Baconface leaves a bad taste | JR Moores brands Stewart Lee a diva after his Fringe walkout

Baconface leaves a bad taste

JR Moores brands Stewart Lee a diva after his Fringe walkout

Last Thursday afternoon, the cult Canadian comic Baconface walked out of his gig at the Stand 2 after just five minutes. Baconface had despondently muttered a couple of weak lines in a barely comprehensible drawl that sounded like Rich Hall in a gravel cyclone.

He’d explained that we were unlikely to understand any of his material because all the reference points were culturally specific to his native town of Chilliwack. He’d commented more than once that this was the worst reception his material had gotten in his Fringe run so far. He’d complained that, having been informed that the show had sold out, he could still see empty seats. When a couple a latecomers took those empty seats, he candidly welcomed them into a room of bewildered silence.

He received polite titters from his audience. The biggest laughs came when a couple of rashers flopped off his bacon-wrapped Mexican wrestling mask and hit the floor with an amusing splat. He snapped something about the gig not working or the gig not being worth it, and stomped out of the Stand 2 quicker than a door-slamming teenager. He hadn’t even uttered his legendary catchphrase ‘It’s all bacon!’ yet.

Now. This childish walk-out was surprising, partly because Baconface is a respected alternative comedy veteran with 35 years of stand-up experience who has been hired as ‘programme associate’ on the forthcoming series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, but mostly because Baconface is also Stewart Lee, wearing a Mexican wrestlers mask, with bacon on it.

Usually, Lee thrives on awkwardness, following Munnery’s mischievous maxim ‘If the crowd is behind you, you’re facing the wrong way’. He regularly berates audiences for not laughing as much as previous nights’ audiences, or teases one section of the audience for being slower to appreciate his sophisticated jokes than other sections. He crafts deliberately ‘difficult’, divisive comedy which he knows is not to everyone’s taste.

Presumably Baconface was created with this kind of stubbornness in mind. With Baconface, Lee puts a literal, physical barrier between himself and his audience in the form of his pork helmet (not an innuendo). He knows he’s not making things easy for himself. Isn’t the fact that Baconface will inevitably alienate and baffle part of the point? Surrealism aside, he’s repelling many Jews, Muslims, vegetarians and other carnophobes from the start.

On Thursday, Lee’s open contempt for his own audiences, which I had previously assumed was concocted (or at least heightened) for comic effect, reached its grim logical conclusion. Not only did he sack off the whole gig on impulse, he made us feel like we were to blame, not him.

We were not a difficult audience. We were not an antagonistic or intimidating audience. Our only crime seemed to be that we were not laughing as much as Bacon-Lee thought we should be. It was a disappointing and fairly nauseating act of diva-ism which insulted not merely those who had chosen Baconface over the zillions of other Fringe shows running that day, but also the poor Stand crew member who had to patiently explain that Baconface’s exit was not some Andy Kaufman-esque act of post-modern japery, the poor (and lovely) Stand box office staff who were suddenly mobbed by a grumpily confused gaggle of refund-seekers, and to all the lower-level Fringe stand-ups who have to plod on through every bad, sad or hostile gig the comedy Gods deal them because they can’t afford the refunds or venue fines that abandonment would accrue.

An entertainer of Lee’s experience must have endured countless crappy gigs in the past. Why didn’t he simply up his game, or at least grant us the remaining 55 minutes of uncomfortable British Columbian porcine humour we had paid for?

Has Lee spent so long basking in the chuckles of packed theatres that he can no longer hack winning over a smaller audience (while pretending to be Canadian and wrapped in bacon)? Lee’s shtick is that he represents quality, integrity, craft and creativity over the fame- and fortune-ravenous joke-stealing mongers of insipid observations and cheap knob gags.

Would Lee’s artistic enemies go so abruptly AWOL after a mediocre opening? Would Joe Pasquale? Would Michael McIntyre? Would those Russell comedians? Would Lee’s heroes? Munnery? Chippington? Mark E. Smith? (Okay, maybe Mark E. Smith.) Was Lee momentarily possessed by the young Larry David who once walked on stage, sensed no connection with the audience he surveyed, said ‘This just isn’t going to work’, and left without telling any jokes? There was nothing heroic or punk rock about Baconface’s strop. It was lazy, arrogant and juvenile.

Would the Stewart Lee of five, ten or fifteen years ago have walked off? He couldn’t afford to. The Bafta-sporting Lee of today is financially secure, as he boasts in his work-in-progress £10-a-ticket no-concessions Much A-Stew About Nothing show in an Adele-mocking skit bemoaning the fact that he now has to pay tax on his earnings.

He can afford to desert a gig at whim. Less fortunate comics cannot. Letting down a handful of his devoted fans (who else would purchase tickets for Baconface?) in the Stand 2 on a Thursday afternoon isn’t going to inflict a noticeable dent in his popularity or have any other professional repercussions. This wasn’t an act of Mark E. Smith-like curmudgeonly defiance. It was more in the spirit of troubled and idle entouraged millionaires like Tracy Morgan.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Lee. I own all his books, all his DVDs, and even that limited edition 12-inch of his monotone voice slowly deconstructing ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ to a post-industrial ambient-jazz backing. I had originally greeted the news that Lee had created Baconface with the same level of contrary-art-hungry anticipation as when I heard that Lou Reed was recording a rock opera with Metallica or Luke Haines had written a concept album about 1970s British wrestling.

This was the Fringe show I was most looking forward to, likely to be the only time I would get to witness TV’S Stewart Lee in so intimate a venue, likely to be the only time I would get to witness TV’S Stewart Lee do his Baconface character in a live setting.

We know that Lee’s other non-Baconed comedy character, popularly known as ‘Stewart Lee’, is bound to suffer from his own rising status. Success makes it harder for him to play the belligerent underdog and harder for him to earn audiences’ empathy, leaving him even more open to accusations of sneering, privileged elitism. He’s certainly not helping matters with this kind of petulant behaviour.

We all have bad days at work. We can’t all go home after five minutes if we get in a bit of a huff. Perhaps something behind the scenes had troubled or rankled Lee or momentarily crippled his confidence. If that was the case, it was cruel to make us feel that the walk-off was our fault.

We had been laughing (a bit) and we had been hugely eager to laugh some more. We’d attended out of devotion and expectancy. We were hardly shouting “Judas!” or talking among ourselves. We were waiting for Baconface’s show to really get going. But Baconface never gave us his show, and he had the cheek to make us feel responsible for its implosion. So perhaps, in some dismal way, Baconface is right. Perhaps it really is all just bacon after all.

• J.R. Moores is a reviewer for drownedinsound.com and TheQuietus.com and writes the satirical music blog Spinal Bap. He tweets from @spinal_bap

Published: 13 Aug 2013

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