Stewart Lee: Comedy messiah

Hazel Humphreys worships his Comedy Vehicle

All comedy is essentially divisive. If jokes have an essential direction and attitude, there's always going to be someone who's not happy with the way a joke is going and how it's getting there.

For example, I cite the scientific research conducted by Channel 4, which found that 99.99997 per cent of the human race thinks that the funniest thing ever is Del Boy falling through the bar on Only Fools And Horses. That 0.00003% is down to three people. One's been in a coma since 1975, one is David Jason, who fractured his pelvis falling through the bar and finds that even watching a repeat on a clip show can bring on excruciating twinges. The other person is Stewart Lee.

Stewart Lee is arguably the most divisive comedian working on television at the moment. He can divide hitherto close families and communities, causing gaping unhealable rifts in a manner which organised religion or racial intolerance can only dream of.

For Christmas I was bought a copy of the DVD If You Prefer A Milder Comedian Please Ask For One, and for a few months it became my obsession to inflict it on anyone who visited my home, effectively using it as a replacement to This IS Spinal Tap, Withnail & I or Bill Hicks's Goatboy routine as my gauge of the calibre of my visitors. If you liked Stewart Lee then all was well with you and I would open up the chocolate biscuits. Express impatience and confusion and I wouldn't even dust off the rich teas for you.

There were some interesting results. My own father, a self-confessed fan of Michael McIntyre (why hast thou forsaken me?), found himself oddly hypnotised by the quiet calm delivery and repetition until holy, purifying laughter was dragged forth from his very soul like some comedy exorcism.

‘I'll say one thing for that guy, he's got balls,’ Dad interjected every ten minutes or so, if anything enhancing the DVD experience. My ex-boyfriend however, normally a sarcastic intellectual with an unassailably solid sense of humour, became filled with irrational loathing for Lee within the first five minutes (‘What is this boring crap?’), suggesting he may have once been abused by a paedophile in Cafe Nero, and making me realise how right I'd been to end the relationship.

My experiments invariably had the same polarising effect on any given group of guests. Search Stewart Lee on Twitter at around 11.30pm on Wednesday night and you'll see that for every comedian or writer rejoicing in the man's genius there will be ten punters frothing poisonous spleen at the very gall of BBC Two for showing someone who just doesn’t make them laugh in the same way that McIntyre or somebody called Russell can. This is why Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle is the most important television programme of the past 30 years.

I've always been drawn to Stewart Lee since his too-cool-for-school days as the sneering, smartarse cynic counterbalancing Richard Herring's effusive schoolboy on seminal shows Fist Of Fun and This Morning With Richard Not Judy. There's an odd appeal about Lee's face, like a slightly wonky pie or the crumpled Cornish pasty that you're drawn to in a bakers because you suspect its irregular crust promises crispy bits where the fat has bubbled through the pastry and an unctuous oozing of nourishing gravy.

The Fist Of Fun era was supposedly a golden time for a burgeoning comedy scene, developed from the post- punk alternative reaction to the dinosaur gag merchants who dominated Seventis television. Remember the Seventis? Remember Charlie Williams and Bernard Manning on ITV's The Comedians, like Uncle Tom and his Cabbie? Remember the rise of Russ Abbott? It was crap wasn't it?

Remember the Eighties? Remember Friday Night Live with Ben Elton before everyone knew what a good accountant he had? Remember the Young Ones? It was great wasn't it? Like Comedy Jesus had returned smiling to earth. And the Nineties were even more awesome, at last comedy could be pleased with itself, it was right-on yet it was still funny; Guardian readers loved it, and it was on the telly. But early Nineties Stewart Lee wasn't about to complacently rest on his laurels, and spat youthful contempt at ‘lazy boring comedy slags’; hangers on to the coattails of alternative comedy garnering cheap laughs from vacuous material like Pavlov ringing a bell. He was like the little boy who realised that the Emperor's New Clothes were non-existent, trying innocently to shake everybody else out of their smug ironic stupor.

Nowadays Stewart Lee still is the little boy who saw through the Emperor's new clothes, but he's emotionally scarred and traumatised through having had to look at a naked liar for so long. By aping and replaying the soothing patterns of today's reassuring mainstream comic heroes, Lee hopes to jolt us out of our indifferent consumption of over-priced and devalued ideas. It isn't to everyone's taste. Some people just want to be made to laugh, not think.

These people accuse Stewart Lee of being ‘smug’, just because they think hegemony is something you buy a privet with. They haven't realised that the true smugness and superiority lies in their supposed heroes who snicker their way to the bank through bland, poorly thought-out observational humour, urging you to join them in their fool's dance of falsely conjured laughter.

Every time a twentysomething energetic faux mummy’s boy puts on a silly voice, like something out of a Carry On film, and the audience erupt into hysterical convulsions, just as they’ve been trained to by watching Mock The Week; every time a bloke resembling the personification of one of the bad pigs in Animal Farm waggles his head and pops his eyes to signal to his fans that it's chuckle time; every time you watch TV and a laugh sneaks out at one of these cynical churned out moments, a piece of our collective humanity dies.

I think that's what Stewart Lee's trying to tell us, and that's why it's so important to watch his Comedy Vehicle, because like our recent wasted chance to change the vote, it's probably going to be the last opportunity of its kind to challenge the status quo for a few decades. Plus it's really, really funny.

Published: 2 Jun 2011

Live comedy picks

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.