Thursday, October 14, 2010

British humor 1: Stewart Lee

American comedy is in quite a neat little rut these days. There are a handful of standups and regular TV series that I think represent actual quality and innovation, but for the most part there are arena-filling standups (the “Blue Collar” comics, Dane Cook) and the “alternative” comedians, a few of whom are brilliant, but most of whom are looking toward a really lucrative movie deal, no matter what the script is (lookin’ at you, Zach Galifianakis). The pleasant but exceedingly dull Judd Apatow (Spielberg with vulgar teen jokes!) and the absolutely heinous Lorne Michaels (guilty at this point of several decades worth of horrendous TV and movie comedy) shape most of what passes for mainstream American comedy these days, so we really need to look elsewhere for something new….

Thus, my recent immersion into British humor, which has its own share of mainstream crap, but also has fostered an incredibly talented group of standups and humorists who are totally unknown over here. I detailed my discovery and deepening fascination with a few of these gents here, but I felt that a few personality profiles and clip “surveys” might be in order. Thus, I complement my recent “summer of British humor” on the Funhouse TV show with a trio of entries, which will undoubtedly be followed by more in the near future. I start off with the standup whom I’ve become the most fascinated by in the last year, Stewart Lee.

Lee began his career as a half of a writing-performing team with Richard Herring. The duo played their sardonically wiseass straight man (Lee)/smut-minded troublemaker (Herring) roles for more than a decade, to best effect in a radio and subsequent TV series called Fist of Fun. Thankfully, for all of those who weren’t in the U.K. in the Nineties, some devoted fans have posted pretty much the entire radio archives of Lee and Herring at

I highly recommend their sketch series Lionel Nimrod's Inexplicable World with L&H and Armando Iannucci (the producer-writer-performer who has been involved in a significant amount of influential BBC comedy shows, including I’m Alan Partridge) and Rebecca Front (a versatile actress who starred in Iannucci’s Thick of It series); also the Fist of Fun radio show. Lee and Herring also were also among the writers who scripted On the Hour, the trendsetting fake-news radio show starring Chris Morris and produced by Iannucci that spawned the Alan Partridge character (for whom L&H wrote some original segments).

A fan-favorite clip from the Fist of Fun radio show:

Lee’s official website also offers a busload of good material, including links to every episode of the two seasons of Lee and Herring’s Fist of Fun TV series and their subsequent TV show This Morning with Richard Not Judy

Here’s a great explanation of the “theory of relativity” from Fist of Fun:

Fist of Fun wasn’t a major hit when it was on, and it has never been issued on DVD or VHS in England, but it was very influential on the teens and twentysomethings who watched it. The Lee and Herring team did score one more BBC series, a two-season-long Sunday-afternoon mock chat show, This Morning with Richard Not Judy, that was mellower in is approach than Fist — in fact, I was surprised watching it how mellow (but still bitingly sarcastic) Lee became around this period. The show’s best bits were the duo’s deconstructive abuses of lazy journalistic clichés.

and also lazy comedy clichés:

Lee and Herring amiably severed their partnership in 1999, but Lee had already served something of an extended “apprenticeship” as a standup comic, performing both on his own and as the solo opening act at L&H gigs. His material was both sarcastic and slightly surreal, due to his deft use of repetition.

Lee has admitted that his very unique style is an outgrowth of his youthful fascination with “alternative” comedians who challenged and provoked their audience, foremost among them a guy named Ted Chippington, an “anti-comedian” who seemed intent on pissing his spectators off. Lee interviewed him a few years back for an arts TV show:

Lee’s standup was not catching on post-Lee and Herring, so he began going in other directions. He wrote a very good “road” novel called The Perfect Fool, about a bunch of disparate eccentrics looking for the Holy Grail in the modern era. The book has a wonderful overlay of “alt” pop-culture references, with one character being a Roky Erickson-ish burnt-out psychedelic musician, and the main character accumulating a full collection of Jack Chick comic “tracts” (dear to our heart in the Funhouse).

The most important project Lee worked on when he wasn’t doing standup was the experimental and downright strange musical Jerry Springer: The Opera, which got great reviews, won British theater awards, and attracted large audiences, but underwent constant protests from fundamentalist Christian groups because of its really provocative second act, in which Springer is dragged down to hell to moderate a debate between Lucifer and Jesus (and Mary — all singing!).

