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Much A-Stew about Nothing


Stewart Lee, as you may know, is not the kind of comedian who appears on Mock the Week. In fact he is scathing about those comedians, who, in his view, feed the audience with little sugary spoonfuls of banality; comics throwing dead fish to an audience of contentedly clapping seals (my words). Stewart Lee is more of an anti – establishment, ‘alternative’ comedian. He is self-referential, reflexively examining jokes whilst he makes them, ironising and challenging his own position as a comic. But — I hear you say — does any of that matter if he is not funny?

Image credit: Stewart Lee
Image credit: Stewart Lee

I arrived at Colston Hall knowing what to expect: that I couldn’t really know what to expect. He opened with his usual sardonic, deadpan indifference: ‘I’m gonna do a bit on dogs, then a bit on the internet, then, later on, I’m gonna do some stuff on immigration and vasectomies’. The show was a sprawling melange of material being tried out for his new BBC show. He started with dogs.

Apparently Stewart Lee hates dogs. ‘Man’s best friend –- yeh if your best friend likes to shit in playgrounds and bite children’s faces off’. He tells us about the drug dealers whose dogs crap outside his house: ‘they could pick it up, I mean it’s not like they’re short of small plastic bags’.

One of his principle comedic devices is mixing puerile comedy with serious topics. He talked about how the internet is stifling creativity; how kids used to roam forests, catching frogspawn. He used to drive the motorway and see a sign for a place called Shilbottle. But kids – creative as they were back then— used to change the sign to ‘Shitbottle’: Shitbottle, 10 miles….Shitbottle 5 miles. He often ironically undermines common clichés and conventional, paternalistic voices. Though sometimes it is hard to see where irony stops and Stewart Lee begins.

In the second half of the show, as promised, he talked about immigration. More precisely Paul Nuttall and the UKIP MP’s comments that the brightest and best of Bulgaria should stay in Bulgaria to help its economy. ‘Bolstering Bulgaria’s economy, of course, is a key UKIP policy’. He satirised prejudice over immigration, giving a brief history of British Immigration: ‘all those bloody Poles coming over here fixing everything’, ‘those bloody Huguenots…’ It was a masterclass in reductio ad absurdum. He went on and on, to ‘the first organism coming out of the water, coming over here taking all our land’.

The highlight, though, came about when he innocuously mentioned eating cheeses. Long pause… ‘What’s your favourite?’ an unthinking woman shouted out. ‘Don’t you think I know what I’m doing?’ he replied exasperatedly, ‘ I was building up the tension and would then say, “Red Leicester”, and it would be just disappointing enough to be funny. My best bit of the whole show’. He continued to berate this woman for at least ten minutes. And it was off the cuff, genuine and brutal and beautiful.

Truthfully I was not laughing and clapping like a seal throughout the whole gig. Sometimes Stewart Lee isn’t as funny as those Mock the Week lot – and at times he can be just as banal or puerile; but his banality usually has a purpose — to satirise and challenge social norms. This does not make him a better comedian. However, he is a necessary comic, a unique and creative voice, a cynical voice of dissent. And watching him, in that grand hall, viciously berate a woman for not letting him tell a joke about ‘Red Leicester’, made the rain- soaked two hour journey back to Exeter via Weston- Super- Mare completely worth it.

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Ciaran Willis

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