Saturday, January 31, 2015

Divine (lack of) inspiration


The last time I saw Stewart Lee in Oxford on a nationwide tour, in 2010, he wasn't quite up to his usual impeccable standards. Vegetable Stew was just that - it felt like a dish that had been hastily cobbled together, and while the individual ingredients were fine and familiar, their combination left a taste of disappointment in the mouth. So the fact that the starting point for Carpet Remnant World is his struggle to scrape together enough material for a new show could potentially set the alarm bells ringing.

His life, he argues, now throws up very few situations that could be exploited for the sake of comedy, consisting as it does of looking after his kid (which mainly involves watching Scooby Doo) and driving between gigs. Scooby Doo was on a list he and Richard Herring drew up in 1986 of subjects too cliched to talk about in stand-up, along with Maggie Thatcher, and if you find yourself talking about the funny things your kids have said, he opines, "you might as well kill yourself".

Not that Lee won't do what he's previously professed to despise, mind. He promptly embarks on a routine that couches political satire in the terms of Scooby Doo, while the now-customary section attacking other comedians - in which he claims all the young ones are called Russell before running about the stage and goofing about with the mic stand in a parody of their stage antics - is essentially observational comedy.

But then this shouldn't come as a surprise - Lee has always thrived on being obstinately (and thrillingly) perverse. At one point he follows up an acid observation with "I don't think that - I think the opposite of that", and is as self-referential and self-indulgent as ever throughout the show - a characteristic red rag to his many critics. It's as if he actively courts abuse - after all, it's one means by which he can still generate material, as underlined by the fact that he's compiled a 40,000-word document listing insulting internet comments. Reading out some of the choicest examples for our benefit and amusement, it's clear he revels in his power to antagonise people and polarise opinion.

In that respect, I suppose, he isn't that different to Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir, who herself provides inspiration at one point - not as the conventional butt of a joke, but for her suggestion that there should be stand-up routines about Islam as well as Christianity. Lee - always one for a sense of balance and never one to shirk a challenge - is only too happy to oblige, though his gags, he admits with a smirk, demand a working knowledge of Islam to be properly understood. I doubt somehow that Moir saw the funny side.

Middle age has gradually transformed Lee (or at least his stage persona) into a warped version of the conventional grumpy old man: irritated by the fact that increased TV exposure means that audience regulars bring their friends, who aren't on the same level and have different expectation levels; annoyed that it's the scatalogical humour that gets the big laugh going into the interval rather than the clever call-back in French; venomous about the internet and Twitter in particular (those who track his every movement are memorably labelled "the Stasi for the Angry Birds generation").

And yet it isn't all comedy deconstruction, vitriol and withering sarcasm. The show builds to a cautiously optimistic existential climax that is all the more unexpected for doing so via a dig at Sunderland, talking about baltis in a Brummie accent and an imaginary conversation with a man made out of stationery. Suffice to say I can't think of another comic who would even attempt a feat that improbable, let alone achieve it with such style.

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