Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

In comedy circles, Stewart Lee has long been acknowledged as an influential, intelligent and principled stand-up almost beyond reproach. But it was nonetheless a courageous move for BBC Two to order a series from him that’s equally likely to alienate viewers as widen his niche. Given the debate raging about the BBC and public service broadcasting, the long-overdue decision to back his smart wit, rather than the raucous dumbed-down comedy that seems to win so many commissioning budgets, has to be applauded.

Demonstrating a strange misunderstanding of Lee’s demographic, the first instalment of his Comedy Vehicle was bookended by trailers featuring Horne and Corden – whose much-derided BBC Three sketch show seems about as far from the platonic comedy ideal Lee strives for as it is possible to get. It’s as if the BBC was saying ‘don’t worry if this isn’t for you – we also make comedy revolving around fat men wobbling their obese bellies’.

The sort of laddish celebrity culture that James Corden, especially, seems too enthusiastic to embrace was a main theme of Lee’s debut. The topic was bad literature, with forest-wasting tomes by the likes of Russell Brand, Jeremy Clarkson, Dan Brown, So Solid Crew’s Asher D and Chris Moyles being skewered by his poisonous wit. There’s perhaps an unacknowledged debt to Robin Ince’s live Book Club shows in this subject matter and derisive attitude, but Lee makes it all his own.

This Oxford graduate is elitist and proud of it. No, he hasn’t read Harry Potter – he’s 40 years old for Chrissake – but yes, he has read the complete works of William Blake, thank you very much. He has the unshakeable belief that his entire audience is as educated and erudite as him; or at least that if they’re not, they want to appear to be. Thus he reinforces a middle-class intellectual ambition, rather than playing dumb to broaden his appeal. He might be pandering to his audience as much as any comedian, but it’s an audience that’s under-served on TV.

Lee destroys his topics with the precision, relentlessness and brutality of a medieval torturer; repeatedly and meticulously attacking the same small point until it becomes weakened to the point of collapse. The entire oeuvre of Dan Brown is dismissed as: ‘The famous man looked at the red cup’ – and it will be impossible not to think of that phrase whenever the Da Vinci Code author is mentioned again.

The presentation matched the content, producing a show didn’t feel like a traditional stand-up production. The mood was more muted and intimate – the showbiz glitz of Live At The Apollo replaced with the understated class of a gentleman’s club. As he did on his recent DVD, Lee sometimes addresses the camera directly, as if making eye contact with the home audience, rather than leaving them as passive observers.

The pace wasn’t all bang-bang-bang jokes either, though Lee has some brilliantly inspired lines. Segments such as the over-extended routine describing in unnecessarily precise detail what a rapper is and where you might find one deliberately stretch the patience. Shorter jokes would be funnier, but nowhere near as transfixing, as the audience are compelled to see just how far he dare push it, and left to marvel at the man’s sheer audacity. There’s some tension as to whether it will work or not, and occasionally it doesn’t, quite – but that’s again a refreshing antidote to the over-polished presentation of most stand-up on TV.

Lee’s pauses are as important as his words; he builds up expectation and tension in those gaps that only a laugh can reveal. Who else could elicit chortles for dusting the mic stand with his hand or fiddling wordlessly with one of the light fittings?

The thoughtful monologue is interrupted by sketches, Dave Allen style. The quickies that illustrate the point Lee was making work well, but others don’t. Paddy McGinlay’s Goat seemed especially self-indulgent – though that’s a hard charge to level at Lee given that his entire show, indeed career, is built on self-indulgence. Still, it’s nice to play ‘spot the comedian’ with the likes of Simon Munnery, Miles Jupp, Tony Law, Tara Flynn, Paul Putner, Kevin Eldon and Michael Redmond in the ensemble.

Some other respected names are involved, too. Executive producer Armando Iannucci’s role is well-known – and he conducted an hilariously lofty interview with Lee as a ‘red button’ extra for digital viewers after the broadcast. Look carefully, and you’ll also spot that the script editor is one Christopher Morris.

This really is the comedy elite, and if they, led by Lee, can’t prove that a show can be literate, edifying and funny all at the same time, no one can. Thankfully, they’ve succeeded perfectly, making an appointment-to-view programme for everyone who believes comedy is art as well as entertainment. Great stuff.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
March 2009

Review date: 1 Jan 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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