The Jerry Springer: the Opera experience inspired Lee to return to comedy with a vengeance in 2004, and at this point he became a “road warrior,” working on his material with constant gigs all over the U.K. Like Rodney Dangerfield and Jackie Mason over here, Lee has continued to do the sort of material he had done as a young man, but has found a bigger, more receptive audience as a (slightly) older person. Perhaps it’s because he looked like a sarcastic punk in his 20s, and has now acquired more of a “cranky uncle” look in middle age. Perhaps it’s also a result of his honing his work impeccably, and finding what I hear as almost musical refrains in his dogged repetitions and brilliant asides.

He is a social commentator of the first order, whose work links him to Will Rogers and Mort Sahl, both of whom I’m sure he wouldn’t count as influences. But the material he’s doing is not observational, nor is it the deeply personal “open wound” dissections of self common among American “alternative” standups. Lee eviscerates political, religious, and show-biz figures, and openly mocks everyday truths in a quiet but lethal fashion. Here’s a great bit about Americans’ lack of curiosity:

One of the most entertaining, and I’m not going to say post-modern, aspects of Lee’s standup is his acknowledgement of the form itself. Most comedians will mention when a bit is bombing, but Lee discusses how he’s reusing and reworking older material. He also takes the chance of deflating a whole routine by footnoting it, or noting how it does or doesn’t fit with what he’s been talking about.

In his terrific Comedy Vehicle series, which is basically a half hour of standup punctuated by short silly sketches, he has also taken to “melting down” for comic effect. Unlike American comics who yell for emphasis, though (from Bobcat and Kinison to Lewis Black), he only does it once per show. The result is disjunctive, since Lee ordinarily speaks in such a deadpan manner, but the meltdowns are highlights of the Comedy Vehicle eps (with Stew most often riffing on the phrase, “what is it you want?”).

As a final, personal reflection, I should note that as a comedy fan I’ve always wound up becoming a camp follower of those whose work I’ve loved over the years. The way it used to be, years, and in some cases decades, passed before I had gotten ahold of all their recordings, films, or writings. As a teen, when I was following Carlin and Pryor (and later, Lenny Bruce), it took many years to acquire and thread through their work (admittedly, they were still making the recordings at that point). In this new digital/cyber era, a fan can literally acquire and absorb an entertainer’s body of work in a matter of a few months (or a few days, if they’ve just popped onto the scene).

Thus, I discovered Lee somewhere late in 2009, and in a year’s time have heard the bulk of his radio and CD recordings, watched literally hours of his standup and British TV appearances, and read his rockcrit journalism, his novel, and a passel of print interviews. Being around Lee’s age myself, I’m always dazzled by the ability to delve so deeply into someone’s work through their official site, fan sites, the invaluable YouTube, a few of the “off-road” download locations, and the vendor sites.

I look forward to Lee’s new material as it appears (a new book and CD have just appeared, for which I’ve put in orders, and a second season of Comedy Vehicle has been commissioned by the BBC for 2011). True to the bottomless well that is the Internet, and especially YouTube, I continue to discover “new” old material, and offer this blog post as a “101” for those who have never heard of this Stew fellow.

The single best intro to his work is the 41st Best Standup Ever concert DVD which has been uploaded to YouTube in its entirety by a fan. Pick any segment and you’ll be seeing prime material. The references may be specific to the U.K., but Americans don’t need to think too hard to find U.S. equivalents:

Another routine that has become a fan favorite is this item about comedy theft where Lee rifts about a comedian named Joe Pasquale:

The Comedy Vehicle TV series offers Lee holding forth on a number of topics, from the skewed reality offered in March of the Penguins

…to the atrocities of Andrew Lloyd Webber:

Most of the six Comedy Vehicle episodes from the show’s first season are up on YouTube in their entirety, but I would heartily recommend first and foremost the “Toilet Books” episode (which a certain YouTube poster put up alongside a bunch of horror movies and an Andrew Dice Clay concert vid — no comment):

And as final offering, the “Religion” episode which includes some beautiful slams on Pope Ratzinger, as well as an exploration of how one can (or can’t) tell jokes about Islam and a magnum reworking of a classic Lee routine:

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