‘You know those amazing occasions where a significant band’s finally unearthed first demo tape is revealed as better than anything else they ever recorded?’ go the sleeve notes to Stewart Lee’s newly-released Jazz Cellar Tape from 1989. ‘Well, this CD is not like that.’
True, but this small bit of comedy history is a fascinating curio and, despite Lee’s assertion that the set is ‘undeniably poor’, it is occasionally funny, and - more significantly – very revealing about the origins of his penchant for subverting comedy conventions.
This 27-minute set was recorded when Lee was a student of 20 in the Oxford Union’s jazz cellar. As a contemporary, I remember those Sunday-night gigs fondly if patchily. With the naitivity of youth, seeing the Oxford Revue Workshops in this intimate, smoky, low-ceiling venue seemed like belonging to an exciting, secret clique, riding the spirit of alternative comedy which, to us, still seemed fresh.
This recording – made on an old reel-to-reel tape and of the quality you might therefore expect – shows what an easily pleased audience we were. But although the jokes may be patchy there is still an unmistakably impudent, precocious attitude to Lee’s writing.
Twisting the expected formula, he gets some cheap anti-Tory cheers from what looks like a series of ‘knock, knock’ jokes, which he undermines immediately, while the riddle of why a chicken would cross the road is warped into a routine about the persecution of Iraq’s Kurds and a philosophical treatise on the meaning of life. It’s possibly more ambitious than funny, although this is clearly a young man with ideas for comedy. ‘Where have all the proper comedians gone?’ he asks, putting clear water between him and the Jimmy Tarbucks of the world; a disconnect from the mainstream he exploits to this day.
Largely his approach is similar to his contemporary persona so loved by comedy aficionados, if less sophisticated, and without the grumpy weariness of middle age that fits him so well. Talk of pulling women and being a great shag is strange, the supposed irony barely disguising the self-aggrandisement, but his comments on Christianity remain sharp.
Familiar sayings and old wives’ tales are a staple of this act, with Lee applying a superiority and logic to subjects that don’t require much in the way of life experience. Sometimes he tries to have his cake and eat it, for example by doing a deliberately poor piece of observational stand-up about the weather, but with a cheesy wink.
The content has largely weathered the intervening 22-and-a-half years well, although there is the occasional dated references to the likes of acid house (which Lee admits is already not ‘trendy’) and the Queen Mum looking well at 80. And a jibe at the undergraduates of Wadham College also shows that Lee couldn’t entirely raise his comedy scope above parochial student in-jokes.
The CD also includes a reproduction of the original poster advertising the gig (which cost 50p to Union members) and a student newspaper review of ‘Stuart’ Lee, which concludes he ‘might be bound for the host’s job in a comedy club’. And yet he’s still not a regular at Jongleurs...
- Stewart Lee: The Jazz Cellar Tape is released by Go Faster Stripe, priced £10. Click here to buy .