences in 2005, a year which turned out to be something of an annus horribilis for the comedian. Partial deafness, a stomach condition and consequent endoscopy (insert your own "anus horribilis" jokes here), and to top it all 65,000 complaints from right-wing Christians and the threat of prosecution following the BBC's televising of 'Jerry Springer: The Opera', the "blasphemous" work created by Lee and composer Richard Thomas.

(SPOILER ALERT! I'll say at this point that the remainder of the review contains plenty of spoilers, but I have no qualms about including them - firstly, Lee has said the show will never be performed again in its entirety (even though snippets will crop up here and there), and secondly, I had heard about several of the key jokes beforehand and it certainly didn't impede my enjoyment of hearing the words direct from the mouth of the man himself...)

While the last show began with a routine about 9/11 (or the 9th November, as Lee insisted on referring to it), '90s Comedian' kicks off with Lee waking up at midday on 7/7 and discovering emails and texts from countless friends enquiring after his wellbeing. Evidently the Springer affair hasn't tempted him to steer clear of potentially controversial material - on the contrary, he positively revels in making some audience members uncomfortable, drawing lines and then overstepping them very deliberately while all the time commentating on and deconstructing what it is he's doing. (At one point he comments on the fact that some people are laughing pre-emptively, spotting the punchlines coming: "That would save me the trouble of writing any jokes. I'd just reel off a list of topics and you'd all think of something funny. That way, if you didn't enjoy the show, it would be your fault".)

For the first half of the set, though, Lee mainly plumps for easy targets - Joe Pasquale, Dan Brown, the slower-witted members of the audience. For Lee, this is like shooting fish in a barrel, but he does it with such cleverness and sharpness - and in that inimitable and brilliant metronomic delivery style - that we're never in any doubt that this is no run-of-the-mill stand-up.

Even then, he does also coax us into a round of applause for the IRA, who are remembered with fondness as "gentlemen terrorists" with a thoroughly British sense of fair play ("even though they didn't want to be British") because, unlike Al-Qaeda, they always rang to give advance warnings of imminent bomb attacks.

The second half sees Lee turning to confront the fall-out from 'Jerry Springer: The Opera' head-on. "I heard you defending yourself on Radio 5", went one email, "You seem like a thoughtful and intelligent young man. What a pity you're going to hell". His response is to embark upon a 25-minute-long tale about drunkenness, visions of Jesus and his mum's cat's feet towel which culminates spectacularly with the sentence: "I vomited into the gaping anus of Christ". It's a defiant two fingers up to Christian Voice, as if to say: "You thought THAT was blasphemous and gratuitously offensive?" Rather like former partner Richard Herring's routine about yoghurt, it's very funny if perhaps a little laboured, the point sledgehammered home. The routine is a cathartic and personal expression of indignation at what happened, while never lapsing into self-pity or bitterness, the laughs maintained throughout. It's brave, risky stuff from someone who has been bruised and bloodied but remains unbowed.

Will he now be able to move on? Hopefully, especially now that 'Jerry Springer: The Opera' is at last touring the country, funding having been pulled last year amidst the furore. Where he goes next is unclear, but rest assured he won't shy away from confrontation and controversy if that's where his muse takes him.

(A footnote: Thinking about the section on Joe Pasquale stealing material from other comics, it's since occurred to me that, though Pasquale couldn't steal Lee's joke, he does appear to have "taken inspiration" from Lee's venture into musical theatre. Somehow I can't see 'Rentaghost: The Musical' attracting 65,000 complaints from outraged right-wing Christians, though, can you?)


Review of Lee's 'Stand-Up Comedian' show

Review of Lee's novel 'The Perfect Fool'

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