Ten Best Stand-ups In The World Ever. Gig 1

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

So, top marks for everyone who guessed Johnny Vegas as the very mysterious mystery guest headlining the showcase in Stewart Lee’s rundown of his own personal top ten comics.

No, it wasn't Eddie Izzard, Vic Reeves, Alexei Sayle, Simon Pegg, or any other of the names mooted, but a rare stage performance from one of the most unpredictable stand-ups in comedy. Since his 2003 live DVD - which Lee directed – Vegas has only performed occasional charity gigs, sticking mainly to ITV1''s Benidorm, BBC Three’s Ideal and counting the money those lucrative monkey-based adverts have bought him.

For someone who built his formidable reputation on the piteous, self-destructive behaviour of a lonely, misunderstood depressive, the more settled life of a credible writer-actor might be a disadvantage. It’s certainly not so obviously conducive to his brand of bleak comedy as the transient life of a jobbing stand-up.

Some edge has, indeed, been knocked off his once desperately tragic character now he’s found recognition, and confesses to being more comfortable with his solitude. But he’s lost none of his bravery - or recklessness - on stage, and is more than willing to wilfully pilot the gig into uncharted territory, just to see what will happen.

It’s a high-risk strategy. Given that the audience never knew who they were buying tickets for, it’s no surprise that reaction was split: some of them were with Vegas every inch of his chaotic way, while others appeared baffled by the pathetic man spilling his guts on stage. Most though, humoured him through the lulls in the expectation, or at least hope, of future comedy gold.

And my, were there lulls. Vegas is a performer unafraid of silence, pig-headedly following a train of thought that’s yielding nothing, in the hope he will eventually strike a rich seam of hilarity. Experience has taught him, and those who’ve seen this wayward genius before, to be patient – he’ll get there in the end. Probably.

His fearlessness is physical, too. The set opens with him stagediving on to an unwilling, seated audience - giving him just the rush of adrenaline needed to kick him into performance mode.

While he no longer cuts such a miserable figure, he still tells tales twinged with pathos, such as his going to a local lapdancing club and knowing the girls working there, rather spoiling the mood. ‘It feels like material,’ he confesses, ‘but it actually happened.’

Midway through his time, however, he changes tack. A girl in the front row catches his lovelorn eye, and, following a series of entirely backhanded compliments, he starts seedily fantasising about their future. It’s not exactly romantic in the traditional sense, as he pictures her as the tearful wife, lamenting wasting her life on such an inconsiderate oaf, but there is a bizarre kitchen-sink poetry to the domestic scene - despite the rather pervy nature of his come-ons.

This improvised scenario then evolves into a warped Disney fantasy, in which the girl has fallen into a deep sleep from which she can only be awoken by the eager, clumsy kiss of an overweight pottery-efficient comedian from St Helens. Volunteer ‘pallbearers’ are recruited from the stalls, and the weird fairytale plays out.

Because it’s Johnny Vegas, the audience interaction isn’t as fluid or relentlessly funny as say, Jason Byrne, who might construct similarly elaborate scenarios with his punters. He’s too intimidating and unpredictable for anyone to totally relax in his presence. But this is more of a ‘happening’ – a never-to-be-repeated spectacle that might be as strange and uncomfortable as often as it is funny, but memorable, certainly.

More reliable laughs came from the first half act, Simon Munnery reprising his Alan Parker: Urban Warrior character for a rare full-length outing.

In some ways this creation is a product of its time, rooted in the early days of so-called alternative comedy, which were awash with angry young Thatcher-hating men, full of passionate teenage outrage, unfocussed in their fury but so certain in their ideologies, no matter how confused or ill thought-out.

But Parker has withstood the test of time. Not only because he is an easily identifiable archetype, even a period one, but because Munnery’s writing is so good: always clever, witty and straight to the point.

If there’s one certainty about the agitators Parker is based on, it’s that they know how to get their message across with impressive simplicity. So adopting the chants, slogans and placards of their protests makes for ruthlessly efficient comedy, every redundant word exorcised for the sake of a pithy, rhythmic phrase.

Munnery’s genius is to take the sloppy thinking of these rabble-rousers and extrapolates it to its logical conclusion. So the phrase ‘action, not words’ becomes a rallying cry to abolish language. It’s rarely less than inspired.

He performs, too, with the fire in his belly. Kicking away the microphone in a petulant act of defiance, he hectors the sizeable theatre as if on a Hyde Park Corner soapbox, no megaphone required. This is character comedy at its finest, and how great it is to be reminded of Parker’s brilliance.

Munnery and Lee have been friends for decades, and have now both grown into, if not elder statesmen of comedy, at least middle-aged ones.

It’s Lee’s credibility that’s filling the Bloomsbury theatre with fans who are presumably well aware of his own stand-up material. There can be few in this audience who were unaware of his ‘Jesus is the answer, now what is the question’ routine which he used to open the show, but its familiarity is comfortable, and it’s still a damn fine set.

Lee also performed some newer material, much of it from his 2007 Edinburgh show – such as the routine about the Celebrity Big Brother race row, or about Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn’s less-than sympathetic reaction to the Ipswich murders.

He challenges his audience to stick with him through slow, repetitive build-ups, but the audacity of the unconventionally difficult approach is what’s funny, backed, of course, by intelligence and insight – not to mention some damn fine jokes.

Vegas may have mocked Lee for being like an imperious king, summoning his favoured jesters to London for these nights, but in curating these nights he’s exploiting his cult hero status for good, giving a platform to lesser-known comedians later in the run in the knowledge that his endorsement will guarantee interest. Whatever else is in store, the series certainly got off to a flying start.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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