Tedious. Problematic. Brilliant

Steve Bennett previews the first two episodes of Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle

'I'd imagine watching this at home would be incredibly tedious.'

That's Stewart Lee's own verdict on the second series of his Comedy Vehicle. It comes in the second episode, during an apparently interminable conversation he has with a fictitious estate agent that turns into a running meta-commentary on the progress of the show. ‘Unbearable’ is another description that crops up; ‘problematic’ another.

Lee takes self-criticism to new levels. Not only is his stand-up strewn with references to how acutely aware he is that his languid, repetitive delivery style will be anathema to many, but the routine is interspersed with snippets of awkward interviews with Armando Iannucci, mordantly interrogating him over his inaccessibility and lack of actual jokes.

Iannuci is the headmasterly voice of reason, asking: ‘You're not going to go on about crisps for the whole fucking show are you?’ Lee is the schoolboy, trying to be belligerent, but knowing he’s been caught out.

These tense Frost/Nixon-style exchanges, shot in stark monochrome, were hidden ‘red-button’ extras on the first series; here they form a more integral part of the show’s fabric – adding extra judgmental layers to Lee’s relentless self-analysis.

It’s not the only change. Budget cuts have expelled most of the sketches, although both the first two episodes – at least – feature a closing film to tie up various threads, with Lee taking centre stage. But the more intense focus on the stand-up is to be welcomed.

The show has also moved to a later transmission time after Newsnight  ‘so we don't have to compete against actual entertainment,’ as Lee dryly notes. It will make little difference. Those in awe of his dense, alternative stand-up will seek him out whatever the timeslot – but it’s always going to be a hard sell to recruit more casual viewers.

This is the antithesis of the big shiny-floor stand-up shows like Michael McIntryre’s Comedy Roadshow. Atmospherically shot in the more intimate confines of Mildmay Working Men’s Club in North London, the Comedy Vehcile recreates the more alternative feel of the best ‘above-a-pub’ style clubs, rather than the neon-soaked glitz of an arena tour. Which again means, as if the point needs underlining, that it’s not for everyone.

During that imaginary estate agent dialogue, Lee morosely points out that 300,000 people turned off during a similarly drawn-out piece of futility about rappers in series one. Like the doorman of an exclusive club, he takes satisfaction in dispelling those who don’t live up to his exacting standards; though doing so brings him no joy, just affirmation of a futile existence.

The first episode, going out tomorrow night, revolves around charity – a multi-threaded yarn that starts and ends with his grandfather living in a strange nest on an unvarying diet. Along the way, he slips in the C-word with rare artistry and takes a perfectly-aimed shot at the nastiness underpinning Frankie Boyle’s Tramadol Nights, while exposing all the inner workings of his stand-up. The second episode is titled London, and contrasts family life in the capital – including the lengths to which parents go to get school places for their children – with the tedium of living in the countryside.

They are extended routines which Lee worked though in live shows in the second half of last year, and the thought and artistry that goes into both writing and performance should shame any soundbite comedian tossing out easy gags on panel shows. They will always be more famous than Lee, but the perceived ‘difficulty’ of Lee’s approach is what makes these half-hour jewels of stand-up so richly rewarding.

  • Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle returns to BBC Two at 11.20pm on Wednesday May 4.

Published: 3 May 2011

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