How far can you take a joke? That’s the premise of Stewart Lee’s latest DVD, in which he tests not only how far he can go with bad taste, but also how long he can drag out a single gag. And the answer to both is: much further than you think.
The keynote routine revolves around the Top Gear trio, taking their reactionary stance against ‘political correctness’ and turning it back on themselves to see if they can take a cruel joke as well as deliver one. Lee gets a laugh when he explains this single obsession will take around 40 minutes – but it turns out not far short. And despite the trademark repetitions, there’s very little fat on this daring routine.
The forewarning is typical of Lee’s deconstruction, throwing open the curtain to reveal the tricks and mechanics of stand-up. He expects his audience to have at least a casual grasp of the language of comedy – better yet if they’re fluent – and if he feels they are slipping behind, he patiently but patronisingly tells them off, like a teacher chiding a slow pupil.
Not that the Glasgow crowd are passive in all this, especially the stubborn punter Lee engages with in his early routine about his coffee-shop loyalty card. But while the awkward, terse encounter threatens to derail the routine, its inclusion captures the unpredictability of a live gig in a way most DVDs don’t.
It also feeds perfectly into Lee’s persona of a comedian frustrated with the expectations of his artform. Sparked by Frankie Boyle’s assertion that no one over 40 should do stand-up, Lee is trying to do an accessible Roadshow-style observational routine from the perspective of a grumpy middle-aged man, but somehow it all turns out much more bitter and bleak. The audacious – even epic – show ends with him shouting from the balconies in frustration at a cider ad. Here his repeated stressing of the same point could test your patience, but the affected psychosis is mesmerising.
Again, his clambering through the audience gives this DVD – the first to be released on the Comedy Central label – a distinctive feel; and while many stand-up titles will gather dust after their Christmastime viewing, the richness and depth of Lee’s magnum opus will have you coming back.
Stewart Lee: If You Prefer A Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One
Recorded at: Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Running time: 105 mins
Extras: Interview with Kevin Eldon (a revealing and insightful 51mins); Nick Pynn short (2mins introducing Lee’s accompanist); Trailer (1min); Press and tour photos
Released by: Comedy Central, out now
Price: £19.99. Click here to buy from Amazon at £11.99