Stewart Lee: 90s Comedian
Show type: Edinburgh Fringe 2005
After sixteen years of joyless laughter, the nearly man of British comedy should have struck gold as co-writer of Richard Thomas, acclaimed Jerry Springer The Opera. But the show's plaintive howl of inarticulate anguish was silenced by the The Daily Mail and Right Wing Christian Evangelicals just at the point where the royalties should have kicked in. How much will an Olivier award fetch on eBay anyway?
Still, Lee's financial loss is comedy's gain. Whipped from the door of theatre like a syphilitic dog, Lee has returned to stand-up. His 2004 Edinburgh show, Stand-up Comedian, drew unprecedented praise, touring packed venues earlier this year. His 2005 Edinburgh show will reap the inevitable critical backlash. These things go in cycles. Come and ride the downward curve. All new for summer 2005!
With a heavy smoking habit and an incurable stomach condition, Lee is sure to die well before his time. See him now so you can one day argue that he was quite good at comedy, at a dinner party full of squares who never heard of him.
Most comedians who consider themselves dangerous like to make an awful lot of fuss about it. They shout and scream and intimidate the audience with their angry, righteous indignation – after all, that’s what Bill Hicks did (sometimes), and he was damn good.
But in life, the most dangerous things don’t telegraph themselves, their stealth being the most lethal of their weapons. Which is where Stewart Lee comes in.
He makes no fuss. He saunters onto the stage, unconcerned about the audience’s presence. He speaks slowly, deliberately, unafraid of pausing, or silence or even appearing vulnerable.
Yet under this placid exterior is possibly the most fearless, audacious and challenging comedian working today. He’s unafraid of taking stand-up into seriously uncomfortable areas, compelling the audience to laugh against their basic instincts of decency. Many shock-jock comics claim to say the unsayable, Lee actually delivers, and with a devastating understated style.
Lee, infamously, has been in a lot of hot water this year, not for his stand-up but for Jerry Springer: The Opera. A fun, well-constructed and impressively staged work playing with the ideas of heaven, hell and confessional chat shows. Most who saw it would have seen little to offend, except perhaps the profligate swearing, of which they were warned in advance.
But he was persecuted by spiteful Christian organisations, received tens of thousands of death threats and saw a project of which he was proud – and considered theologically sound – evaporate.
This is his considered answer to them. And his response is certainly not to turn the other cheek. Instead, since you might just as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, he has produced the most disgustingly blasphemous routine you are likely to encounter, pushing even the most open-minded non-believer’s tolerance to breaking point. The daring is breathtaking as he elicits gales of guilty laughter from an unwilling audience who are surely condemning themselves to hell, too.
Lee himself professes to be uneasy in performing this toughest of material, and it’s easy to see why. This is what makes him so astoundingly courageous, because he charges so valiantly beyond any reasonable person’s comfort zone, including his own.
It’s heavyweight stuff. Lee is not your ‘gateway drug’ into comedy, but a crack cocaine of an act for those who find they can no longer get a high from the softer comedy of Peter Kay, most the Jongleurs roster, or Joe Pasquale – Lee’s other bete noire, next to the Christian church.
Even the more accessible early routines, before he tackles Jesus, trot through the July 7 bombings and his favourite topic, the death of a much-loved icon (last year, Diana, this year the Pope). In these, relatively less inflammatory topics, he maintains a keen sense of the absurd, beautifully highlighted by his brilliantly paced delivery, which slowly and subtly peels away new layers of fine material.
Among all the talk Lee inevitably attracts for his boundary-pushing content, the point is easily overlooked that his work is also powerfully hilarious - the perfect mix of heavyweight topics, expert timing and fantastic lines proving an irresistible force.
Such a combination is, literally breathtaking. This is surely the most impressive, intelligent and shockingly funny stand-up on the Fringe, if not the world.